The fibre-to-the-home revolution that has swept suburban South Africa is about to arrive in the country’s townships, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
Fibre-to-the-home is this decade’s magic ingredient for high-speed, painless and unlimited Internet access. But, until now, it has been the province of the privileged. Only the more affluent suburbs of South Africa’s cities have been afforded the luxury of the dedicated optical fibre cables that typically run in trenches along leafy sidewalks.
That is about to change.
Vumatel, the company that sparked the FTTH revolution when it won a contract to supply fibre to the suburb of Parkhurst, is at it again. This time, it plans to connect the townships of South Africa. It has come up with a low-cost alternative to wiring dense suburbs, and intends to offer uncapped high-speed broadband for a mere R89 a month.
To put that in context, the average spend on a cellphone in lower socio-economic segments is typically around R100. Fibre, coupled with in-home Wi-Fi, can replace a large chunk of cellular spend by moving voice traffic from the mobile networks to voice over WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, among other. All data use in the home would move off the expensive data services provided by the mobile operators.
With wide-scale roll-out, this could prove immensely damaging to the operators. More significantly and to the point, however, it could prove immensely beneficial to those who have previously been kept away from the largesse of high-speed, unlimited access.
The Vumatel service will offer a 100Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speed, which typically costs more than a R1000 a month in more affluent suburbs. How is it possible, then, to offer it at a mere R89 a month?
Only with a great deal of commitment to finding an affordable broadband solution for the mass-market.
“We think that the FTTH deployments as we and other operators are doing them are great for the country, because we are moving connectivity forward at a macro level,” says Vumatel CEO Niel Schoeman. “But it is clearly not addressing the information divide between the less fortunate and the leafy suburbs, and potentially exacerbates inequality in terms of information access.
“We’ve been trying to come up with a solution to address townships, to provide that abundance of information to residents of townships. We think we can do it by providing it at R89 a month for a 100Mbps uncapped service. We think that is fundamentally different to a 500MB data allocation on a prepaid service, which has been the only kind of option for connectivity.”
Vumatel will initially roll out the service in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, with an estimated 400 000 residents in the target area.
“That is our township equivalent of the announcement that we were connecting Parkhurst. We’re going to give it a go between now and March.”
The question remains: how is such low cost possible on a business level?
On the surface, the answer lies in Vumatel’s October 2016 acquisition of Fibrehoods, a provider of aerial fibre similar to overhead telephone lines. However, that in itself would not cut the costs so radically. Until recently, Fibrehoods had also been serving wealthier suburbs.
“Clearly, to make that price point work, we need to work hard at the capital cost of deployment,” says Schoeman. “The topography of townships doesn’t lend itself to the typical buried, trenched solution, so we’ll use aerial fibre.
“The price is possible thanks to a combination of technologies , the potential number of customers per square kilometre, and the fact that it will also be potentially contended up to 20 times, meaning 20 customers will use the same 100Mbps line. So each customer is always guaranteed 5Mbps upward, but the probability of getting more like a 20Mbps service is high. Not everyone will be using the same line at the same time.”
Vumatel will also use its fibre to provide Wi-Fi in public spaces in the townships. This service will be possible, partly, thanks to corporate social investment from its 49% shareholder, Investec.
“We’ve looked at a broader Wi-Fi deployment model, but we don’t think it creates the abundance that closes the digital gap,” says Schoeman. “You can use the analogy of water: Wi-Fi hotspots create wells where people can collect water whereas, if you provide piped water to homes, you see people growing gardens and using it in an unlimited way. We want to go deep into every home, uncapped, at high speed, and see if we can make a difference.”
Unlike the suburban model, where Vumatel lays down the fibre and leaves it to Internet Service Providers to deliver access, it will initially provide access itself. It will piggyback on the Dark Fibre Africa grid that will link it to the broader Internet and undersea cables, but will acquire and distribute access and data services itself.
“We first want to see if we can make the model work rather than having to add additional margins for service providers. Our philosophy is always open access so, if it works, we will see if we can let service providers offere innovative services.”
Schoeman believes the eventual fibre market for all service providers will be as much as 35-million. He says it will be possible for Vumatel to bring fibre within reach of another 10-million people in the next couple of years, at a cost of between R2-billion and R3-billion.
“We want to see if we can kick off another catalyst event like Parkhurst, and start a storm: to see if we bring abundant connectivity to low income homes.”
Time for smart energy
South Africa is experiencing an energy crisis that requires the public and private sectors, along with households to work together. Fundamental to this is embracing innovative technology that provides more efficient ways of managing the country’s energy.
Riaan Graham, sales director for Ruckus Networks, sub-Saharan Africa, said: “With the number of connected devices expected to top more than 75 billion worldwide by 2025, the Internet of Things (IoT) can be considered an important tool in reaching this goal. Already, connected devices can be used to deliver smart energy that sees a more optimal use of resources.”
