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Spectrum is red herring in WOAN debate

MD of Internet Solutions, SAKI MISSAIKOS, explores the local telecommunications industry and highlights lobbying efforts, challenges and benefits to a fair marketplace, which should promote competitiveness to reduce the cost of data and services, increase access to the Internet and stimulate economic development.

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Between 1999 and 2004, Telkom’s monopoly of access to crucial international bandwidth and high-speed ADSL lines meant they could freely charge ISPs excessive fees. And they did. Inevitably, this left them with no choice but to pass costs on to their customers,.

We demanded a competitive market, and aggressively lobbied to have Telkom’s wholesale and retail divisions separated to end its monopoly. Under those conditions, we believed that South Africa’s economy and its citizens could not fully realise the benefit of the Internet.

It was a long, tough battle, and it was a great day – I remember it very well –  when in 2012 the Competition Commission ruled that Telkom was engaged in ‘bullying’ and ‘anti-competitive’ business practises.

Does industry not want a competitive, fair and level playing field?

To my frustration, both in and outside the context of the wholesale open access network (WOAN) debate, it appears that our local telecommunications industry is working against what should be the bedrock of our industry – a competitive, fair and level playing field.  Companies with vested interests in their smaller monopolies are cocooning themselves in legal posturing, adopting a protectionist stance for short-term financial gains.

South Africa’s Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are nervous about the WOAN model proposed by government and are vocal in their opposition. The irony is that the conventional MNO is starting to sound like and resemble our old fixed line operator.

Arguably, what the MNOs are trying to protect are new business models that establish themselves as ISPs. This is a natural evolution of a telecommunications landscape once dominated by ‘voice’ services that are history compared to the demand for Internet connectivity and data.

The era of wireless communications

As we continue to communicate for work and play in a new era of wireless communications, the market must open up.  Indeed, it is vital that Internet access is unbundled from other value-chain activities.  It happened with Telkom, and now it must happen in the mobile space.

I have no doubt that this will stimulate opportunities for new competitors, deliver better pricing, and usher in a more competitive, fairer marketplace.  The winners will be South Africa and South Africans.

Achieving the outcomes of the ICT policy white paper

Let’s stop being side-tracked by the obsession with spectrum.  In a country like South Africa, the communication needs of wide-spread rural communities and more densely-populated cities means that newer technologies like 5G cannot simply take over from legacy wireless systems like 3G and even 2G. They will still exist alongside for many years to come.

Any qualified engineer in the industry will tell you that there’s enough spectrum.  The key is how we use it – or indeed abuse it.

If more competition – to reduce the cost of data and services, increase access to the Internet and stimulate economic development – really is government’s aim, as stated in the 2016 ICT policy white paper, then a WOAN is not the answer.

After all, no matter who or what kind of enterprise holds a monopoly, network monopolies bring high prices.  This is a barrier to access for many South Africans, and negatively impacts the economy and society.  The fundamentals of economics dictate that competition reduces abuse of market dominance, and produces exactly the price and service results that government wants.

A WOAN is not the answer, but many WOANs may well be.

I propose that MNOs are compelled to completely separate their wholesale and retail businesses as a first step towards achieving the desired outcomes detailed in government’s ICT policy white paper.  This wholesale / retail divorce has sound precedence that should not be ignored.  At a wholesale level, there’ll be full price transparency, and all ISPs will be able to compete fairly at a retail level.

By compelling MNOs to fully separate their wholesale and retail businesses, we achieve several positive outcomes:

  1. Industry entrants and existing players that do not own their own infrastructure can build their businesses on the investments made by others, increasing the depth of the market and providing consumers – be they individuals who still want voice services or large enterprises wholly dependent on fibre – with all the benefits of more competition and choice;
  2. Entities that own infrastructure still profit from their investments, encouraging further development of the industry and maintenance of South Africa’s network, which, when compared to much of the continent, is far superior;
  3. A WOAN controlled by a government- or industry-body could be launched in parallel with leftover spectrum.  This will create a comparative environment that allows all the industry to evaluate the viability of the model for our market;
  4. There is reduced opportunity for any industry player to ingratiate itself with the body managing the WOAN for spectrum or any other market advantage; and
  5. Allocation of spectrum to those operators that want it – through application or auction – will not be delayed because of a prolonged industry consultation that must precede any significant policy shift.

The commercial interests of South Africa’s MNOs and ISPs are not at odds with government’s ideals of accessible, affordable, quality internet connectivity and communications services for all citizens.

We all share these ideals, but they are only achievable in a commercially-sound business environment. Regulation must be formulated in the interests of consumers and within a legislative framework that prevents market abuse and eliminates barriers to entry. It must embrace, encourage, and stimulate competition, which gives local, even neighbourhood, operators an opportunity to thrive if they develop compelling product and service offerings that perhaps national service providers cannot.

