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New SA broadband network: 4G, 5G and beyond

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Out of the ruins of the old iBurst, a new high-speed broadband network is about to be rolled out, with existing operators potentially joining its party, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It was one of the great train smashes of Internet services in South Africa. Now it may just give rise to one of the great success stories.

When iBurst launched in this country more than a decade ago, it promised to change the face of wireless broadband with a new kind of connectivity technology. However, a technology that was once revolutionary was eventually derailed, as its development ended.

Connection speed stalled, service levels declined, and growth fell off the cliff. As a result, it surprised some when the holding company for iBurst, Wireless Business Solutions (WBS), was bought by convergence technology company Multisource last year.

However, it was clear that it was being bought not for its 60 000-strong subscriber base, but for its license to use radio frequency spectrum in the 1,8GHz and 2,6GHz bands – ideal for high-speed mobile broadband. It was also clear that the ownership of WBS, chaired by FirstRand founder Paul Harris, was focused on opening up this potential goldmine.

This week, Multisource removed the invisibility cloak from its iBurst plans. Harris announced a multi-billion Rand investment in a new high-speed national data network using LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) technology.

Current versions of LTE are still regarded as a form of 3G, while LTE-A is regarded as the minimum to describe a network as 4G. Because of the failure of the regulator, Icasa, to allocate additional spectrum in these bands, other operators have to “refarm” spectrum from inappropriate bands to offer a half-baked version of 4G.

This means, in effect, that WBS is likely to become the first entirely 4G data network in South Africa. Its aggressive strategy is also likely to be enhanced by WBS’s roaming agreements with other mobile networks. In other words, an MTN or Vodacom could partner with WBS to get access to full 4G. That also means they could well dip into their own pockets to assist WBS in building out its network.

“Our initial focus is fixed-mobile (like LTE-A enabled WiFi routers) and we will target customers in geographies where we have our own kit and do not need to roam on other networks,” said Michael Jordaan, former First National Bank CEO and a key investor in WBS, in an interview this week. However, he pointed to a company statement that acknowledged: “Roaming is standard practice in the industry with most telcos roaming on each other’s networks.”

He would not be drawn on specifics, saying that roaming agreements were confidential commercial agreements between operators. However “where appropriate, WBS will enter such arrangements.”

“It will take time to roll out a nationwide network,” he said. “We hope to get to 10 000 sites over five years, but will start in high-density geographic areas like Joburg and Cape Town. It means that the initial target market will be fixed-mobile rather than smartphones, as that would require either a national network or a roaming agreement.”

According to Harris, the strategy was partly a response to South Africa’s need for investment in productive capacity to tackle its economic challenges: “Nothing can be gained by sitting on the sidelines. WBS’s investment is a manifestation of its confidence in South Africa and its desire to contribute.”

WBS is looking into the long-term future as well, saying that the network will be enabled to use 5G when the technology is rolled out internationally in the next 5 years, and “will place South Africa amongst the leaders in the field”.

The company says a limited number of sites are already in operation and existing WBS customers will be converted to the new network, migrating from an obsolete technology to one that is ahead of the rest of the market.

National rollout will commence in the next few months.  According to a WBS statement, “Speed and performance will be comparable to fibre, with the advantages that it can be deployed without the cost of digging up suburban streets and time delay in eventually reaching all residential areas.

“Once the network is rolled out WBS will be able to offer mobile broadband on smartphones, tablets and other devices supporting the Internet of Things. In the foreseeable future the majority of voice calls will be carried on data networks, thereby effectively providing consumers with a combined data and voice offering.”

WBS says it has the advantage of not having to invest in legacy networks such as 2G and 3G, and will consequently deploy cutting edge technology referred to as LTE-A PRO or 4.5G. The new network will be deployed on some of WBS’s own 400 sites and sites leased from tower companies and other telecommunications providers.

