Once a luxury, connectivity has become the fourth utility. Along with electricity, water and sewerage as vital services for economic and social development, connectivity is the key to participating in our connected digital world.
At a very basic level, this connectivity doesn’t necessarily allow more advanced or high-tech technologies to have an impact, says Mark Walker, associate vice president for South, East and West Africa at IDC (International Data Corporation). Today, his humble one-man gang can promote his business, interact with customers and conduct transactions using a simple smartphone and an Internet connection. Problems and gaps arise when access is limited, when quality is poor, when costs are prohibitive, when security is questionable, and when connections are unreliable. So how do we minimize these inhibitors?
For many, it must start with infrastructure deployment and spectrum distribution. But the high costs associated with rolling out key network infrastructure and delays in government allocation of spectrum mean that some can access the pipes that enable connectivity and others cannot.
But the infrastructure is only one piece of the puzzle, says Zoltan Miklos, General Manager of Network Planning at MTN: “5G is enabled in various parts of the mobile network, from the radio access network to the mobile core network. So it’s a multi-layered conversation. The network starts on the phone. If you don’t have the right phone, you won’t be able to use the network or the features that have been implemented.” For Miklos, making sure people have access to the most efficient technologies, and know how to use them, is an important step in the right direction when it comes to bridging digital divides.
Is 5G the answer?
SAP Africa Telecom Industry Value Advisor Samantha Naidoo describes the launch of 5G in South Africa’s urban centers as one of the biggest tech events of 2021. According to Naidoo, 5G is the foundation on which many of the technologies and innovations of the future will be built. But can it alleviate our connectivity problems and improve digital inclusion?
“5G is important because it maximizes the use of available spectrum and brings a higher volume of connectivity to a broader audience,” says Walker. The amount of data we are currently generating as individuals and industry is growing exponentially. Currently, networks lack the capacity to handle all this information, which is why 5G is so valuable. But this doesn’t mean it’s a panacea, she says. Physical constraints and high costs mean there is still a long way to go before 5G can make a real impact.
Miklos agrees. 5G will only become a huge economic enabler once there is enough spectrum to enable higher data capacities and lower latencies. “5G has huge potential, but it won’t solve some of the fundamental problems that currently prevent people from accessing 4G, for example.”
But this immaturity shouldn’t stand in the way of investment in 5G, says Nicholas Naidu, executive director of Technology Strategy, Architecture and Assurance at Vodacom Group. 5G will provide the connectivity necessary for us to take full advantage of some really exciting and really disruptive technologies, he explains. Now is the perfect time to accelerate our 5G deployments so we can stay competitive with the rest of the world.
With ubiquitous connectivity, the public services needed to support smart cities will become digitized, enabling everything from predictive maintenance to better traffic management. Doctors will perform surgeries without having to be in the same room as their patients, and manufacturing will use connected devices to automate repetitive tasks and make operations more efficient.
According to Barbara Mallinson, founder and CEO of Obami, a digital learning solutions company that creates cloud-based learning solutions for organizations and schools, high-speed, reliable connectivity can transform education, too. Connected technologies present us with an incredible opportunity to take learning beyond the confines of the classroom, she says, something we’ve seen happen with varying degrees of success during the strict coronavirus lockdown restrictions. “I feel that Covid-19, despite all the horror it has caused, has a silver lining. It put the gaps in our education system into clear focus and highlighted what needs to change within the sector.”
She believes that things are not all doom and gloom. Today, more people are connected to the Internet, data costs have fallen, and there is a global understanding that e-learning is essential; it is here to stay and will have a real and marked impact. Just look at Sisanda Tech, which uses digital technologies and augmented reality (AR) to implement virtual science labs in schools that don’t have access to expensive science equipment for experiments. Using Sisanda’s smart solutions and a smartphone or tablet, students can enjoy more hands-on learning experiences, such as conducting experiments, dissecting human organs, or exploring the surface of Mars.
From a retail perspective, network issues and poor accessibility often prevent individuals and micro, medium and small businesses from effectively taking advantage of formal banking solutions, explains Murray Gardiner, CEO of Bluecode Africa. Seamless and reliable connectivity enables consumers to pay in a simple and consistent way and enables merchants to reap the benefits of digital by providing access to more affordable financial services.
According to the GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association), there are 3.8 billion mobile Internet subscribers worldwide, which represents 49% of the world’s population. However, adoption is not equitable. At the end of 2019, mobile internet adoption was 26% in sub-Saharan Africa, where almost half of the population is not covered by a mobile broadband network.
“We need to think outside the box when it comes to connecting the unconnected and excluded from participating in digital economies,” Naidu concludes. “This requires two things: for telcos to build networks to enable widespread coverage and connectivity, and for manufacturers to develop more feature-rich yet affordable smart devices. Studies show that increasing broadband penetration drives GDP growth. As such, expanding accessibility and connectivity can translate into real economic value.”
While spectrum is scarce and the cost of deploying the infrastructure is high, there is plenty of room for smart alternatives. From satellite TV and Internet white space technology to Internet-connected balloons (a recently scrapped Google project), some of the big names in the tech industry are spending a lot of money and time researching new and innovative ways to connect consumers who live in hard-to-reach areas. While these efforts are exciting, their success and feasibility remain to be proven.