This approach relies on a smart grid of connected sensors pointing to areas where energy is wasted. In turn, the supply to these points can be allocated to higher priority areas resulting in a better use of resources.
Aiding this drive towards connected devices is government pushing towards the establishment of smart cities. These cities require a technological infrastructure built around various sensors connected to the internet to not only generate data, but control things as diverse as traffic lights, street lamps, and other electrical devices.
Graham said: “These smart cities enable lighting to be automatically switched off when not needed. Sensors on the connected devices will detect when people are on the street and turn it off or on accordingly. What might seem like a novelty, can make a massive difference in reducing energy waste.”
According to Kate Stubbs, director of business development and marketing at Interwaste, IoT is just part of how technology can be used to create a more efficient environment.
“South Africa produces an average 108 million tonnes of waste annually,” said Stubbs. “Of this, only 10 percent is recycled. There is significant potential to use this waste and convert it to energy. This is more than just the traditional way of viewing recycling. Instead, it is using technology to extract value out of waste through initiatives like refuse and waste-derived fuel.”
The first South African Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) plant was launched in 2016 and not only aims to reduce landfill, but also the country’s carbon footprint. As the name suggests, the plant converts general, industrial, and municipal waste into an alternative fuel that is used in the cement industry.
Stubbs said: “Spin-off benefits of this plant includes the creation of additional employment opportunities and a reduction of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions. Waste management entails so much more than what many people think. But the key remains a combination of technology innovation and a willingness to use the resources generated by this.”
Graham agrees about the need to readily accept the innovation technology brings as the country is teetering on a significant energy disaster.
He said: “New technologies are critical in helping the countries and their cities of the future promote sustainable energy use. For example, Nairobi has introduced smart street lamps that use LED lighting saving money and resources on energy costs. These lamp poles also have Wi-Fi embedded in them that sees air quality probe sensors submitted vital data for city planners on where there are pollution hotspots.”
Stubbs feels these are good examples of how energy management approaches in the connected world need to be non-linear.
“The traditional ways of adopting technology, recycling, and managing energy must be seen as relics of the past,” she said. “Instead, we must all work together and readily embrace modern solutions or risk our country entering a new dark ages.”
Girls4Tech aims to cut gender gap in AI and security
Cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are two of the hottest technology fields today, with job opportunities continuing to grow across both. However, worldwide, women make up less than 15 percent of the professionals in these high-tech jobs, and only one in 20 girls opts for a career based in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
To help narrow the gender gap, Mastercard has been cultivating young technology enthusiasts as part of its signature education platform, Girls4Tech. Currently in its fifth year, this hands-on, inquiry-based STEM programme has reached more than 400,000 girls (ages 8-12) in 25 countries, more than doubling its established 2017 goal. Girls4Tech was first launched in the South Africa in 2017, and has seen numerous Mastercard employees acting as mentors to local students ever since. As Mastercard marks the fifth anniversary of the programme, the company builds on a successful track record of impact with an even more ambitious commitment to reach 1 million girls by 2025.
Mastercard created Girls4Tech in April 2014 to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers through a fun, engaging curriculum built around global science and mathematics’ standards. The programme incorporates Mastercard’s deep expertise in payments technology and innovation, and includes topics such as encryption, fraud detection, data analysis and digital convergence.
“Driving inclusion, equal opportunity, and women’s empowerment are key priorities at Mastercard. Investing in a more inclusive future is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Women are the driving force behind global economic growth, and their contributions will continue to elevate communities and society as a whole,” says Beatrice Cornacchia, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Communications, Middle East and Africa at Mastercard. “Through our Girls4Tech programme, we’re extending our commitment to the next generation of women leaders and developing a strong pipeline of talent by encouraging girls to embrace the subjects that will prepare them for the workforce of tomorrow.”
New Curriculum Unveiled
As technology skills continue to evolve, the Girls4Tech programme is launching a new curriculum to give girls deeper exposure to the growing fields of cybersecurity and AI.
Furthermore, to continue the engagement with girls who have already participated in the programme, Mastercard is launching Girls4Tech 2.0. Designed for older students, ages 13-16, the new programme aims to keep girls excited about STEM throughout the critical high school years and also emphasises important 21st century skills – such as collaboration, creativity and communication – as they work in teams to apply their technical knowledge to solve real-world challenges.
Impact Highlights from the First Five Years
- To date, Girls4Tech has reached over 400,000 girls, with events in 25 countries and six continents.
- The programme has engaged more than 3,800 employee mentors worldwide.
- Mastercard has created partnerships with Scholastic, Be Better China, Singapore Committee for UN Women, Major League Baseball, R&A, and Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship to further scale the programme and offer STEM skills in unique ways to girls ages 8-12.
- The programme has achieved global reach with the curriculum translated into 12 languages.
To learn more about the programme, please visit the Girls4Tech webpage.
 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study: Women in Cybersecurity
 U.S. Department of Commerce, Women in STEM 2017 Update; World Economic Forum, Gender Parity and Human Capital Report 2017