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Digital divide not bridged by broadband alone

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Although broadband can contribute to solving certain problems within developing markets, as an enabler of innovative new technologies, it is only a small component of the solution, writes ECKART ZOLLNER, Head of Business Development, The Jasco Group.

It is evident that telecommunications and connectivity within developed countries is continually gaining impetus, becoming more advanced and utilised.  On the other side of the spectrum, developing countries naturally lag behind, however, we are seeing the digital divide shrinking in some areas. The reality is that the rate of change within the developed world is beginning to reach a plateau while the developing world is catching up on technology. This is not to say that all of the challenges within the developing world have been addressed, and many of these issues remain. However, while broadband connectivity can contribute to solving certain problems within the developing market, as it is an enabler of innovative new technologies, it is only one small component of the solution.

In Africa, including countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, there has been a significant amount of investment into developing and rolling out broadband infrastructure. From the initial connection of undersea cables to the continent by international players to the metro rings aimed at connecting cities, the market has now moved on to the last mile. The race is on to connect lucrative customers, and many providers are focusing on connecting entire suburbs as well as business, private homes, estates, retail centres and more. Driving the accelerated pace in the rollout of fibre and broadband connectivity is a growing adoption and acceptance of cloud-based solutions, as enterprises strive to reduce IT spend while still maintaining access to leading-edge technology. This increased demand from big business in turn helps to broaden customer reach of fibre technology and reduce the price, making it a more affordable solution for a wider proportion of the market.

In South Africa in particular, this process is assisted by a fairly open and deregulated market, which enables healthy competition to develop from numerous service providers. However, while access to broadband connectivity in terms of the infrastructure is becoming less of a challenge, the African market still faces a number of other challenges. By its very definition, the developing world often faces wider issues, including political instability, poverty, poor healthcare and education services for the majority of citizens, and a lack of economic activity, all of which need to be addressed. While broadband can assist in contributing to the solution in a number of these areas, it is only a small part of the solution.

Broadband can assist in the acceleration of economic activity, but this requires effective political governance, free and open market policies, effective regulation and a good understanding of best practices. The old model of state owned monopolies that still exists in many developing nations is not conducive to rapid broadband development, which may be hindering developing nations’ ability to take advantage of next-generation technology. In addition, broadband development requires significant investment, which many economies cannot undertake by themselves. It is therefore essential for developing nations to foster a climate that attracts foreign investment, in order to enable the development of the infrastructure that is needed to fully bridge the digital divide.

While the digital divide may not be getting deeper, it still exists, particularly within the geographic imbalance of broadband distribution in the majority of African countries. More speed is not necessarily the answer, but more pervasive access is certainly a step in the right direction. However, it is also important to bear in mind that technical literacy and skills development are essential components of addressing this challenge as well. Broadband, like any other technology, is not a magic wand, simply an enabler and a necessary platform. Opportunities still need to be developed, which requires support from government for innovation and entrepreneurship. While broadband can help to connect providers of services with a far larger market, and connect suppliers, markets and information crucial for success, it is by no means a silver bullet. Technology is a supporting tool, but ultimately people lie at the heart of innovation and support and leadership is needed to drive this.

Whilst Broadband can become the bright light to accelerate change and economic progress, it is the political and regulatory fundamentals that need to follow global best practices to allow broadband deployment to flourish. Countries that have committed to the correct governance models with effective law making and regulation are already starting to show leadership in the adoption and deployment of broadband and subsequent innovation.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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