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5G is a great enabler, but beware of its challenges

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By JACQUES VISSER, head of wireless at Vox

Digital transformation is rapidly changing the way in which we live, work, and play, and upcoming 5G technology will be crucial in providing the level of connectivity that will improve user experiences and expand broadband wireless services beyond mobile internet.

5G will stand on three primary pillars namely massive type communication, enhanced mobile broadband and ultra-reliable low latency communications. The biggest challenge is whether we will succeed in providing it at an affordable price to a broad base and beyond the already well-serviced metro areas. 

With its very low latency communication, the technology enables business use cases such as remote access for high availability sites, and mission-critical applications like medical equipment, augmented reality, Internet Protocol TV, and even connected self-driving cars. For the consumer market, this benefit will be especially appealing to gamers.

In addition, 5G is being seen as a true enabler of the Internet of Things, with applications in healthcare, retail, energy and utilities, industrial automation, intelligent buildings and infrastructure, and public safety and surveillance. 

We are optimistic that fixed-wireless “5G” services will be launched by late 2019, enabling operators to provide broadband services with the use of radio spectrum. With its high throughput, businesses – especially smaller ones that are more nimble – are likely to be the first adopters, with fixed-wireless 5G being used to link their internal corporate networks using solutions such as Software Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN).

However, home users with dozens of connected devices – with family members surfing the web, streaming HD videos, playing online games, and making online voice and video calls – are unlikely to shift away from their existing fibre connections any time soon. As such, 5G is not going to replace fibre, but rather complement it, by giving users a high-speed, low-latency broadband connection even when they are on the move. In addition, business users can make use of multiple connection types – and even service providers – to ensure redundancy.

Getting from concept to mainstream

The industry is still waiting on a decision from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) on what spectrum will be allocated for the use of 5G, but we are hoping that a decision will be made by the end of the year. 

While the 5G standards have yet to be finalised, there are only a limited number of bands which can be used, and a number of operators around the globe – and in SA – are already running trials. The most prominent band options currently under consideration are so-called low band below 2GHz, middle band 2GHz to 6Ghz and high band above 6 GHz.

Comsol Networks performed a proof of concept in Soweto on their 5G deployment in 2018, and achieved more than 1GBps throughput speed using the 28GHz spectrum, while Rain has recently announced at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona that they would roll out their 5G network in mid-2019. As a reseller of wireless connectivity services, Vox is monitoring these developments closely, and will seek to be involved once commercial services are launched.

It is expected that the Minister of Communications will provide the government’s policy guidelines with regard to the allocation of spectrum soon. This is a critical requirement to plan Mobile Network Operator (MNO) networks for 5G and to expand broadband services on 3G in rural areas. It is well known that some of the state-owned enterprises like Eskom and Transnet are in possession of fibre infrastructure running through rural areas, and there is an expectation from service providers in South Africa that the government will make this unproductive fibre available to provide broadband services in those areas. 

The required end-user devices will start appearing before long too; at the MWC, several manufacturers unveiled their 5G compatible smartphones and consumer premises equipment, which will become available in the market later in the year.

What can hold back widespread deployment?

There are still some major hurdles to the widespread deployment of 5G in South Africa, the biggest of which is the coverage area. Due to the frequencies being used, each base station can only cover a small area as compared to existing cellular technologies, meaning that there has to be a considerable investment in the rollout of additional base stations.

In addition, having a higher throughput needs to be matched with a backhaul link of similar capacity; with each 5G base station requiring up to a 10GBps connection, coverage will be restricted to areas with the fibre connectivity required to receive and transmit such large volumes of data.

It is likely that 5G coverage will initially be limited to areas where there is both a concentration of users, and the availability of fibre networks for backhaul – meaning city centres and other dense urban areas. Currently, it is not financially feasible for this technology to be deployed to smaller towns or rural areas.

Despite these challenges, there is a reason to be optimistic: South Africa ranks among the top 25 countries in the world in terms of quality of GSM networks, primarily as a result of having multinational telecommunications providers investing substantially in the country. Similarly, one can expect that the local commercial 5G networks, once up and running, will be of a world class standard too, ensuring that local users get to benefit from high-bandwidth, low latency connectivity that will fuel South Africa’s growth in the digital age.

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Did an earthquake take out SA Internet?

Seabed avalanches caused by an earthquake could have cut several undersea cables, leading to one of South Africa’s biggest Internet outages yet, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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Picture by TooMuchCoffeeMan from pixabay.com

There is still no official explanation for freak breaks 11 days ago in two separate undersea cables that provide international access to South Africa’s Internet users. However, as reported in the Sunday Times yesterday, the most common causes of such breaks are damage by ship anchors and earthquakes at sea.

