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Last mile connectivity: An African perspective

Nick Watson, VP for EMEA, Ruckus Wireless
Nick Watson, VP for EMEA, Ruckus Wireless

Nick Watson, VP for EMEA, Ruckus Wireless
Q: Last mile connectivity – will we ever get this right and what still needs to happen to make it a reality?
A: Last mile connectivity has always been a challenge with traditional technology, where expensive digging and the deployment of cable (in recent year’s fibre) hampered progress and in many instances, was not viable. As a result, we have turned to wireless, which whilst in Africa a relatively low capacity connection over cellular, with Wi-Fi the performance of today is so significant that in many cases the last mile can be considered no more a problem.

In order to make it a reality, premium quality outdoor Wi-Fi needs to be deployed in combination with fibre or microwave – dependant on terrain. This is now well proven in locations across the world, including Africa – and available at a price point that is applicable to even the most economically challenged parts of Africa.

Q: Digitalisation demands connectivity – is Africa really geared for this digital data onslaught?
A: To this question comes the follow on question, of whether people believe digitalisation is a question of connectivity or a question of application assurance? I think in terms of connectivity, penetration and access is growing everyday across Africa, mostly thanks to mobile technology. However, with this growth, comes digitalisation and a data onslaught – which in many cases, both businesses and consumers are looking at different ways to manage – just take storage and cloud solutions for example.

My view however, is that if technology of appropriate performance is used and the applications are thoughtfully designed and secured then there is no reason at all why we shouldn’t be geared for this and more importantly, why we cannot benefit from the communication between people and the communication between machines to enhance our lives.

Q: Ubiquitous connectivity – is Wi-Fi the answer?
A: Wi-Fi is a critical step in providing the ultra high performance communication required by the very rich media applications which we all want to use and it has clearly brought communication to a level that even 4G services has not been able to provide. However, it is the combination of 4G and Wi-Fi which the 5G standards are being influenced by, which together will form the future of connectivity.

Q: Trends in the telecommunications and wireless space – any game changers in 2017?
A: Looking at the patterns and what’s coming to the fore, I would say we are likely to see more of the following going forward:
• Faster and cheaper connectivity and devices
• A more pervasive requirement for superior performance – even from the consumer. What once was adequate is today simply unacceptable. As a result, server providers will have to continue to rethink their offerings.
• Where once the primary driver for a connection to the home was cost, the primary driver going forward will be performance first followed by cost.
• Wi-Fi will no longer be viewed as a luxury item – it is necessity and the quality needs to meet the expectations.
• Businesses have lost the ability to predict outcomes – they are still relying on how they used to garner information, and this is changing quickly. Wi-Fi location based services, will be a differentiator when used correctly.
• More Wi-Fi deployments across the continent.
• Taking big data from a catch phrase to a useful tool in understanding trends in behaviour, patterns and predicting future outcomes.
• Cloud – is no longer be a buzzword. It has quietly taken over our lives and the question will no longer be whether to use the cloud – it will be which cloud to use; Public? / Private? / Hybrid?
• The acceptance of the importance of security technology for every interaction, no matter how apparently harmless – stronger technology, more education, to protect people from themselves and a focus on security risk-profile is required.

Q: Smart cities are an upcoming trend, what is the role of Wi-Fi in your view to improve the trend over the next few years for the continent?
A: Globally, the pressure is on for cities to become ‘smart’. There is a strong need to invest in information communication technology (ICT) and socio-economic development, while still effectively managing budgets and scarce natural resources. All of this, with the intention to provide quality working and living conditions for citizens. The essence of the cities of the future however, lies in their infrastructure – and Wi-Fi is fundamental to this.

If we consider that half of the world’s population are already city-dwellers, and the trend towards increased urbanisation is accelerating rapidly – it is easy to see that the future of the majority of the world’s citizens is undeniably urban – where it is expected that 70%* will live in cities by 2050. Ubiquitous mobile communications demand ubiquitous connectivity. Tens of billions of devices and systems are connecting to the Internet of Things; in the very near future this will certainly be in the trillions bringing revolutionary changes to businesses and public sector.

As such, it is inconceivable that a city that desires to be labelled ‘smart’ and provide the services and high performance and economies of operating over a shared environment can do so without Wi-Fi. Future cities will be run on connectivity, using data and analytics to improve service delivery, improve traffic flows, monitor electricity and water use for sustainability and driving building and office efficiencies to name but a few – but all elements that require access to connectivity – of which Wi-Fi will be a key component alongside 3G, LTE and municipal fibre networks.

Having said that however, the Wi-Fi needs to be capable of providing a differentiated quality of service to ensure the elements of the smart city which have a bearing on personal safety and administration, can be prioritised in the event that this becomes necessary. E.g.: a traffic incident requiring the intercommunication between emergency services, lighting, traffic control.

Q: What are the current challenges that we are facing in Africa that need to be overcome to have seamless connectivity in South Africa?
A: There are a few areas that need to be addressed if we are to truly overcome the challenges we have and reap the rewards of affordable connectivity. This includes:
• Infrastructure and regulation
• Cost
• Sense of duty and willingness to collaborate to achieve desired outcomes

Q: Do we have the right infrastructure in place to meet connectivity demands in Africa?
A: Almost no country has the luxury to say that they have enough infrastructure to provide for the exponential growth of digitalisation, inter-connectedness and interdependency of technology and people. I do however think we are moving in the right direction but we are not there yet. There is still much to be done to ensure connectivity penetration is increased – and not only that, that it is done at an affordable rate. The current telco based solutions are not working and coupled with regulation there is still much work that needs to be done if we are truly to move forward in terms of digitalization and connectivity.

What once was purely a machine-to-machine or person-to-person requirement is now a device-to-many or individual-to-many transaction and if we consider that by 2020 it is estimated that an entire generation will have grown up in a digital world – which means their reliance on technology and desire to be connected will transform and digitize the environment even further – we need the infrastructure to ensure that this can take place.

Just think of the change in terms of how we take a “photograph” and how we use that image now as opposed even to just 5 years ago!

* Global Smart Infrastructure – Smart Cities and Smart Communities – Trends and Insights, BuddeCom

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