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The broadband narrows

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If broadband is so important that it even makes it into the President’s State of the Nation Address, why do we feel held back? Why are we not enjoying the long-promised broadband feast? There’s a metaphor for that, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Back in the 15th century, when sailors began exploring the world beyond their own continents, it took courage and expertise to navigate through the rough straits that often gave passage from a wild sea to a calm bay, or between clusters of rock that blocked such passage. The metaphor it provided for summing up challenging times led to the cliché, “dire straits”. Broadband in South Africa, and the ability of media to piggyback on broadband, finds itself wrestling with that precise metaphor right now.

Broadband itself is plentiful. We now have nine undersea cables connecting sub-Saharan Africa. These cables have a total capacity of at leat 100 Terabits per second – almost 100 times what we had just five years ago.

Such numbers may mean little, but they spell out unlimited capacity relative to current needs. The undersea cables in effect represent an ocean of broadband plenty. They offer enough capacity to deliver high-definition TV to every HD TV set in South Africa, and to enable every South African to read digital versions of every magazine or newspaper they buy, in high resolution, on  computers, tablets or smartphones.

But that, of course, is true only if you are on the ocean itself, plugged directly into its vast capacity. Between the ocean and the data sailors of today, the path becomes increasingly narrow. By the time it reaches its destination, the data has had to navigate across a patchwork of terrestrial networks, through the straits of connection territory controlled by telecommunications operators, and down the narrows of yesterday’s access equipment.

One of the great media misunderstandings of the broadband dividend is that each new undersea cable will result in faster connections. But, without faster modems, routers or access devices in the hands of consumers, no amount of submarine spaghetti can deliver a better media experience.

At least four bottlenecks bedevil the broadband future and keep us in the narrows. Some are being resolved right now, but others, like the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s poem, will hang around and keep spoiling the party.

One bottleneck has disappeared: the scarcity of international bandwidth, as a result  of a single undersea cable serving South Africa. That was the SAT3/SAFE cable, managed by Telkom and through which all broadband pricing and supply was constrained. Since the end of the cable monopoly, wholesale cost of broadband has fallen by more than 90%.

The commonly-asked question, when are we going to get cheap broadband, thus has an uncomfortable answer: we already have cheap broadband. It just hasn’t been passed on to all consumers. For many, while the cost of access hasn’t come down, the amount of data they they get for the same money has increased dramatically. Shop around, is the broadband mantra right now for those who think they’ve seen no change.

The second bottleneck is the cost of local data. While they do go hand in hand with international data costs, the biggest barrier to entry now is the cost of subscribing to or using data services. In the mobile arena, while you can buy 2GB of data for R99 a month, that assumes you can afford to pay for a bundle upfront.

The average South African lower-income individual spends R100 a month on phone charges – largely on voice and SMS. Data use is coming strongly into play, but has to come out of that same R100 a month. The ad hoc cost of data in South Africa is still stuck at R1 to R2 per MB – the same level at which it has been since 2006. “Shall I make two phone calls or visit a web site?” “One SMS or a little Facebook time?”

Visiting a media site is low on that particular agenda, and means that developers are once again focusing furiously on reducing the byte size of their web sites. That was a battle that we fought was over not long after the turn of the century.

The third bottleneck is the devices themselves.  Computer and tablets still give the best experience of online media, regardless of your speed, and regardless of how fervently you’ve convinced yourself a smartphone is as good as a computer for any purpose. The smartphone can be a great media consumption device, but most still have screens measuring below 5.5”. Only wishful thinking allows for this generation of phones and mobile browsers to be viewed as computer replacements.

The current generation of “phablets” is beginning to address this, most notably with the Samsung Note series and Apple iPhone 6 Plus at the high end, the Huawei Mate S and LG G4 in the mid-range, and lower-end market-stormers like the Alcatel Idol 3 and the locally-designed AG Ghost.

Despite such phones becoming more accessible that ever, they will not be in the hands of the mass market for years to come. That means media will still have to invest in mobi sites and even Java apps for feature phones for several more years, while doubling up on costs and effort with their smartphone apps for high-end users.

The ultimate bottleneck, however, is the way the Government thinks about broadband.

In last week’s State of the Nation address, broadband roll-out was given two sentences: “Government will fast track the implementation of the first phase of broadband roll-out to connect more than five thousand government facilities in eight district municipalities over a three year period. Funding to the tune of 740 million rand over a three year period has been allocated in this regard.”

Aside from the fact that this merely repeats the budget announced in the 2015 State of the Nation Address, it also does not truly represent a broadband roll-out. It applies only to a limited number of districts, and only to government facilities in those districts. In other words, the roll-out has little to do with public access.

The official Broadband Policy Framework sets a target of universal broadband access in South Africa by 2020. But the definitions contained within the framework make for fascinating – and dire – reading. Formulated while General Siphiwe Nyanda was Minister of Communications – i.e. three administrations ago – they remain in place: 15% of households must be within 2km of a broadband access point, with broadband defined as speeds of 256Kbps.

