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The broadband narrows

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If broadband is so important that it even makes it into the President’s State of the Nation Address, why do we feel held back? Why are we not enjoying the long-promised broadband feast? There’s a metaphor for that, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Back in the 15th century, when sailors began exploring the world beyond their own continents, it took courage and expertise to navigate through the rough straits that often gave passage from a wild sea to a calm bay, or between clusters of rock that blocked such passage. The metaphor it provided for summing up challenging times led to the cliché, “dire straits”. Broadband in South Africa, and the ability of media to piggyback on broadband, finds itself wrestling with that precise metaphor right now.

Broadband itself is plentiful. We now have nine undersea cables connecting sub-Saharan Africa. These cables have a total capacity of at leat 100 Terabits per second – almost 100 times what we had just five years ago.

Such numbers may mean little, but they spell out unlimited capacity relative to current needs. The undersea cables in effect represent an ocean of broadband plenty. They offer enough capacity to deliver high-definition TV to every HD TV set in South Africa, and to enable every South African to read digital versions of every magazine or newspaper they buy, in high resolution, on  computers, tablets or smartphones.

But that, of course, is true only if you are on the ocean itself, plugged directly into its vast capacity. Between the ocean and the data sailors of today, the path becomes increasingly narrow. By the time it reaches its destination, the data has had to navigate across a patchwork of terrestrial networks, through the straits of connection territory controlled by telecommunications operators, and down the narrows of yesterday’s access equipment.

One of the great media misunderstandings of the broadband dividend is that each new undersea cable will result in faster connections. But, without faster modems, routers or access devices in the hands of consumers, no amount of submarine spaghetti can deliver a better media experience.

At least four bottlenecks bedevil the broadband future and keep us in the narrows. Some are being resolved right now, but others, like the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s poem, will hang around and keep spoiling the party.

One bottleneck has disappeared: the scarcity of international bandwidth, as a result  of a single undersea cable serving South Africa. That was the SAT3/SAFE cable, managed by Telkom and through which all broadband pricing and supply was constrained. Since the end of the cable monopoly, wholesale cost of broadband has fallen by more than 90%.

The commonly-asked question, when are we going to get cheap broadband, thus has an uncomfortable answer: we already have cheap broadband. It just hasn’t been passed on to all consumers. For many, while the cost of access hasn’t come down, the amount of data they they get for the same money has increased dramatically. Shop around, is the broadband mantra right now for those who think they’ve seen no change.

The second bottleneck is the cost of local data. While they do go hand in hand with international data costs, the biggest barrier to entry now is the cost of subscribing to or using data services. In the mobile arena, while you can buy 2GB of data for R99 a month, that assumes you can afford to pay for a bundle upfront.

The average South African lower-income individual spends R100 a month on phone charges – largely on voice and SMS. Data use is coming strongly into play, but has to come out of that same R100 a month. The ad hoc cost of data in South Africa is still stuck at R1 to R2 per MB – the same level at which it has been since 2006. “Shall I make two phone calls or visit a web site?” “One SMS or a little Facebook time?”

Visiting a media site is low on that particular agenda, and means that developers are once again focusing furiously on reducing the byte size of their web sites. That was a battle that we fought was over not long after the turn of the century.

The third bottleneck is the devices themselves.  Computer and tablets still give the best experience of online media, regardless of your speed, and regardless of how fervently you’ve convinced yourself a smartphone is as good as a computer for any purpose. The smartphone can be a great media consumption device, but most still have screens measuring below 5.5”. Only wishful thinking allows for this generation of phones and mobile browsers to be viewed as computer replacements.

The current generation of “phablets” is beginning to address this, most notably with the Samsung Note series and Apple iPhone 6 Plus at the high end, the Huawei Mate S and LG G4 in the mid-range, and lower-end market-stormers like the Alcatel Idol 3 and the locally-designed AG Ghost.

Despite such phones becoming more accessible that ever, they will not be in the hands of the mass market for years to come. That means media will still have to invest in mobi sites and even Java apps for feature phones for several more years, while doubling up on costs and effort with their smartphone apps for high-end users.

The ultimate bottleneck, however, is the way the Government thinks about broadband.

In last week’s State of the Nation address, broadband roll-out was given two sentences: “Government will fast track the implementation of the first phase of broadband roll-out to connect more than five thousand government facilities in eight district municipalities over a three year period. Funding to the tune of 740 million rand over a three year period has been allocated in this regard.”

Aside from the fact that this merely repeats the budget announced in the 2015 State of the Nation Address, it also does not truly represent a broadband roll-out. It applies only to a limited number of districts, and only to government facilities in those districts. In other words, the roll-out has little to do with public access.

The official Broadband Policy Framework sets a target of universal broadband access in South Africa by 2020. But the definitions contained within the framework make for fascinating – and dire – reading. Formulated while General Siphiwe Nyanda was Minister of Communications – i.e. three administrations ago – they remain in place: 15% of households must be within 2km of a broadband access point, with broadband defined as speeds of 256Kbps.