Since its inception in 1993, Internet Solutions has been championing a fair and competitive market and we are not going to stop.  We believe that it is not only our duty, but also the duty of the entire telecommunications industry to fight for the right of South Africa to enjoy all the social and economic benefits of the Internet that come about when it is accessible and affordable to all.

I am not convinced that a WOAN can give South Africa these things, but WOANS can.

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The hacker, the scrapheap, and the first Apollo computer

Three years ago, a Tshwane computer engineer tracked down the “lost” first Apollo space flight guidance computer. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK retells the story on Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary.

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It’s not often that a YouTube video on a technical topic gives one goosebumps. And it’s not often that someone unpacking a computer makes history.

Francois Rautenbach, a computer hardware and software engineer from Tshwane, achieved both with a series of videos he quietly posted on YouTube in 2016, and shared by Gadget.

AS-202 launch (2)
Flight AS-202 lifts off on 25 August 1966.

It showed the “unboxing” of a batch of computer modules that had been found in a pile of scrap metal 40 years ago and kept in storage ever since. Painstaking gathering of a wide range of evidence, from documents to archived films, had convinced Rautenbach he had tracked down the very first Guidance and Navigation Control computer, used on a test flight of the Saturn 1B rocket and the Apollo Command and Service Modules.

SAMSUNG CSC
The Rope Memory Modules from Flight AS-202’s Guidance Computer.

Apollo-Saturn 202, or Flight AS-202, as it was officially called, was the first to use an onboard computer – the same model that would eventually take Apollo 11 to the moon. Rautenbach argued that the computer on AS-202 was also the world’s first microcomputer. That title had been claimed for several computers made in later years, from the Datapoint 2200 built by CTC in 1970 to the Altair 8800 designed in 1974. The AS-202 flight computer goes back to the middle of the previous decade.

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The Apollo lunar module, flown to the moon using the same Guidance Computer model that had been successfully tested on Flight AS-202.

His video succinctly introduced the story: “On 25th August 1966,  a very special computer was launched into space onboard Apollo flight AS-202. This was the first computer to use integrated circuits and the first release of the computer that took the astronauts to the moon. Until recently, the software for the Block 1 ACG (Apollo Guidance Computer) was thought to be lost…”

One can be forgiven for being sceptical, then, when he appeared on screen for the first time to say, “I’ve got here with me the software for the first microcomputer.”

Then he unwrapped the first package and says: “Guys, these modules contain the software for the first microcomputer that was ever built, that was ever used.”

The goosebumps moment came when he revealed the NASA serial number on a device called a Rope Memory Module, and declared: “These modules are the authentic flight AS-202 software modules. These were found on a rubbish dump, on a scrap metal heap, about 40 years ago … and we are going to extract the software from this module.”

In a series of three videos, he extracted the software, showed how the computer was constructed, and used a hospital X-Ray machine to inspect its insides. The third video started with the kind of phrase that often sets off the hoax-detectors in social media: “Okay, so you guys won’t believe what I’ve been doing today.” But, in this case, it was almost unbelievable as Rautenbach took the viewer through a physical inspection of the first Apollo guidance computer.

How did an engineer from Tshwane stumble upon one of the great treasures of the computer age? He tended to avoid the limelight, and described himself as “a hardware/software engineer who loves working on high-velocity projects and leading small teams of motivated individuals”.

In an interview with Gadget, he said: “I am the perpetual hacker always looking for a new challenge or problem to solve. I have experience in designing digital hardware and writing everything from embedded firmware to high-level security systems. Much of the work I did over the last five years revolved around building new and creative payment solutions.”

The breadth of his work gave him the expertise to investigate, verify, and extract the magic contained in the AS-202 computer. A global network of contacts led him to the forgotten hardware,  and that is when the quest began in earnest.

“I got interested in the Apollo Guidance Computer after reading a book by Frank O’Brien (The Apollo Guidance Computer: Architecture and Operation). Most of us grew up with the fallacy that the AGC was less powerful than a basic programmable calculator. I discovered that this was far from the truth and that the AGC was in fact a very powerful and capable computer.

“I started communicating with experts in the field and soon realised that there was a wealth of information available on the AGC and the Apollo space program in general.

“One day I received some photos of AGC Rope Memory modules from a friend in Houston marked ‘Flight 202’. After a little googling, I realised that these modules contained the software from Flight AS-202. As I learned more about AS-202, I discovered that this was the first time the AGC was used in an actual flight.”

Rautenbach eventually tracked down the source of the photos: a man who had picked up the entire computer, with memory modules, at an auction, as part of a three-ton lot of scrap metal.

“At one point he opened up to me and said he had other modules. He admitted he had a full Apollo guidance computer, and my theory was that it was used to develop the Apollo 11 guidance computer.  He sent me more information, and I thought he had THE computer.

