“What’s the WiFi password?”
This is a very common question. No. Not at home, but in restaurants, bars, shopping malls, offices, and public spaces. We carry our devices with us everywhere we go, and with predictions that by the end of 2019, 19.2 million people will be using smartphones, this means that the infrastructure to handle the connectivity will need to be smarter and more efficient. In countries where mobile data is still expensive, the need for WiFi connectivity increases dramatically.
I spoke with Michael Fletcher, Strategic Accounts at Ruckus Wireless about Wi-Fi in South Africa.
Q: What is driving the growth and development of Wi-Fi in South Africa?
A: The telecommunications environment in Africa has undergone some massive changes over the last few years – which has had a number of affects on the Wi-Fi industry. Research shows competition on the shores of African countries has triggered a wave of investment in terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure, to the point that virtually every African nation has at least one – and many have several – fibre-optic backbones connected to those undersea cables. And while this has brought about the much-needed access that Africa was looking for – it has also, along with a number of additional factors, brought about some broader industry changes and demands.
With the current market dynamics, mobile operators are finding themselves under tremendous pressure to adapt or face getting left behind. Added to this, is the introduction of affordable smartphones and the ongoing dominance of social media and Over-the-Top (OTT) services, which has certainly changed ‘the game’ and is driving consumers to demand more from their mobile operators – not only in terms of better coverage – but better connectivity too. Additionally, as mobile penetration continues to rise, this demand will increase, especially if we consider that many consumers are moving away from pure voice services towards data, data and more data. Therefore, as the broader industry changes, so too does the Wi-Fi landscape.
Q: How does South Africa compare to rest of the world?
A: The evolution of Wi-Fi in Africa has been slow in comparison to international counterparts, but as demand for access has risen, good progress has been made, and businesses and consumers are starting to see the benefits. Wi-Fi in Africa has predominantly been reserved for businesses and airport business lounges but this has fast changed. Previously no roaming between access points and re-authentication woes stifled the growth. However, as roaming and streamlined SSID authentication became possible, Wi-Fi access has now become simple to access and has spread across airports, hotels, coffee shops and restaurants, universities, and more recently, public venues and cities.
In fact, Africa is likely to see more Wi-Fi being deployed in cities and metro areas now than ever before, connecting more and more people. Six to twelve months ago, I would have said South Africa was ahead in terms of these deployments, but now other African countries are implementing some impressive Wi-Fi initiatives, where even fixed-line operators are offering Wi-Fi. What’s more, looking at neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe, the speed is incredible, where in some cases they are back-hauling Wi-Fi to fibre, resulting in very high download speeds. They are also being incredibly smart about the use of Wi-Fi – either monetising their investment by partnering with various business interests or better mobilising communities via improved ICT.
Wi-Fi has certainly evolved here, and so too has its uses. What’s more, as we move towards a more digitally connected environment we will see more and more metro and city type deployments across South Africa, so-called “Smart city” deployments, it will become truly evident that this communication enabler adds immense economic value to our African cities and will be a key driving force for continued development.
Q: What are the current challenges that need to be overcome if we are to really enjoy ubiquitous connectivity?
A: Ubiquitous mobile communications demand ubiquitous connectivity. Tens of billions of devices and systems are connecting to the Internet of Things, bringing revolutionary changes to businesses and cities. Future cities will be run on connectivity, using data and analytics to improve service delivery, improve traffic flows, monitor electricity and water use for sustainability and driving building and office efficiencies to name but a few – but all elements that require access to connectivity – of which Wi-Fi will be a key component alongside 3G, LTE and municipal fibre networks.
Together, through access and development, we can drive the economy. And while I think we are moving in the right direction we are not there yet. There is still much to be done to ensure connectivity penetration is increased – and not only that, that it is done at an affordable rate. The current telco based solutions are not working and coupled with regulation there is still much work that needs to be done if we are truly to reap the benefits of ubiquitous connectivity.
The consumption of data is rising – and rising exponentially and if we consider that by 2020 it is estimated that an entire generation will have grown up in a digital world – which means their reliance on technology and desire to be connected will transform and digitise the landscape even further so we need the infrastructure to ensure that this can take place.
Q: What role is Wi-Fi playing in Africa?
A: For Africa, the biggest challenge and opportunity is still connectivity. In fact, the potential for digital-driven growth is massive. Just look at the growth of mobile on the continent. According to the GSMA at the end of 2015, 46% of the African population subscribed to mobile services which is equivalent to more than half a billion people. Over the next 5 years an additional 168 million people will be connected by mobile – reaching 725 million unique subscribers by 2020. If you couple this digital growth with a mobile- first continent, then the opportunities are endless.
And this is exactly where Wi-Fi comes in. Wi-Fi has an important role to play here. In fact, Wi-Fi represents one of the most expedient and cost-effective ways to increase both capacity and coverage of cellular networks with a tight focus on where traffic is heaviest.
Ultimately for the operators, Wi-Fi is a far more cost-effective way to provide access to customers and on the reverse, for customers, it’s not only cost effective but also a better experience – especially if the 3G networks are congested. What’s more, many rural towns have no broadband, purely from a cost perspective, and as such Wi-Fi provides an alternative to bring broadband into these areas for much less than what they would pay for 3G.
Fibre will provide another necessary means to connect Africa to the world and, just like the current undersea cables, will add additional speed, capacity and in maturity, decrease costs of broadband. However, while fibre and 4G/LTE services will certainly help increase network capacity, it still won’t be enough, as history has taught us that there is an insatiable appetite for bandwidth and now, for spectrum as well. That is why it is imperative to add capacity and coverage as fast as possible if we are truly going to take advantage of digitalisation and the possibilities it brings – and Wi-Fi’s role in this is critical.
Q: Why in your opinion is Africa’s opportunity now?
A: It is clear from global and local research that Africa is missing out on growth opportunities because it lacks in factors such as internet penetration, cost and speed – which also means we are missing out on digitalisation – across all sectors and of course, from a citizen perspective as well. The push towards digitalisation also means that Wi-Fi connectivity has an important role to play in future connected cities. It also means we need to start thinking about connectivity in different ways if we are to truly take advantage of digitalisation and I believe that we are moving in the right direction.
Africa is already using ICT investment to power its economy to reap more benefits and government and the private sector are taking bolder steps to fast-track the process. There is solid foreign direct investment into key ICT initiatives across Africa and, given the nature of the continent, home-grown innovation and new disruptive models fueled by Wi-Fi and connectivity are opening new opportunities.
Demands are changing. Expectations are shifting. Wi-Fi and mobile-connected devices will generate 68% of all internet traffic by 2017 where more than 9 billion Wi-Fi-enabled devices are expected to be in use. What’s more, the world Wi-Fi market is expected to grow to $33.6 Billion by 2020 and as an emerging market, who better than to take advantage of the opportunities it brings? Africa’s opportunity is now!
Q: What is Ruckus Wireless doing at Wi-Fi NOW Africa?
A: Ruckus Wireless is a main sponsor of this year’s event. I will be addressing this topic of Africa’s Opportunity is Now at the conference which brings industry leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and experts from across the global Wi-Fi industry together to promote all things Wi-Fi and drive the industry forward for the benefit of everyone, everywhere.
Wi-Fi Now is taking place from 09 – 11 May at Lagoon Beach Hotel, Cape Town.
Note: This post was done in collaboration with Ruckus. As usual, opinions are 100% my own.