• Means of access

    Africa is standing on the threshold of a wireless internet revolution – but first infrastructure and roll-out challenges must be overcome.

    Means of access

    It was like something out of an internet-age remake of the iconic South African movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy. But instead of a Coca-Cola bottle falling out of the sky (as occurred in the film), it was a test balloon.

    Urbanus Botha discovered it on his farm between remote Strydenburg and Britstown in South Africa’s semi-desert, the Karoo, in November 2014. He scratched his head, looked to the sky and loaded the balloon onto his pick-up truck, thinking that it would come in handy when repainting his barn.

    ‘The huge piece of plastic took up the whole of my sheep trailer,’ he would later reflect. As it turned out, the balloon wasn’t a gift from the gods – it had fallen out of the sky during an aborted test by internet giant Google. Its Project Loon unit was part of a test scheme using mesh-networked balloons to relay 4G connectivity to people on the ground.

    Loony as it may seem in its execution, the company’s idea is a godsend: setting up an airborne network to provide internet connectivity to people who don’t have access to fixed or mobile internet infrastructure.

    A new report by Cisco states that some 61% of internet traffic will be generated by WiFi or other wireless devices by 2018. The remainder will flow to devices that jack-in with wires.

    The future of the internet (especially in Africa where wired infrastructure is limited) is wireless – and it should be. Jaco Visagie, co-director of broadband provider SkyWire says: ‘There is a misconception among consumers that wireless solutions have latency issues; that wireless isn’t as speedy as fixed-line broadband.

    ‘Copper wire networks are not necessarily faster anymore. In fact, with advancements in wireless technology, they even surpass fixed-line speeds. Fibre optics is faster, but deployment and costs are still stumbling blocks when compared to wireless solutions. With wireless, you can reach even the most remote areas, it is easily deployed once the main infrastructure is in place, and the endpoint costs are lower too.’

    Visagie points to South Africa’s 2011 Census, which showed that nearly two-thirds (64.8%) of South African households still have no internet access. Like so many homes in Africa that are not connected, most are located in rural areas, beyond the reach of fixed-line telecoms infrastructure. ‘Dismal or no web connectivity … is a huge obstacle in the way of economic and educational advancement in those rural areas,’ he says.

    Co-director of SkyWire Technologies Mondi Hattingh says internet access is very important for Africa’s socio-economic development.

    ‘The world is becoming increasingly connected and virtualised, so in order to keep up – let alone retain a competitive edge – African businesses urgently need to get online.’

    Hattingh points to a recent report by global mobile industry lobbyist Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) which found that if sub-Saharan African governments were to allocate more spectrum to mobile broadband from 2015 to 2025, it could increase GDP revenues by US$235 billion. It warned that a spectrum delay of five years could see those benefits plummet to US$50 billion in additional GDP and US$10 billion in additional tax revenue.

    But according to Andrew Boyd, a director at South African internet service provider ResiNet, when it comes to WiFi, Africa ‘has a long way to go to compete on service and price with the US, particularly as regards the amount of free WiFi available in the States compared to Africa.

    ‘Although WiFi is used extensively in Africa, the driver is geographic spread as well as unreliable copper.’ He adds that in the US, people view WiFi availability as a given, while Africa ‘boasts it as a selling point to establishments since it is not widely available’.

    MWEB says that mass WiFi coverage in South Africa is just 12 to 18 months away. But sadly the same prospect doesn’t apply to the rest of the continent. MWEB’s GM of WiFi business Nathier Kasu says: ‘The concentration of WiFi hotspots in Africa is far lower than the developed world and South Africa.’

    Kasu cites the continent’s poor fixed-line penetration, which is needed to provide a ‘backhaul’ internet connection for WiFi routers, as a major reason.

    ‘This is effectively blocking WiFi roll-out on the continent, forcing consumers to resort to more expensive, less reliable cellular broadband.’

    ‘The concentration of WiFi hotspots in Africa is far lower than the developed world and South Africa’

    It does help that South Africa has banks and local governments that aren’t shy to roll out free WiFi hotspots. The City of Tshwane is already building on its existing Project Isizwe.

    ‘Tshwane has made history by becoming the first metro to roll out free WiFi, and indeed our announcement of the provision of this service was made before the City of New York’s announcement – this is indeed a groundbreaking achievement for an African city,’ said executive mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa in his State of the Capital City address in 2014.

    People complained the network was too slow. But Project Isizwe head Alan Knott-Craig Jr said: ‘The average speeds of the Tshwane free WiFi network is 7 MBps. That’s fast enough for most rich people, never mind poor communities.’

    In Cape Town, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille promised universal internet coverage in a deal signed with Neotel.

    ‘Neotel has therefore generously committed to funding the infrastructure roll-out of 384 WiFi hotspots, using Western Cape government buildings, which will cover almost every ward in the province. Our government will be subsidising the free portion of citizens’ internet access,’ she said.

    Ruckus Wireless’ sales director for sub-Saharan Africa Michael Fletcher says WiFi presents a significant opportunity to aid in the socio-economic development of people in a continent driven by mobility.

    ‘We all know that fixed-line access is virtually unheard of in rural communities and people rely on their mobile phones for anything from staying in touch with loved ones to doing business. Having WiFi networks in place in these communities suddenly presents people with options they would not normally have had due to the high cost and limitations of other broadband solutions,’ he says. And businesses are getting in on the act too.

    Shoppers at malls in Sandton, Hyde Park, Edenvale, Southgate, Balfourpark and Soweto now have access to free WiFi thanks to Absa bank, which has a WiFi zone extending to a 2m radius of its branches. Usage is limited to 100 MB. A couple of metres from the door of a bank isn’t much, but it’s certainly a start – and it’s a huge step towards making WiFi access as ubiquitous on the African continent as Coca-Cola.

    Come to mention it, the global soft drinks giant is one of the companies looking to help quench Africa’s WiFi thirst. Via a partnership with British Telecom (BT), Coca-Cola is placing WiFi-enabled vending machines in high foot-traffic areas in some of South Africa’s key low-income rural communities – starting with one each in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga and Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

    Coca-Cola installed the coolers, while BT provided the internet access. Although no purchase is required to access the WiFi, it doesn’t hurt the Coke brand that its customers need to be near one of its vending machines to access that free internet.

    By Will Sinclair
    Image: AFP Photo/Josep Lago