Think about it: the lowest form of broadband on South Africa’s mobile networks, EDGE, theoretically offers speeds of up to 384Kbps – eminently qualifying for broadband status; Vodacom alone covers more than  81% of the population with its 3G network and even minnow Cell C covers more than 60%. Whoopee! We have universal access. Not only that, but we already had universal access, by definition, when General Nyanda signed off that document in 2010.

But that’s like saying the sea routes of the world were opened to every single individual in the Western world in 1497, when Vasco da Gama found a sea route to India round the Cape of Good Hope, and Columbus had “discovered” the Americas.

That’s where broadband is right now in South Africa. The routes have been discovered, the early explorers have proved it’s possible, and the maps are clearly laid out. But the vast majority still have to navigate dire straits and squeeze their way through the broadband narrows before they reach a sea of media tranquility.

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

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Acer gaming beast escapes

Acer this week unveiled two notebooks that take portable gaming to new extremes.

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Acer  unveiled two new Predator Helios gaming notebooks this week at the next@acer global press conference in New York. They include the powerful Predator Helios 500, featuring up to 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processors, and the Predator Helios 300 Special Edition that includes upgraded specs from its predecessor and a distinctive white chassis. Both feature VR-Ready performance, advanced thermal technologies, and blazing-fast connectivity.

“We’ve expanded our Predator Helios gaming notebook line in response to popular demand from gamers seeking extreme performance on the go,” said Jerry Kao, President of IT Products Business, Acer. “The Predator Helios 500 and Helios 300 gaming notebooks feature Acer’s proprietary thermal technologies and powerful components that, coupled with our award-winning software, deliver unparalleled gaming experiences.”

“The 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processor for gaming and creation laptops is the highest performance Intel has ever delivered for this class of devices; purpose built for enthusiasts who demand premium gaming experiences whether at home or on the go,” said Steve Long, Vice President and General Manager, Client Computing Group Sales and Marketing, Intel. “Intel and Acer’s long relationship has produced amazing products over the years, and the new Acer Predator Helios gaming notebooks are powerful examples of what’s possible with this unprecedented level of performance.”

Predator Helios 500 is a gaming beast featuring overclocking, 4K 144 Hz panels

Designed for extreme gamers, the Predator Helios 500 is a gaming beast. It features up to overclockable 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processors and overclockable GeForce GTX 1070 graphics. Intel Optane memory increases responsiveness and load times, while ultra-fast NVMePCIe SSDs, Killer DoubleShot Pro networking, and up to 64GB of memory keep the action going, making the Helios 500 the ideal gaming notebook for graphic-intensive AAA titles and live streaming.

Top-notch visuals are delivered on bright, vibrant 4K UHD or FHD IPS 17.3-inch displays with 144Hz refresh rates for blur- and tear-free gameplay. NVIDIA G-SYNC technology is supported on both the built-in display and external monitors, allowing for buttery-smooth imagery without tearing or stuttering. For those looking for maximum gaming immersion, dual Thunderbolt 3 ports, and display and HDMI 2.0 ports support up to three external monitors. Two speakers, a subwoofer, and Acer TrueHarmony and Waves MAXXAudio technology deliver incredible sound and hyper-realistic 3D audio using Waves Nx.

The Helios 500 stays cool with two of Acer’s proprietary AeroBlade 3D metal fans, and five heat pipes that distribute cool air to the machine’s key components while simultaneously releasing hot air. Fan speed can be controlled and customized through the PredatorSense app.

A backlit RGB keyboard offers four lighting zones with support for up to 16.8 million colors. Anti-ghosting technology provides the ultimate control for executing complex commands and combos, which can be set up via five dedicated programmable keys.

Acer’s PredatorSense app can be used to control and monitor the notebook’s vitals from one central interface, including overclocking, lighting, hotkeys, temperature, and fan control.

Predator Helios 300 Special Edition brings a sophisticated design twist to gaming notebooks

Acer’s budget-friendly Helios 300 gaming line sees the addition of a Special Edition model featuring an all-white aluminum chassis accented with gold trim, an unusually chic design for gaming notebooks.

The Helios 300 Special Edition (PH315-51) allows for ultra-smooth gameplay via its 15.6-inch FHD IPS display with an upgraded 144Hz refresh rate. The rapid refresh rate shortens frame rendering time and lowers input lag to give gamers an excellent in-game experience. It’s powered by up to an 8th Gen Intel Core i7+ processor, overclockable GeForce GTX 1060 graphics, up to a 512 GB PCIe Gen 3 NVMe solid state drive, and up to a 2 TB hard disk drive.

The Helios 300 Special Edition also comes equipped with up to 16 GB of DDR4 memory, and is upgradable to 32GB. Intel Optane memory speeds up load times of games and applications, access to information and improves overall system responsiveness. In addition, Gigabit Ethernet provides fast wired connections, while Gigabit Wi-Fi is provided by the latest Intel Wireless-AC 9560 that delivers up to 1.73Gbps throughput when using 160 MHz channels (2×2 802.11ac, dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz).