Think about it: the lowest form of broadband on South Africa’s mobile networks, EDGE, theoretically offers speeds of up to 384Kbps – eminently qualifying for broadband status; Vodacom alone covers more than  81% of the population with its 3G network and even minnow Cell C covers more than 60%. Whoopee! We have universal access. Not only that, but we already had universal access, by definition, when General Nyanda signed off that document in 2010.

But that’s like saying the sea routes of the world were opened to every single individual in the Western world in 1497, when Vasco da Gama found a sea route to India round the Cape of Good Hope, and Columbus had “discovered” the Americas.

That’s where broadband is right now in South Africa. The routes have been discovered, the early explorers have proved it’s possible, and the maps are clearly laid out. But the vast majority still have to navigate dire straits and squeeze their way through the broadband narrows before they reach a sea of media tranquility.

* 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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Get your passwords in shape

New Year’s resolutions should extend to getting password protection sorted out, writes Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO at ESET Southern Africa.

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Many of us have entered the new year with a boat load of New Year’s resolutions.  Doing more exercise, fixing unhealthy eating habits and saving more money are all highly respectable goals, but could it be that they don’t go far enough in an era with countless apps and sites that scream for letting them help you reach your personal goals.

Now, you may want to add a few weightier and yet effortless habits on top of those well-worn choices. Here are a handful of tips for ‘exercises’ that will go good for your cyber-fitness.

I won’t pass up on stubborn passwords

Passwords have a bad rap, and deservedly so: they suffer from weaknesses, both in terms of security and convenience, that make them a less-than-ideal method of authentication.  However, much of what the internet offers is independent on your singing up for this or that online service, and the available form of authentication almost universally happens to the username/password combination.

As the keys that open online accounts (not to speak of many devices), passwords are often rightly thought of as the first – alas, often only – line of defence that protects your virtual and real assets from intruders. However, passwords don’t offer much in the way of protection unless, in the first place, they’re strong and unique to each device and account.

But what constitutes a strong password?  A passphrase! Done right, typical passphrases are generally both more secure and more user-friendly than typical passwords. The longer the passphrase and the more words it packs the better, with seven words providing for a solid start. With each extra character (not to mention words), the number of possible combinations rises exponentially, which makes simple brute-force password-cracking attacks far less likely to succeed, if not well-nigh impossible (assuming, of course, that the service in question does not impose limitations on password input length – something that is, sadly, far too common).

Click here to read about making secure passwords by not using dictionary words, using two-factor authentication, and how biometrics are coming to web browsers.

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Code Week prepares 2.3m young Africans for future

By SUNIL GENESS, Director Government Relations & CSR, Global Digital Government, at SAP Africa.

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On January 6th, 2019, news broke of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s plans to announce a new approach to education in his second State of the Nation address, including:

  • A universal roll-out of tablets for all pupils in the country’s 23 700 primary and secondary schools
  • Computer coding and robotics classes for the foundation-phase pupils from grade 1-3 and the
  • Digitisation of the entire curriculum, , including textbooks, workbooks and all teacher support material.

With this, the President has shown South Africa’s response to a global challenge: equipping our youth with the skills they’ll need to survive and thrive in the 21st century digital economy.

Africa’s working-age population will increase to 600 million in 2030 from a base of 370 million in 2010.

In South Africa, unemployment stands at 26.7 percent, but is much more pronounced among youths: 52.2 percent of the country’s 15-24-year-olds are looking for work.

As an organisation deeply invested in South Africa and its future, SAP has developed and implemented a range of initiatives aimed at fostering digital skills development among the country’s youth, including:

AFRICA CODE WEEK

Since its launch in 2015, Africa Code Week has introduced more than 4 million African youth to basic coding.

In 2018, more than 2.3 million youth across 37 countries took part in Africa Code Week.

The digital skills development initiative’s focus on building local capacity for sustainable learning resulted in close to 23 000 teachers being trained in the run-up to the October 2018 events.

Vital to the success of Africa Code Week is the close support it receives from a broad spectrum of public and private sector institutions, including UNESCO YouthMobile, Google, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Cape Town Science Centre, the Camden Education Trust, 28 African governments, over 130 implementing partners and 120 ambassadors across the continent.

SAP’s efforts to drive digital skills development on the African continent forms part of a broader organisational commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Goal 4 (“Ensure quality and inclusive education for all”)

A core component of Africa Code Week is to encourage female participation in STEM-related skills development activities: in 2018, more than 46% of all Africa Code Week participants were female.

According to Africa Code Week Global Coordinator Sunil Geness, female representation in STEM-related fields among African businesses currently stands at 30%, “requiring powerful public-private partnerships to start turning the tide and creating more equitable opportunities for African youth to contribute to the continent’s economic development and success”.

Click here to read more about the Skills for Africa graduate training programme, and about the LEGO League.

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