As fibre-to-the-home rolls out in earnest across suburban South Africa, the army with the most weapons is being left behind on the field of battle, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
In the second decade of the 21st century, fibre-to-the-home represents the arrival of the future. Once the cost of installation is covered, it has the potential to deliver almost unlimited speed, capacity and quality in broadband connectivity, at a similar cost to far slower and unreliable services.
So imagine you have the potential to roll it out to numerous businesses in South Africa, as well as to hundreds of thousands of homes. Let’s say, in the process, you could not only revolutionise connectivity, but also win the goodwill of a consumer base that has done little but vilified you for the previous decade.
What would you do? The answer is obvious. Yet, a company that presides over a 144 000km network of fibre optic cable, and that has been the butt of consumer ridicule since the turn of the century, initially decided to sit out the battle for the future.
The company was Telkom, which has developed its fibre network to serve the exchanges from which copper wire extends to homes and businesses across the country. At one time, it had 5,5-million connections via this fibre-copper marriage. Today it is down to less than 3,5-million. ADSL lines, which deliver broadband to homes and small businesses, reached the million mark for the first time this year, but their growth is constrained by ever-lower ceiling of fixed lines, through which ADSL services are provided.
It’s been obvious for years that Telkom should be modernising its network, replacing copper with fibre and pioneering fibre-to-the-home services. In fact, it had done exactly that for larger business customers, resulting in a nimble, profitable and high-quality business division within the organisation. But it refused to enter the battlefield for smaller businesses and consumers.
Into this gap came the so-called second network operator, Neotel, which also failed the consumer, but got one thing right: it laid down an urban fibre grid, and began serving fibre to business customers more economically and eagerly. At the same time, a private entity called Dark Fibre Africa built out its own urban fibre grid, offering to lease capacity to any operator that needed to light up additional fibre to service its own network.
These businesses opened the way for smaller operators to use these backbones to roll out their own mini-networks in specific areas or niches. For example, Metrofibre serves business customers where many of them are clustered together, such as in central business districts or business parks. And the newest kid on the block, Vumatel, lights up consumer homes, one suburb at a time.
When the Parkhurst Residents’ Association announced last year it had appointed Vumatel as its fibre-to-the-home network provider, Telkom suddenly leaped into battle and declared it would also supply FTTH to Parkhurst, along with a bunch of other suburbs.
It quickly discovered, though, that Vumatel had that high-income suburb neatly wrapped up, and crossed it off the roll-out list. One suburb after another, it is having to do the same, as Vumatel engages directly with resident’s groups while Telkom declares its offerings from a distance.
It is no coincidence that it is even borrowing the terminology used by Vumatel in its suburban marketing. The latter calls the new connected suburbs “Fibrehoods”. Telkom calls them “FutureHoods”. Unintentionally, the term underlines the extent to which Telkom is responding to competition rather than leading it.
Telkom also appears to have an additional connectivity weapon: LTE-Advanced, or 4G mobile broadband. That means it can offer high-speed connectivity through the simple mechanism of well-placed towers, rather than having to dig trenches across entire suburbs and still have to build connections into homes.
However, Vumatel see this as a means of job creation, and has fine-tuned the process to make it both efficient and economical. The result is that the average homeowner in a targeted suburb pays only R1500 to be linked up, and then chooses the Internet service itself from a range of service providers.
The cost of the service is equivalent to or little more than what many households were previously paying for the combination of fixed-line rental, ADSL rental and data charges. Fibre services typically include a fixed-type phone service at no additional cost.
The announcement last week that residents of Victory Park, Linden, Bryanston South and Blairgowrie had endorsed Vumatel may not have been big news in itself. However, it came on the back of similar announcements by residents of four other suburbs: Killarney, Riviera, Saxonwold and Parkwood. And these, in turn, were underlined by the switch-on of Parkhurst, Greenside and Parktown North.
Each successive endorsement or switch-on is trivial in itself. The momentum it represents, however, is revolutionary. With Vumatel expanding its reach from one suburb to the next, to cover an ever-increasing expanse of suburban Johannesburg, we are seeing nothing less than the emergence of an alternative communications network in the city.
