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New SA broadband network: 4G, 5G and beyond

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Out of the ruins of the old iBurst, a new high-speed broadband network is about to be rolled out, with existing operators potentially joining its party, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It was one of the great train smashes of Internet services in South Africa. Now it may just give rise to one of the great success stories.

When iBurst launched in this country more than a decade ago, it promised to change the face of wireless broadband with a new kind of connectivity technology. However, a technology that was once revolutionary was eventually derailed, as its development ended.

Connection speed stalled, service levels declined, and growth fell off the cliff. As a result, it surprised some when the holding company for iBurst, Wireless Business Solutions (WBS), was bought by convergence technology company Multisource last year.

However, it was clear that it was being bought not for its 60 000-strong subscriber base, but for its license to use radio frequency spectrum in the 1,8GHz and 2,6GHz bands – ideal for high-speed mobile broadband. It was also clear that the ownership of WBS, chaired by FirstRand founder Paul Harris, was focused on opening up this potential goldmine.

This week, Multisource removed the invisibility cloak from its iBurst plans. Harris announced a multi-billion Rand investment in a new high-speed national data network using LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) technology.

Current versions of LTE are still regarded as a form of 3G, while LTE-A is regarded as the minimum to describe a network as 4G. Because of the failure of the regulator, Icasa, to allocate additional spectrum in these bands, other operators have to “refarm” spectrum from inappropriate bands to offer a half-baked version of 4G.

This means, in effect, that WBS is likely to become the first entirely 4G data network in South Africa. Its aggressive strategy is also likely to be enhanced by WBS’s roaming agreements with other mobile networks. In other words, an MTN or Vodacom could partner with WBS to get access to full 4G. That also means they could well dip into their own pockets to assist WBS in building out its network.

“Our initial focus is fixed-mobile (like LTE-A enabled WiFi routers) and we will target customers in geographies where we have our own kit and do not need to roam on other networks,” said Michael Jordaan, former First National Bank CEO and a key investor in WBS, in an interview this week. However, he pointed to a company statement that acknowledged: “Roaming is standard practice in the industry with most telcos roaming on each other’s networks.”

He would not be drawn on specifics, saying that roaming agreements were confidential commercial agreements between operators. However “where appropriate, WBS will enter such arrangements.”

“It will take time to roll out a nationwide network,” he said. “We hope to get to 10 000 sites over five years, but will start in high-density geographic areas like Joburg and Cape Town. It means that the initial target market will be fixed-mobile rather than smartphones, as that would require either a national network or a roaming agreement.”

According to Harris, the strategy was partly a response to South Africa’s need for investment in productive capacity to tackle its economic challenges: “Nothing can be gained by sitting on the sidelines. WBS’s investment is a manifestation of its confidence in South Africa and its desire to contribute.”

WBS is looking into the long-term future as well, saying that the network will be enabled to use 5G when the technology is rolled out internationally in the next 5 years, and “will place South Africa amongst the leaders in the field”.

The company says a limited number of sites are already in operation and existing WBS customers will be converted to the new network, migrating from an obsolete technology to one that is ahead of the rest of the market.

National rollout will commence in the next few months.  According to a WBS statement, “Speed and performance will be comparable to fibre, with the advantages that it can be deployed without the cost of digging up suburban streets and time delay in eventually reaching all residential areas.

“Once the network is rolled out WBS will be able to offer mobile broadband on smartphones, tablets and other devices supporting the Internet of Things. In the foreseeable future the majority of voice calls will be carried on data networks, thereby effectively providing consumers with a combined data and voice offering.”

WBS says it has the advantage of not having to invest in legacy networks such as 2G and 3G, and will consequently deploy cutting edge technology referred to as LTE-A PRO or 4.5G. The new network will be deployed on some of WBS’s own 400 sites and sites leased from tower companies and other telecommunications providers.

Jordaan also fired a warning shot at existing operators’ dogged emphasis on traditional voice and their inability to embrace the Over-The-Top apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

“We think that voice is fast becoming just another data-enabled app and we are not planning on offering traditional voice; rather VoLTE (voice over LTE), VoIP, WhatsApp, Skype. In essence, we are a competitor to fibre and ADSL.”

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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Win Funko Fortnite in Vinyl

Gadget and Gammatek are giving away a set of three Funko Fortnite figurines to three readers.

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A Funko Pop figurine based on a character set is indicative of reaching the heights of pop culture. It is no surprise, then, that the world’s biggest online game, Fortnite, has its own line of Funko Pop figurines. The Funkos are modeled on the characters in game, including Drift, Ragnarok, Dark Vanguard, Volar, Tracera Ops, and Sparkle Specialist.

Now, local Funko distributor Gammatek has released the Fortnite figurines in South Africa. To celebrate, Gadget and Gammatek are giving away a set of three Funko Fortnite figurines to each of three readers. To enter, first follow Gadget and Gammatek on Twitter. Then click on your favourite Funko Pop on the next page and post the Tweet that appears.

You can put the tweet in your own words, but entries must have the competition’s hashtag (#FunkoFortnite), mention @GadgetZA and the link to this article (bit.ly/FPFortnite) to be considered valid.

Click here to see the Funko Fortnite characters and to select the one you want to tweet.

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CES: ThirdEye X2 mixed-reality glasses

The X2 mixed reality (MR) glasses, unveiled at CES last week, are the smallest mixed reality devices yet. They boast a 42-degree field of view, HD resolution, and run on the Android platform. The glasses are not connected to wires or tethered packs, and boast a built-in VisionEye Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) system for accurate environment tracking. The UI allows the user to wear it while completing tasks indoors and outdoors.

Click through to read how the software makes these glasses a reality.

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Nick Cherukuri, founder of ThirdEye, said: “The goal of the X2 was to integrate SLAM into a small glasses form factor – that is the future of making MR Glasses mass produced.”

ThirdEye has also partnered with a major manufacturer, which will enable the X2 to be shipped in mass scale, which is currently a significant hurdle for many startups.

The glasses have built-in software like the ThirdEye App Suite, which provides a full MR software platform built into the units. The App Suite includes live audio and video streaming, AR data communication between remote users in the form of a “see what I see” application, and 3D scanning capabilities.  The glasses run on Android 8.0, creating a platform for a worldwide community of developers to submit AR, VR, and MR applications to the ThirdEye App Store. 

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