However, the freak occurrence of two separate cables being cut simultaneously far out at sea, as happened on the morning of 16 January, can only be explained by sea-bed activity.  One of the cables was cut in two places, and it is widely believed that a third major cable was also cut.

The cable damage mostly occurred in or near an area called the Congo Canyon, which starts inland and extends 220km into the sea. It is known for having the world’s strongest “turbidity currents”, underwater sediment avalanches over hundreds of kilometers, which are known to destroy undersea cables.

The most likely culprit is a 5.6 magnitude earthquake that struck the Atlantic Ocean near Ascension Island shortly before the cables were cut on the morning of 16 January. The earthquake occurred just before 8am South African time, and local ISPs reported losing international access from just before 10am. The epicentre of the earthquake was more than a thousand kilometres off the coast of Africa, but disturbances caused by seismic activity at sea become more powerful as they approach the coast. Combined with turbidity currents, this could well have taken out all cables in the area.

The West Africa Cable System (WACS) was cut in two places, and the South Atlantic 3 (SAT3) cable in one location. Industry insiders believe that the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable was also cut, but it has not been publicly confirmed.

South Africa is connected to the global Internet via seven such cables, with a total capacity of 42.3 terabits per second (tbps).  These cables, in turn, connect to additional cables connecting the West and East coasts of Africa, with a single cable running from Angola to Brazil providing another 40 tbps.

However, it emerged in the past week that smaller ISPs in South Africa had bought capacity on only one or two cables. In a freak occurrence, two of the most commonly used cables, the WACS and SAT 3 cables, were cut simultaneously, plunging millions of Internet users into data darkness.

Customers of the major mobile network operators – Vodacom and MTN – were largely unaffected, as these tend to have both part-ownership and access to most of the cables running up both the East and West coasts of Africa.

Visit the next page to read about how ISPs have battled to reroute access, how massive resources are needed to deal with these kinds of outages, and when the ship will reach the breakage points.

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Lenovo express-delivers new range from CES to SA

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Lenovo has unveiled its new range of ThinkBook laptops, barely two weeks after they were showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. 

The company’s newest sub-brand, ThinkBook, is intended to meet the demand for more aesthetically pleasing, yet agile and powerful devices.

The new range is aimed at small and medium enterprises. According to the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), there are more than 2-million SMEs in South Africa – although there are only 667,433 in the formal sector. This tallies with estimates in recent editions of SME Survey, produced by World Wide Worx, which suggest 650,000 active, formal businesses in South Africa. These SMEs employ about 14% of the South African workforce. 

Lenovo argues that access to affordable, yet efficient, technology is a crucial factor in aiding business success and contributing towards the success of the nation. The company has found, in its own research, that younger people prefer working, creating and communicating online “with stylish devices that make a statement”. This means they require streamlined laptops which can be used to collaborate from any remote location, to enhance productivity.

Lenovo said in a statement on Thursday night: “Backed by customer research, ThinkBook is specially designed for SMEs, who typically purchase consumer laptops for perceived design and price advantages but can no longer rationalise their lack of extended services and warranties – core needs of any business. ThinkBook allows growing firms to keep a competitive edge in attracting today’s young tech-savvy execs with trendy yet cost-effective devices. 

Thibault Dousson, general manager of  Lenovo for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said at the launch event: “With the capacity, SMEs have to grow and upskill the country’s workforce, they are perfectly positioned to bridge the gap between the public sector and large enterprise. Bearing in mind the demands of the digital economy, this sector needs skills and resources in order to compete, and that is where devices such as the ThinkBook come in.”

In South Africa, ThinkBook laptops are now available in 13-, 14- and 15-inch variants. The flagship ThinkBook 14 and ThinkBook 15 devices are powered by Windows 10 Pro and up to 10th Gen Intel Core processing, which Lenovo says combines high performance with intuitive, time-saving features. Options include Intel Optane memory, WiFi 6, and discrete graphics.

The ThinkBook 15 comes at just 18.9mm thin, while the ThinkBook 14 is a mere 17.9mm, both with FHD displays and two Dolby Audio speakers, dual-array, Skype certified microphones and a USB 3.1 (Gen2, Type-C) port.

Lenovo has also introduced the ThinkBook S series, including an elegant 13.3-inch ThinkBook 13s. The sleek and light device is constructed of a metallic finish on an all-aluminium chassis, alongside a narrow bezel display. As with the ThinkBook 14 and 15, the ThinkBook 13s also features advanced Intel processing and an FHD display, Dolby Vision and Harman speakers with Dolby Audio.

Visit the next page to read about the design and features of the new ThinkBook range.

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