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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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Tech promotes connections across groups in emerging markets

Digital technology users say they more regularly interact with people from diverse backgrounds

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Smartphone users – especially those who use social media – say they are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds. They are also more connected with friends they don’t see in person, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds.

South Africa, included in the study, has among the most consistent levels of connection across age groups and education levels and in terms of cross-cultural connections. This suggests both that smartphones have had a greater democratisation impact in South Africa, but also that the country is more geared to diversity than most others. Of 11 countries surveyed, it has the second-lowest spread between those using smartphones and those not using them in terms of exposure to other religious groups.

Across every country surveyed, those who use smartphones are more likely than those who use less sophisticated phones or no phones at all to regularly interact with people from different religious groups. In most countries, people with smartphones also tend to be more likely to interact regularly with people from different political parties, income levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds. 

The Center’s new report is the third in a series exploring digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam. Earlier reports examined attitudes toward misinformation and mobile technology’s social impact

The survey finds that smartphone and social media use are intertwined: A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media or messaging apps, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. And, as with smartphone users, social media and messaging app users stand apart from non-users in how often they interact with people who are different from them. For example, 52% of Mexican social media users say they regularly interact with people of a different income level, compared with 28% of non-users. 

These results do not show with certainty that smartphones or social media are the cause of people feeling like they have more diverse networks. For example, those who have resources to buy and maintain a smartphone are likely to differ in many key ways from those who don’t, and it could be that some combination of those differences drives this phenomenon. Still, statistical modelling indicates that smartphone and social media use are independent predictors of greater social network diversity when other factors such as age, education and sex are held constant. 

Other key findings in the report include: 

  • Mobile phones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. More than half in most countries say they see in person only about half or fewer of the people they call or text. Mobile phones are also allowing many to stay in touch with people who live far away: A median of 93% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with those who are far-flung. When it comes to social media, large shares report relationships with “friends” online who are distinct from those they see in person. A median of 46% of Facebook users across the 11 countries report seeing few or none of their Facebook friends in person regularly, compared with a median of 31% of Facebook users who often see most or all of their Facebook friends in person. 
  • Social activities and information seeking on subjects like health and education top the list of mobile activities. The survey asked mobile phone users about 10 different activities they might do on their mobile phones – activities that are social, information-seeking or commercial in nature. Among the most commonly reported activities are casual, social activities. For example, a median of 82% of mobile phone users in the 11 countries surveyed say they used their phone over the past year to send text messages and a median of 69% of users say they took pictures or videos. Many mobile phone users are also using their phones to find new information. For example, a median of 61% of mobile phone users say they used their phones over the past year to look up information about health and medicine for themselves or their families. This is more than the proportion that reports using their phones to get news and information about politics (median of 47%) or to look up information about government services (37%). Additionally, around half or more of mobile phone users in nearly all countries report having used their phones over the past 12 months to learn something important for work or school. 
  • Digital divides emerge in the new mobile-social environment. People with smartphones and social media – as well as younger people, those with higher levels of education, and men – are in some ways reaping more benefits than others, potentially contributing to digital divides. 
    • People with smartphones are much more likely to engage in activities on their phones than people with less sophisticated devices – even if the activity itself is quite simple. For example, people with smartphones are more likely than those with feature or basic phones to send text messages in each of the 11 countries surveyed, even though the activity is technically feasible from all mobile phones. Those who have smartphones are also much more likely to look up information for their households, including about health and government services. 
    •  There are also major differences in mobile usage by age and education level in how their devices are – or are not – broadening their horizons. Younger people are more likely to use their phones for nearly all activities asked about, whether those activities are social, information-seeking or commercial. Phone users with higher levels of education are also more likely to do most activities on their phones and to interact with those who are different from them regularly than those with lower levels of education. 
    •  Gender, too, plays a role in what people do with their devices and how they are exposed to different people and information. Men are more likely than women to say they encounter people who are different from them, whether in terms of race, politics, religion or income. And men tend to be more likely to look up information about government services and to obtain political news and information. 

These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report. 

Read the full report at https://www.pewinternet.org/2019/08/22/in-emerging-economies-smartphone-and-social-media-users-have-broader-social-networks.

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Nokia to be first with Android 10

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Nokia is likely to be the first smartphone brand to roll out Android 10, after its manufacturer, HMD Global, announced that the Android 10 software upgrade would start in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Previously named Android Q, it was given the number after Google announced it was ditching sweet and dessert names due to confusion in different languages. Android 10 is due for release at the end of the year.

Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD Global said: “With a proven track record in delivering software updates fast, Nokia smartphones were the first whole portfolio to benefit from a 2-letter upgrade from Android Nougat to Android Oreo and then Android Pie. We were the fastest manufacturer to upgrade from Android Oreo to Android Pie across the range. 

“With today’s roll out plan we look set to do it even faster for Android Pie to Android 10 upgrades. We are the only manufacturer 100% committed to having the latest Android across the entire portfolio.”

HMD Global has given a guarantee that Nokia smartphone owners benefit from two years of OS upgrades and 3 years of security updates.

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