“He’s got all this junk in his backyard. He started selling stuff on eBay and one day got a visit from the FBI wanting to know where he got it. He was able to find the original invoice and showed it to them and they went away. But it scared him and he didn’t want to tell anyone else in the USA what he had. Not being from America was an advantage.”

Rautenbach flew to Houston last year, opened the sealed packages and filmed the process.

“This was the first microcomputer. I opened it and played with it.  I realised this was the first computer that actually flew. I also found Rope Memory modules that said Flight 202, and he didn’t know what that was. I found it was from AS-202, and I said we can extract stuff from this.”

Rautenbach paid a deposit to borrow the units and have them sent to South Africa, so that he could extract and rebuild the software. He also made contact with Eldon Hall, leader of the team that developed the Apollo guidance computer and author of the 1966 book, Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The correspondence helped him verify the nature of the “scrap”. The Apollo command module from flight AS-202 was restored and is now on permanent display on the USS Hornet, the legendary aircraft carrier used to recover many Apollo command modules and now a museum. However, the computer parts were sold as scrap in 1976. And NASA never preserved a single copy of the software that had been used on its first guidance computer.

Fortunately, a sharp-eyed speculator realised the lot may contain something special. He sold off some of the scrap over the years, until that visit by the FBI. He still preferred to remain nameless.

In August 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of AS-202, Rautenbach quietly began posting the evidence online. He also announced that the raw data he had extracted would be made available to anyone who wished to analyse it.

His videos on the unboxing of the AS-202 computer and the extraction of the software can be viewed on YouTube at http://bit.ly/as202, where he also planned to post instructions for accessing the software.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

NASA’s description of flight AS-202 can be found at: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=APST202

Technical specifications of the Apollo Guidance Computer can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Guidance_Computer

Apollo comes back to Pretoria

Francois Rautenbach pointed out that South Africa played a prominent role during the 93 minutes of flight AS-202: “Pretoria is mentioned no less than three times in the post-flight report. The AS-202 flight actually reached it’s highest point above South Africa. The telemetry data from the flight were recorded on computer tape at Hartebeesthoek and later shipped back to NASA.”

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Homemation creates comfort through smart homes

Home automation is more than just turning the lights on and off, Homemation’s Gedaliah Tobias tells BRYAN TURNER

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The world is taking interior design notes from the Danish, in a style of living called hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). Its meaning varies from person to person: some see hygge as a warm fire on a cold winter’s night, others see it as a cup of hot coffee in the morning. The amount of “good feelings” one gets from these relaxing activities depends on what one values as indulgent.

But how does technology fit into this “art of feeling good”?

We asked Homemation marketing manager Gedaliah Tobias to take us through a fully automated home of the future and show us how automation creates comfort and good feelings.

“The house is powered by Control4, which you can think of as the brain of the smart home,” says Tobias. “It controls everything from the aircon to smart vacuum cleaners.”

The home of the future is secured by a connected lock. It acts like other locks with keypads and includes a key in the event of a power interruption. The keypad is especially useful to those who want to provide temporary access to visitors, staff, or simply kids who might lose their parents’ house keys.

“The keypad is especially useful for temporary access,” says Tobias. “For example, if you have a garden service that needs to use the home for the day, they can be given a code that only turns off the perimeter alarm beams in the garden for the day and time. If that code is used outside of the day and time range, users can set up alerts for their armed response to be alerted. This type of smart access boosts security.”

Once inside, one is greeted with a “scene” – a type of recipe for electronic success. The scene starts by turning on the lights, then by alerting the user to disarm the alarm. After the alarm is disarmed, the user can start another more complicated scene.

“Users can request customised scene buttons,” says Tobias. “For example, if I press the ‘Dinner call’ scene, the lights start to flash in the bedroom, there’s an announcement from the smart speakers, the blinds start to come down, the lighting is shifted to the dinner table. Shifting focus with lighting creates a mood to bring the house together for dinner.”

Homemation creates these customised scene buttons to enable users to control their homes without having to use another device. In addition to scene buttons, there are several ways to control the smart home.

 “Everything in the smart home is controllable from your phone, the touchscreens around the house, the TV, and the dedicated remote control. Everyone is different, so having multiple ways to control the house is a huge value add.”

We ask Tobias where Homemation recommends non-smart home users should start on their smart home journey.

“Before anything, the Control4 infrastructure needs to be set up. This involves a lot of communications and electrical cabling to be run to different areas of the home to enable connectivity throughout the home. After the infrastructure is set up, the system is ready for smart home devices, like lighting and sound.”

“For new smart home users, the best bang for their buck would be to start with lighting once the infrastructure is set up. Taking it one step at a time is wise.”

•    For more information, visit https://www.homemation.co.za/

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