Jordaan also fired a warning shot at existing operators’ dogged emphasis on traditional voice and their inability to embrace the Over-The-Top apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

“We think that voice is fast becoming just another data-enabled app and we are not planning on offering traditional voice; rather VoLTE (voice over LTE), VoIP, WhatsApp, Skype. In essence, we are a competitor to fibre and ADSL.”

Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

Africa News

Smart grids needed for Africa’s utilities

Power utilities across Africa should rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem, says COLIN BEANEY, Global Industry Director for Asset-intensive and Energy and Utilities at IFS.

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Africa’s abundant natural resources and urgent need for power mean that it is one of the most exciting and innovative energy markets in a world that is moving rapidly towards clean, renewable energy sources. The continent’s energy industry is taking new approaches to providing unserved and underserved communities with access to power, with an emphasis on smart technologies and greener energy sources.

Power systems are evolving from centralised, top-down systems as interest in off-grid technology grows among African businesses and consumers. And according to PwC, we will see installed power capacity rise from 2012’s 90GW to 380GW in 2040 in sub-Saharan Africa. Power utilities are needing to rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem.

Energy and utilities providers are transforming from centralised supply companies to more distributed, bi-directional service providers. They can only achieve this through the evolution of “smart grids” where sensors and smart meters will be able to provide the consumer with a more granular level of detail of power usage. This shift from an energy supplier to “lifestyle provider” will require a much more dynamic and optimised approach to maintenance and field service.

African companies must thus embrace digital transformation as an imperative. This transformation begins by embracing enterprise asset management to improve asset utilisation. The subsequent steps are enhancing upstream and downstream supply chain management; resource optimisation; introducing enterprise operational intelligence; embracing new technologies such as the Internet of Things, machine learning, and predictive maintenance; and becoming a smart utility.

Embracing mobility to drive ROI

Getting it right is about putting in place an enterprise backbone that accommodates asset and project management, multinational languages and currencies, new energies and markets, visualisation of the entire value chain, and mobility apps. Mobile technologies that support the field workforce have a vital role to play in driving better ROI from utilities’ investments in enterprise asset management and enterprise resource planning solutions.

Today’s leading enterprise asset management solutions feature powerful functionality for mobile management of the complete workflow of work orders – from logging status changes and updates, from receiving and creating new orders to concluding the job and reporting time, material and expenses. Such solutions are easy to deploy and intuitive for end users to learn and use.

Importantly for organisations operating in parts of the continent with poor telecoms infrastructure, connectivity is not an issue. The solutions work offline and synchronises when network connectivity is available. Users can work on any device—laptops, tablets, and smartphones—commercial or ruggedised.

By ensuring that field technicians have easy access to information and processes, the mobile solution enables technicians and maintenance engineers to easily do the following tasks:

·         Create a new work order on the fly and log new opportunities

·         Access both historical and planned work information when requested

·         Permit customers to sign when the job is completed

·         Capture measurements and inspection notes on route work orders

·         Create new fault reports on routing

·         Facilitate documentation through photo capturing

·         Provide easy access to technical data and preventive actions.

The power of mobility allows the engineer to be the origin of all data capture on a service event. They can easily inquire on asset history, record parts used or parts needed for repair, record labour hours, and expenses as they occur, and any notes of repairs performed. When coupled with workforce management tools, such solutions unlock significant productivity gains for utilities who are trying to get the most from their workforce and assets.

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Brands fall for app vanity

The experience of a mobile screen full of icons, representing independent apps that your need to open to experience them, is making less sense. Instead, businesses should serve customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the digital platform they already use, says PIETER DE VILLIERS, Group CEO at Clickatell.

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Many brands remain obsessed with creating mobile apps. This not only defies trends that point to increasing consumer app apathy, but can exclude a sizeable portion  of your customers in emerging economies. Companies need to engage with their users where they are rather than forcing them onto an app, in what can only be described as brand vanity. 

In 2017 there were around 2.2 million apps available in the iOS app store and over 3 million on Google Play. And, while the number of apps being downloaded continues to rise, analysis shows that consumers are only using 30 apps per month and accessing just 9 on a day-to-day basis. 