As new suburbs are linked, hundreds of new fibre users suddenly discover the massive impact it makes on work, entertainment and communication activities. Word spreads, and the appetite for fibre mushrooms.
“We typically sat in a chicken and egg situation, where you don’t have high speed broadband so it’s difficult for people to understand what it means,” says Niel Schoeman, CEO of Vumatel. “Consumers are skeptical about paying for something they’ve never experienced. Its only know the price shift has happened that fibre broadband has been commoditised and people are willing to experience it.”
Meanwhile, Telkom has embarked on a marketing blitz to sell its FutureHoods via mobile broadband. But suddenly, its ability to offer both infrastructure and connectivity services in one package has become its biggest weakness: it has to attempt to be all things to all people, which forces it to take a couple-of-sizes-fits-all approach to packaging its services.
Vumatel, on the other hand, is able to draw on a dozen service providers, each structuring its packages to suit a different customer category. Competition between these providers has forced prices down even further. It is not so much a battle as a series of skirmishes that is being fought suburb-by suburb. In almost every case, consumers are the winners.
Prepare your cam to capture the Blood Moon
On 27 July 2018, South Africans can witness a total lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon.
Also known as a blood or red moon, a total lunar eclipse is the most dramatic of all lunar eclipses and presents an exciting photographic opportunity for any aspiring photographer or would-be astronomers.
“A lunar eclipse is a rare cosmic sight. For centuries these events have inspired wonder, interest and sometimes fear amongst observers. Of course, if you are lucky to be around when one occurs, you would want to capture it all on camera,” says Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa.
Canon ambassador and acclaimed landscape photographer David Noton has provided his top tips to keep in mind when photographing this occasion. In South Africa, the eclipse will be visible from about 19h14 on Friday, 27 July until 01h28 on the Saturday morning. The lunar eclipse will see the light from the sun blocked by the earth as it passes in front of the moon. The moon will turn red because of an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering, where bands of green and violet light become filtered through the atmosphere.
A partial eclipse will begin at 20h24 when the moon will start to turn red. The total eclipse begins at about 21h30 when the moon is completely red. The eclipse reaches its maximum at 22h21 when the moon is closest to the centre of the shadow.
David Noton advises:
- Download the right apps to be in-the-know
The sun’s position in the sky at any given time of day varies massively with latitude and season. That is not the case with the moon as its passage through the heavens is governed by its complex elliptical orbit of the earth. That orbit results in monthly, rather than seasonal variations, as the moon moves through its lunar cycle. The result is big differences in the timing of its appearance and its trajectory through the sky. Luckily, we no longer need to rely on weight tables to consult the behaviour of the moon, we can simply download an app on to our phone. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is useful for giving moonrise and moonset times, bearings and phases; while the Photopills app gives comprehensive information on the position of the moon in our sky. Armed with these two apps, I’m planning to shoot the Blood Moon rising in Dorset, England. I’m aiming to capture the moon within the first fifteen minutes of moonrise so I can catch it low in the sky and juxtapose it against an object on the horizon line for scale – this could be as simple as a tree on a hill.
- Invest in a lens with optimal zoom
On the 27th July, one of the key challenges we’ll face is shooting the moon large in the frame so we can see every crater on the asteroid pockmarked surface. It’s a task normally reserved for astronomers with super powerful telescopes, but if you’ve got a long telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR with around 600 mm of focal length, it can be done, depending on the composition. I will be using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext. 1.4 x lens.
- Use a tripod to capture the intimate details
As you frame up your shot, one thing will become immediately apparent; lunar tracking is incredibly challenging as the moon moves through the sky surprisingly quickly. As you’ll be using a long lens for this shoot, it’s important to invest in a sturdy tripod to help capture the best possible image. Although it will be tempting to take the shot by hand, it’s important to remember that your subject is over 384,000km away from you and even with a high shutter speed, the slightest of movements will become exaggerated.
