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Skills needed for Wi-Fi growth

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2014 is said to be the year that Wi-Fi takes its rightful position in the industry, but while the opportunity and growth is there, the harsh reality is that there is a lack of skills needed to meet the this growth.

Research suggests that global public Wi-Fi hotspot numbers could reach 5.8 million by 2015, marking a 350% increase since 2011.

‚”While the opportunity and growth is there, the harsh reality given the general decline in available IT skills – is that if we don’t act soon, we won’t have the desired influx of new talent and skills that will be needed to sustain future supply to meet demand at these kinds of projected growth increases,‚” says Michael Fletcher, sales director at Ruckus Wireless sub-Saharan Africa.

Locally, currently South Africa has the slowest Internet speeds of any major economy in Africa, Europe and Middle East (EMEA)3 largely due to legacy lags in making broadband broadly available as a result of the costs involved with the fixed infrastructure investment and geographical accessibility. Fortunately though, South Africa is getting on the Wi-Fi train, with a steady growth to close to 1000 free hotspots in operation by the end of 20134.

‚”This number is expected to more than double in 2014. In addition to Wi-Fi uptake by business and consumer markets, Government has comes to grips with the Internet as an enabler as much as energy and transport for economic growth,‚” says Fletcher. ‚”While the undersea cables provide unlimited bandwith capacity, the challenge is creating a point of access where the demand for access exists now and, is increasing at an alarming pace.‚”

As such, in a bid to broaden access, local Governments in several cities like Pretoria, Cape Town and Stellenbosch in particular are fast and furiously rolling out Wi-Fi networks in public schools, underprivileged urban neighbourhoods, public libraries and other major centres5.

‚”Continentally, the outlook in Africa is very similar to South Africa in that, previously Wi-Fi was most commonly found in paid-for hotspots in airports, hotels or coffee shops,” says Fletcher. “”However, as more markets in Africa look to diversify and compete for a share of foreign investment that is critical to their continued and sustained economic growth, so too does the need for better connectivity arise. Likewise in South Africa, governments in several other African countries have come to realise the benefits of more pervasive Internet coverage and uptake of Wi-Fi is getting more traction to support this ambition.‚””

There’s no denying that opportunity is banging at the industry’s door, but that’s not the problem.

‚””The question the industry will soon be asking itself is, ‚’who will be rolling out all this Wi-Fi and do they have the capability to do it properly?’ says Fletcher.

While Wi-Fi represents one of the most expedient and cost-effective ways to increase both capacity and coverage, rolling out Wi-Fi networks is complex. A successful roll out that is properly undertaken and within budget/finance parameters – is therefore as much dependent on having the right specialist skills on board as using the right technology.

‚””Currently the industry is faced with a severe shortage of skilled wireless engineers. I would hazard to say that a wireless engineer who also understands the networking realm is even fewer-and-far-between – though, the desire for capable networking staff is not localised to the Wi-Fi industry or even just to Africa,‚”” says Fletcher. In fact, a recent global study6placed networking skills third on the list of eight hot IT skills for 2014, largely driven by the need for wireless connectivity.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to suggest then that the African market may closely mirror this as networking skills have received similar attention in other local studies in recent years.

‚””With that in mind, the pressure is on to secure this talent first – as when graduates and qualified engineers enter the Wi-Fi industry, they tend to focus on either the engineering or networking side, but even finding sufficiently skilled engineers these days can prove difficult enough,‚”” says Fletcher.

Since so much of the Wi-Fi that has been rolled out in recent years has been concentrated on the consumer market very few companies focus on developing skilled enterprise wireless engineers especially with the need for carrier-grade Wi-Fi. While there are some companies who do focus on enterprise-centric skills, often the skilling up is not the same as what may be gained by undertaking affiliated network training. Additionally, there are only a handful of organisations running certified courses, and the onus remains on the vendor company managing the roll out to verify the level of skills and quality of workmanship.

‚””This is why many vendors will focus their investments in skills on their reseller partners and is a call to the industry to increase their skills investments,‚”” says Fletcher.

‚””Education around Wi-Fi hasn’t really caught up with market demand and the only way we will turn things around is if more industry players invest their time and/or money in programmes that will identify talent and nurture it into a real skill.‚””

For instance, if we look at tertiary education, while it is possible to do a qualification in electrical engineering with a major in Radio Frequency (RF), very few of these graduates end up working in the Wi-Fi industry. This is because Wi-Fi is still largely regarded as being consumer-centred for at home use and graduates often don’t realise the opportunities, as the enterprise and carrier world is vastly different.

‚””The industry therefore needs to look at ways of getting more actively involved, both in supporting the provision of industry-led certified courses, and encouraging engineering graduates to explore the Wi-Fi world more, as good Wi-Fi engineers who get in with a reputable company can earn really good money,‚”” says Fletcher.

‚””Looking ahead and as the bigger picture emerges, we need to sit up and take stock to ensure that we secure a legacy of appropriate skills for the future so we can continue to significantly contribute to a more connected Africa,‚”” concludes Fletcher.

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