The Helios 300 Special Edition also includes two of Acer’s ultrathin (0.1 mm) all-metal AeroBlade 3D fans designed with advanced aerodynamics and superior airflow to keep the system cool. They can be controlled with Acer’s PredatorSense app, which offers three usage modes:

1. Coolboost mode:

For heavy loading games, rendering, streaming, and extended video consumption

2. Normal mode:

For productivity tools like Microsoft Office

3. Silent mode:

For web browsing and online chatting

Price and Availability

Predator Helios 500 will be available in South Africa in June starting at R34 999.00

Helios 300 Special Edition will be available in South Africa in August 2018. Exact Price will be communicated closer to the time.

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LG G7 arrives in SA

LG this week introduced South Africa to its latest premium smartphone, the LG G7 ThinQ, focused on bringing useful and convenient AI features to the smartphone experience.

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Powered by the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform, the LG G7 ThinQ offers 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage to run demanding tasks and apps with. It is equipped with a 6.1-inch Super Bright Display, but the LG G7 ThinQ remains compact enough to use with one hand.

Sporting a new design aesthetic for the G series, the polished metal rim gives the LG G7 ThinQ a sleeker, more refined look, complemented by Gorilla Glass 5 on both the front and the back for enhanced durability. Rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, the LG G7 ThinQ is also awarded MIL-STD 810 c certification, having been subjected to a range of extreme temperature and environment tests designed by the United States military.

The LG G7 ThinQ has an 8MP camera up front, rendering clear and natural selfies, with two 16MP cameras at the back that deliver higher resolution photos with more detail, as well as a Super Wide Angle configuration.

As with other leading brands, LG has evolved its signature camera by including AI functionality. The AI CAM offers 19 shooting modes for intelligence-optimised shots. Users can also improve their photos by choosing from an additional three effect options should the AI CAM recommendation not suit their taste.

The new Super Bright Camera captures images that are up to four times brighter than typical photos shot in dim light. Through the combination of pixel binning and software processing, the AI algorithm adjusts the camera settings automatically when shooting in low light.

Live Photo Mode records one second before and after the shutter is pressed for snippets of unexpected moments or expressions that would normally be missed. Stickers uses face recognition to generate fun 2D and 3D overlays, such as sunglasses and headbands, that can be viewed directly on the display.

New to the G series is Portrait Mode, which generates professional-looking shots with out-of-focus backgrounds. This effect can be generated using both front and rear standard lenses as well as the rear Super Wide Angle lens.

LG G7 ThinQ offers further AI functionality with the inclusion of Google Lens features. Google Lens is a new way to search using the AI and computer vision. Google Assistant and Google Photos allow users to access more information on objects such as landmarks, plants, animals, and books. It can identify text or visit websites, add business cards to contacts, events to the calendar or look up an item on a restaurant menu.

A button just below the volume keys launches the AI functionality. A single tap of this button launches the Google Assistant, while two quick taps launches Google Lens. Users can also hold down the button to start talking to the Google Assistant without the repetition of the OK Google command.

With Super Far Field Voice Recognition (SFFVR) and the highly-sensitive G7ThinQ microphone, the Google Assistant can recognise voice commands from up to five meters away. SFFVR is able to separate commands from background noise, making the LG G7 ThinQ an alternative to a home AI speaker, even when the TV is on. Commands for the Google Assistant have been increased in the LG G7 ThinQ so users can get more done with their voice alone.

“The LG G7 ThinQ is strongly focused on the fundamentals and its launch marks a new chapter for our company,” said Deon Prinsloo, General Manager for Mobile Communication, LG Electronics S.A Pty Ltd. “Through the combination of personalised and useful AI functionalities with meaningful smartphone features, this is LG’s most convenient and in the moment smartphone yet.”

Key Specifications

  • Mobile Platform: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform
  • Display: 6.1-inch QHD+ 19.5:9 FullVision Super Bright Display (3120 x 1440 / 564ppi)
  • Memory:
    • LG G7 ThinQ: 4GB LPDDR4x RAM / 64GB UFS 2.1 ROM / MicroSD (up to 2TB)
  • Camera:
    • Rear Dual: 16MP Super Wide Angle (F1.9 / 107°) / 16MP Standard Angle (F1.6 / 71°)
    • Front: 8MP Wide Angle (F1.9 / 80°)
  • Battery: 3000mAh
  • OS: Android 8.0 Oreo
  • Size: 153.2 x 71.9 x 7.9mm
  • Weight: 162g
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a, b, g, n, ac / Bluetooth 5.0 BLE / NFC / USB Type-C 2.0 (3.1 compatible)
  • Colours: New Aurora Black
  • Others: Super Bright Display / New Second Screen / AI CAM / Super Bright Camera / Super Far Field Voice Recognition / Boombox Speaker / Google Lens / AI Haptic / Hi-Fi Quad DAC / DTS:X 3D Surround Sound / IP68 Water and Dust Resistance / HDR10 / Google Assistant Key / Face Recognition / Fingerprint Sensor / Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 Technology / Wireless Charging / MIL-STD 810G Compliant / FM Radio
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