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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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SAFTA awards get first streaming video nominees

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The 2019 nominations for The South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTAs) were announced late last week, and for the first time in the 13-year history of the awards, a TV series produced for a video-on-demand service was in contention. The result was a surprise boost to streaming service Showmax.

The comedy series Tali’s Wedding Diary, which premiered in December 2017, represented a major step for the then two-year old streaming service. It was the debut Showmax Original, the first time Showmax ventured into producing its own content. The gamble paid off, with the show becoming the most watched of any series on its first day on Showmax, and now Tali’s Wedding Diary has been further recognised with seven SAFTA nominations, making it this year’s most nominated comedy.

“When we first floated the idea of Tali’s Wedding Diary, we joked about winning awards,” says Candice Fangueiro, Showmax’s head of content. “At that point, just getting our first Showmax Original off the ground was already a major challenge and it was more than we could hope for to actually hit it out of the park. I was stunned when I heard the news about the nominations – it’s amazing to be considered in the same company as these other shows and thanks to this we’re already seeing a fresh spike in Tali views.”

Tali’s Wedding Diary was also a first for co-creator and star Julia Anastasopoulos, who until then was best known as YouTube star SuzelleDIY. “I am so thrilled about the SAFTA nominations for Tali’s Wedding Diary,” says Julia, who is up for Best Actress – TV Comedy and Best Achievement in Scriptwriting – TV Comedy, along with her husband Ari Kruger and Daniel Zimbler. 

“It was such a big and daunting step to create a full TV comedy series and intro a brand-new character. I really didn’t know how it would be received and am so happy to have received such positive feedback for the show and the Tali Babes character, along with the nominations. It feels so good to be recognised for something we poured our hearts into. None of it would have been possible, of course, without the incredible hard work and vision of my husband Ari and the incredible team, cast and crew that were part of the show. And a huge thank you to Showmax of course for making it all possible. Congratulations and best of luck to the entire team and to all the other nominees.”

Tali’s Wedding Diary is a mockumentary that follows Tali, a self-obsessed Joburg princess who’s moved to Cape Town and is planning her wedding to property-agent fiancé Darren (Anton Taylor). The series was inspired by Julia’s own wedding to Ari, her SuzelleDIY and Tali’s Wedding Diary co-creator, who is also up for Best Achievement In Directing – TV Comedy.  

In addition to Julia and Ari’s nominations, Tali’s Wedding Diary is up for Best TV Comedy, Art Direction (Keren Setton),  Cinematography (James Adey), and Editing (Richard Starkey). Winners will be announced on 2 March 2019 at Sun City Superbowl.

Following the success of Tali’s Wedding Diary, the second Showmax Original, The Girl From St Agnes, was released earlier this month. A third Showmax Original, Trippin With Skhumba, is slated for release at the end of February.

“With three Showmax Originals now under our belt and more on the way, we’d like to think this is the start of many more SAFTA nominations for shows from a streaming service,” concludes Candice.

South African content currently on Showmax has 110 nominations and includes the most nominated movie (Five Fingers With Marseilles), telenovela (The River), drama (Lockdown) and soap (Isibaya), with more SAFTA nominees scheduled for the coming months.

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Ford begins production of high-tech Ranger in SA

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Ford’s Silverton Assembly Plant in Pretoria has officially commenced production of the new Ford Ranger, bringing a raft of product upgrades and refinements to one of South Africa’s best-selling vehicles and export models.

“Following the investment of over R3-billion in our local operations and extensive upgrades to our plants over the past 18 months, we are delighted to see the first of the new Ford Ranger models coming off our production line,” says Neale Hill, managing director for Ford Motor Company Sub-Saharan Africa Region.

“This is an extremely important and exciting year for the Ford Ranger, which will also see the launch of the first Ranger Raptor that is undoubtedly one of this year’s most highly anticipated new models,” says Hill.

“The 2019 Ford Ranger will deliver more power, greater fuel efficiency, enhanced refinement, and additional advanced technologies when it goes on sale in the coming months, and we are confident it will once again set the benchmark in the extremely competitive pickup segment.”

Selected range-topping models, including the Ranger Raptor, will be powered by the all-new 2.0 Bi-Turbo diesel engine assembled at Ford’s Struandale Engine Plant in Port Elizabeth. This unit produces 157kW and 500Nm of torque – up by 10kW and 30Nm compared with the current 3.2 TDCi – and delivers up to a nine percent improvement in fuel efficiency when combined with the advanced new 10-speed automatic transmission.

Certain derivatives will feature a 2.0 Single Turbo version of this engine, producing 132kW and 420Nm of torque, mated to the same 10-speed transmission. Various other models in the line-up will retain the proven 2.2 and 3.2-litre Duratorq TDCi engines and existing gearbox options – thus giving customers the widest choice yet in this category. As usual, the line-up includes Single Cab, Super Cab and Double Cab body styles to suit customer requirements.

Along with freshened design cues, range-topping Ranger models will raise the bar once again with industry-defining safety features on the Wildtrak such as Pre-Collision Assist and Active Park Assist. SYNC 3® with Navigation remains one of the Ranger’s technology highlights as a fully featured infotainment system with intuitive voice control.

Following the launch of the ‘standard’ new Ford Ranger models, the attention will be shifted to the locally assembled Ranger Raptor that is set to create an entirely new segment in the pickup market when it makes its eagerly anticipated debut.

“There is a lot of excitement and hype around the Ranger Raptor, and this exhilarating new model will occupy a white space in the pickup market when it goes on sale in the second quarter of this year, creating a much-needed performance model in this crucial segment,” Hill states.

“We can’t wait to get the Ranger Raptor to market, enabling our customers to experience unrivalled off-road performance, cutting-edge technologies and the most muscular design yet seen in this class.”

Some of the defining features of the Ranger Raptor include Position Sensitive Damping (PSD) shock absorbers exclusively manufactured by FOX, and an advanced Terrain Management System (TMS) that includes an exciting Baja mode for fast off-road driving. It also boasts a toughened reinforced chassis, powerful all-disc braking system and specially developed BF Goodrich tyres.

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