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LiFi could change downloads

Researchers from Northumbria University, Newcastle and UCL are developing a new type of organic LED (light-emitting diode) which will communicate with smart device to download and upload large amounts of data.

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Known as ‘LiFi’ the new technology uses visible light communication to transmit information – with lights such as those found in the ceiling of buildings turning on and off at a very high speed, not visible to the human eye, to communicate with LEDs in phone or tablet screens.

LiFi based links are much faster than WiFi, which uses radio frequency waves, meaning that a film which may take an hour to download using WiFi could take just seconds using LiFi, with live streaming also much easier and reliable.

The research being carried out by Northumbria and UCL focuses on the creation of a new low-cost, plastic all-organic LED which will be used to develop the world’s first complete visible light communications system.

Project lead Zabih Ghassemlooy is Professor of Optical Communications at Northumbria University and also heads up Northumbria’s renowned Optical Communications Research Group.

He said: “In the future almost all the lights we use in our homes and offices will be LED – they are cheaper, greener and more efficient, using up to 10 times less energy than traditional incandescent or fluorescent lights.

“Given the increasing amount of data we are all using, it therefore makes perfect sense to develop this LiFi technology so we can use our existing lighting infrastructure to provide fast internet in the future.

“The new LEDs being developed at UCL during this project not only provide light but will have additional functionality to allow them to communicate with other electronic devices, not only delivering data but receiving it back as well.”

As well as the increased speed, LiFi could deliver additional benefits over WiFi, including not exposing users to radio frequency radiation and being safe to use in areas such as hospitals, where WiFi cannot be used due to the electromagnetic interference it causes.

With its ability to allow electronic devices to communicate with each other, LiFi could also successfully be used within homes and work places, as well as for car-to-car communications; underwater communications systems between various manned and unmanned platforms; for communication between handheld devices and as an enabler for local positioning systems.

It is envisioned that smartphones will play a major role in the delivery of LiFi networks, with the technology expected to be in everyday use in the next five to 10 years.

Dr Paul Haigh, a former Northumbria University PhD student, now a Senior Research Associate at UCL, working there with Professor Izzat Darwazeh, is also involved in the project. He said: “The LEDs we are developing are plastic, flexible devices which are cheap to make and which are already appearing in high-end mobile phones, tablets and televisions.

“We are incorporating these into a thin film, just 500 nanometers (0.0005 millimetres) thick that could be used as a smart phone or tablet screen, allowing it to act as a LiFi transmitter.

“In addition, as well as looking at how we transmit information from a light in the ceiling to an electronic device, we are the first researches to also consider how we can transfer information the other way too, allowing devices to essentially talk to each other.”

The three-year project has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and will run until September next year.

The research is being led by Izzat Darwazeh, Professor of Communications Engineering at UCL; and Zabih Ghassemlooy, Professor of Optical Communications at Northumbria University. The research team also includes Professor Franco Cacialli, who leads the UCL group within the London Centre of Nanotechnology responsible for developing the novel organic devices for the project. Professor Ioannis Papakonstantinou, Dr Paul Haigh and Dr Alessandro Minotto of University College London, and Dr Hoa Le Minh and Dr Andrew Burton of Northumbria University are also involved in the research.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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