- Integrate the moon into your landscape
Whilst images of the moon large in the frame can be beautifully detailed, they are essentially astronomical in their appeal. Personally, I’m far more drawn to using the lunar allure as an element in my landscapes, or using the moonlight as a light source. The latter is difficult, as the amount of light the moon reflects is tiny, whilst the lunar surface is so bright by comparison. Up to now, night photography meant long, long exposures but with cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now capable of astonishing low light performance, a whole new nocturnal world of opportunities has been opened to photographers.
- Master the shutter speed for your subject
The most evocative and genuine use of the moon in landscape portraits results from situations when the light on the moon balances with the twilight in the surrounding sky. Such images have a subtle appeal, mood and believability. By definition, any scene incorporating a medium or wide-angle view is going to render the moon as a tiny pin prick of light, but its presence will still be felt. Our eyes naturally gravitate to it, however insignificant it may seem. Of course, the issue of shutter speed is always there; too slow an exposure and all we’ll see is an unsightly lunar streak, even with a wide-angle lens.
On a clear night, mastering the shutter speed of your camera is integral to capturing the moon – exposing at 1/250 sec @ f8 ISO 100 (depending on focal length) is what you’ll need to stop the motion from blurring and if you are to get the technique right, with the high quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS 5DS R, you might even be able to see the twelve cameras that were left up there by NASA in the 60’s!
How Africa can embrace AI
Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit most from AI and automation. But, the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of world if we act fast, says ZOAIB HOOSEN, Microsoft Managing Director.
To play catch up, we must take advantage of our best and most powerful resource – our human capital. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25.
These are the people who are poised to create a future where humans and AI can work together for the good of society. In fact, the most recent WEF Global Shapers survey found that almost 80 percent of youth believe technology like AI is creating jobs rather than destroying them.
Staying ahead of the trends to stay employed
AI developments are expected to impact existing jobs, as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply.
According to Gartner, while AI will improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions more new positions, it could impact many others. The simpler and less creative the job, the earlier, a bot for example, could replace it.
It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills while learning how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.
Another global study by Accenture, found that the adoption of AI will create several new job categories requiring important and yet surprising skills. These include trainers, who are tasked with teaching AI systems how to perform; explainers, who bridge the gap between technologist and business leader; and sustainers, who ensure that AI systems are operating as designed.
It’s clear that successfully integrating human intelligence with AI, so they co-exist in a two-way learning relationship, will become more critical than ever.
Combining STEM with the arts
Young people have a leg up on those already in the working world because they can easily develop the necessary skills for these new roles. It’s therefore essential that our education system constantly evolves to equip youth with the right skills and way of thinking to be successful in jobs that may not even exist yet.
As the division of tasks between man and machine changes, we must re-evaluate the type of knowledge and skills imparted to future generations.
For example, technical skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, but interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence will also become crucial in giving humans an advantage over machines.
“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” This is according to Microsoft president, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum, who recently authored the book “The Future Computed”, which primarily deals with AI and its role in society.
Interestingly, institutions like Stanford University are already implementing this forward-thinking approach. The university offers a programme called CS+X, which integrates its computer science degree with humanities degrees, resulting in a Bachelor of Arts and Science qualification.
Revisiting laws and regulation
For this type of evolution to happen, the onus is on policy makers to revisit current laws and even bring in new regulations. Policy makers need to identify the groups most at risk of losing their jobs and create strategies to reintegrate them into the economy.
Simultaneously, though AI could be hugely beneficial in areas such as curbing poor access to healthcare and improving diagnoses for example, physicians may avoid using this technology for fear of malpractice. To avoid this, we need regulation that closes the gap between the pace of technological change and that of regulatory response. It will also become essential to develop a code of ethics for this new ecosystem.
Preparing for the future
With the recent convergence of a transformative set of technologies, economies are entering a period in which AI has the potential overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of value and growth.
To avoid missing out on this opportunity, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward, a future with AI. We must do so not with the idea that AI is simply another productivity enhancer. Rather, we must see AI as the tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.
It comes down to a choice of our people and economies being part of the technological disruption, or being left behind.