While these numbers still seem attractively high, in reality the majority of the apps we use are for messaging (like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat) and our social networking, gaming, leisure, dating or utility activities. 

Despite the facts, the application strategy as the holy grail for digital transformation is still being pushed even within large progressive brands. What’s more, some advertising agencies and digital consultants are still pushing apps as the best means for companies to connect with their customers. This has resulted in some organisations stubbornly doubling down on app strategies which are simply not showing return on investment (ROI). 

It’s not immediately clear to us whether the fascination with apps is a roll-over from long overdue projects or whether brand owners equate a mobile-first strategy with a mobile app. Mobile-first in 2018 means customer first, and therefore embracing chat commerce in order to deliver services with convenience and simplicity in mind. 

Why apps won’t win the internet

The problem with apps goes beyond user fatigue. In the first instance, many apps are poorly designed, assuming technical sophistication which may not match reality for the average customer. Poor user interfaces and attempts to provide complex engagement can result in even the best ideas missing their targets due to lack of engagement. 

Secondly, we all know that economic realities drive consumer behaviour. In Africa, new mobile phone users typically opt for feature phones over smartphones. With a longer battery life and a much more accessible price point, feature phones still allow for a basic internet connection, chat platforms like WhatsApp, and call and message functionality. In these regions, the cost of an app – even if it’s free – goes far beyond installing it. Constant updates require reliable and cheap access to the internet. For the average phone owner in an emerging market, this can be a serious challenge. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, apps must be relevant to their intended market. Frequency of usage is a key measure of relevance. 

Apps which are used on a daily basis, like health and fitness trackers, enjoy constant engagement. New features which are added are eagerly awaited by users who are happy to update their apps. 

However, users may well question the relevance of the app if they are required to conduct updates on a monthly or even weekly basis when they are only making use of the app once or twice a year. 

On average, I download one app per quarter. Some I use more frequently than others, but all of these apps need to be regularly updated to maintain security, update features, and fix bugs. Many apps are pushing out updates much more frequently. I noticed over the past year that I could go from having all apps updated, to 32 apps requiring an update in five days.

When it comes to a customer-first digital strategy, companies should be asking themselves if an app is really the best way to reach their target audience. 

In fact, at the end of 2016, Gartner predicted that by 2019, 20 percent of brands would ditch their mobile app. What’s more, in its 2018 predictions, the company forecast that by 2021, more than 50 percent of corporations would spend more per annum on bots and chatbots than on mobile app development. 

So, we need to ask, what is the alternative for CIOs, CDOs, CMOs, and digital leaders who are looking for ways to reach, retain and grow their customer base? 

The logical app alternative 

The old battle advice goes: fight your enemy where they are not. Military strategists agreed that having your enemy come to you and fight you on your own terms was preferable. In a world where customers have access to thousands of offerings and millions of deals online, we need to flip that idea to Meet Your Customers Where They Are. 

Any marketeer will tell you just a how difficult it is to drive app downloads. Development, cross platform testing and user interface aside, the marketing campaign required to get customers to download the app can swallow entire annual budgets and still come up short. 

Looking at the facts, it makes infinitely more sense to work within the digital platforms already being used by your target audience. 

Clickatell is already enabling chat commerce for some of the leading global brands with its Touch solution. This allows organisations to serve their customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the chat or browser platform of their customer’s choice (Twitter, Facebook Messenger, etc.) 

Brands can now send an actionable Touch link such as ‘find the nearest ATM’ or ‘reset my password’ within a chat stream that will open an intuitive touch card without the user having to download an app to perform the action. Services can also be linked to the in-app experience for brands not looking to abandon their app efforts. 

Working with our clients, many of whom are global innovators and thought leaders, we’ve found that having the courage to design with an ‘end user first’ approach and dealing with the back-end complexity behind the scenes results in cost efficient customer delight and ROI. 

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