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Africa’s needs drive Africa’s tech



Africa has had some unique communication needs, and according to REAN VAN NIEKERK of Metacom, these needs have driven the continent’s technological evolution.

A large part of successful innovation is being in the right place at the right time. If you want to invent a global social media company, it helps to be in North America. But if you want to push the boundaries of what can be done with wide-area networking, it helps to be in a place where easy options aren’t available.

That’s a good description of most of South and southern Africa. Large areas are thinly populated and badly under-served by traditional wired communications technology. The growth of cellular networks has changed all that, unleashing a vast untapped demand for communications and ensuring that there’s now a GSM tower covering most human settlements in the sub-continent.

Endless articles have been written about what good news this is for individuals and small businesses: less well-known is how the spread of wireless communication has brought financial services, retail stores and more reliable electricity distribution in its wake.

It started with the realisation that SMS text messages over the GSM networks were useful for more than just making social arrangements: they were data, and the capacity for (relatively) low-cost data transmission over GSM made many things possible. Suddenly, instead of waiting for someone to lay a cable, all you needed to link a rural ATM with a banking network was a nearby cellphone tower.

Then came the General Packet Radio Service (GRPS), which lowered the costs of transmitting data, and the floodgates were opened. Metacom’s first client, who went live back in 2004, had a relatively simple requirement: To carry GPRS packet data across a virtual private network (VPN) that met all the security and reliability needs of a financial transactions provider.

Once we’d built the first phase of the network to make that possible, the VPN continued to evolve to meet rapidly growing demand for data flow and ever more sophisticated customer needs. As we took on more customers who needed to extend their communications to multiple sites, we expanded our infrastructure to allow for multiple VPNs: each client with its own secure network across our MPLS backbone.

As our VPN evolved, so did our range of routers and modems ‚ until we can now quite confidently say there is no location in South or southern Africa too remote for reliable communications. In the ever-diminishing area that is not served by the cellular networks, there is now affordable satellite.

We were fortunate to have early exposure to a broad range of clients, partly thanks to the mobile networks who referred people to us when their needs were too niche to be met in-house. This meant that at the same time we were gaining experience in running secure networks and building robust routers, we were learning more about the specialised requirements of industrial clients.

At Eskom, for example, we encountered legacy systems that couldn’t share data across packet-driven networks. The only available communications options were prohibitively expensive ‚ yet increasingly the stability of the electricity distribution was going to depend on real-time communications. We were able to build a new network infrastructure that could translate their existing data and carry it securely across GSM infrastructure.

To this day, a great deal of electronic transactions and other industrial and commercial data traffic relies on protocol conversions, including many financial transactions.

Metacom is still the only African company we’re aware of that provide managed VPN solutions together with our own proudly South African routing equipment, custom designed by ourselves for effective use in the African environment. Our routers are the only devices on the market that can connect as easily to a GSM or satellite network as to copper or fibre.

As we move into the second decade of our existence, the most exciting question is: What next?


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