A question of control
When there are large gaps in access, it’s important to take a critical look at who’s in control, says Mark Walker, associate vice president for sub-Saharan Africa at IDC (Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa). For example, in the run-up to the 2021 elections, the Ugandan government chose to restrict internet access in a move he claims was aimed at minimizing disruption and maintaining security. And they are not the first to do so. Similarly, Twitter recently made the decision to permanently suspend the account of former US President Donald Trump after he repeatedly violated the platform’s rules. While perceptions of the two situations may differ, in both cases corporations and institutions dictate who can and cannot speak, says Walker,—Joanne Carew
Fostering connection during Covid-19
It is hard to imagine what we would do without the Internet. This modern cliché has proven especially true during the Covid-19 pandemic, as people all over the world have been able to use their internet connections to stay entertained, informed, and productive. This previously unimaginable, now ubiquitous technology has been instrumental in creating a more connected world, and no one knows this better than Openserve – South Africa’s largest telecommunications infrastructure provider.
“With the arrival of Covid-19, we have been given a glimpse of what the future holds,” says Pushkar Gokhale, Openserve’s director of strategy and digital. “Many of our emotional and social needs are met through digital connections. This is especially true as the world embraces and adapts to online platforms.”
The explosive popularity of apps like Zoom and the steady growth of social media platforms, both of which have become important tools for businesses, attest to this. With real interactions out of the question, people quickly switched to seeking connection online, while businesses were forced to quickly adapt to remote work. This resulted in a massive increase in the demand for fast and reliable internet.
Gokhale explains that in response to pressure to keep pace, Openserve has focused on three strategic priorities: “First, aggressively expanding our fiber footprint in South Africa. It is aligned with the growing need for stable and reliable connectivity. As we do this, we are preparing the homes we pass for fiber, which makes it easier and faster for consumers to connect to the Internet when ordering directly from ISPs.” Initiatives like these not only improve accessibility for seniors, but also provide a foundation for the creation of future online businesses and connected homes.
“I think the second priority is to continue to bring new products and propositions to the markets, including better speeds and better value propositions,” Gokhale continues. “Finally, throughout this pandemic, the importance of the customer experience has come back to the fore. We are focusing on giving customers the ability to access self-service capabilities and interact with Openserve directly through our digital channels. Openserve truly believes that connection and the ability to interact digitally are two imperatives that will drive the future of customer experience and growth.” This belief in customer service as a key pillar of their business led Openserve to create an innovative support platform.
The Openserve Connect app is a step forward in this regard, and Gokhale is excited about what he brings to the table. “This is something very close to my heart and I must say that it is something of a first of its kind among fixed broadband network providers,” he tells us. “Essentially, the application puts self-service capabilities in the hands of the customer and allows existing customers to interact directly with Openserve. You can check your coverage, explore Openserve’s broadband network services, and test your connection. A customer sitting at home can check the network line and see if it is up or down, as well as check the WiFi speed.”
This level of transparency appears to be a key part of Openserve’s strategy. “I think one of the key things that we’ve recently added is proactively notifying customers of any network outages. In the coming weeks, we will also introduce the ability for customers to track the progress of their orders and also stay up-to-date in terms of failures, as well as when technicians go out.”
The app provides an easily accessible digital channel for potential and existing customers, and Gokhale says we’re likely to see similar innovations come from Openserve in the future.
The company is also upgrading its fiber portfolio, offering improved speeds to meet the demand for fast connections. “As soon as the pandemic hit, it reiterated the importance of connectivity,” says Gokhale. “Of course, we’ve always been very confident in the value it brings to the customer, but the pandemic made that even more apparent.”
Connections that were used primarily for streaming video and social media were now loaded with live video calls, whether for business meetings or family events, which use much more bandwidth. Since the change occurred not in a handful of homes but in thousands, an updated offering from companies like Openserve was needed.
“We doubled our speeds and also introduced symmetric speeds to our fiber portfolio, which included free or discounted installations,” says Gokhale.
Openserve doesn’t plan to stop there. “During March and April of this year, we will introduce more speed upgrades as well as price changes to our suite of broadband products,” he continues. Gokhale emphasized that these are essentially “focused on ensuring that it is easier for customers to connect and that there are no costs that are directly related to the value propositions for our partners. So we’re encouraging our partners and their customers to upgrade to higher speeds and better packages.”
Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the world was becoming more digitally dependent. Covid-19 only accelerated a process that was already underway. However, this technological leap could also serve as an economic lever in which those who cannot afford high-speed Internet at home are left behind, unable to access the digital economy. But Gokhale remains optimistic: “At Openserve, we are working very hard to ensure that we aggressively deploy fiber not only in metropolitan areas, but also in underserved areas and smaller cities. We want to make sure that high-speed broadband is available to as many South Africans as possible.”
As for the rise of burgeoning digital economies, he says: “More and more companies are looking to permanently switch to remote work or a hub-and-spoke model. What we have seen is that many customers are realizing the importance of stability and the high data usage opportunities that a fixed connection provides, which puts Openserve in a good position.”
Openserve connects businesses and consumers to create solutions that matter
The surrounding schools and residential areas are also a priority as 21st century skills become a necessity for the modern learner. More than a means to work and study, last year showed how the Internet is shaping our means of communication with our families, helping us to share our most special moments even when we are far away. Connectivity has become much more important than the ability to stream your favorite series or send a few emails from home: it now allows people to stay social and sane in one of the most difficult times in recent history.
As the largest fixed broadband provider in South Africa, Openserve is constantly striving to improve every customer experience, as evidenced by its Connect app and the unprecedented degree of control it will provide to new and existing users.
As Openserve continues to expand its fiber footprint, more South Africans will be able to switch from mobile data to fixed connections, saving them huge amounts of money and creating a more digitally equitable country for all. The pandemic will end eventually, but it is unlikely that we will change direction from the increasingly digital course we are on. Openserve is there to lead the way, charting a course for the future.