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Some good news about technology in South Africa

20 October 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

Despite the bad news associated with big tech, this is something to celebrate

The first challenge as older South Africans will recall is getting connected. Many young South Africans may still struggle with access and cost, but like anything that you can supply in volume, you get it for less.

This is the first critical tipping point for progress.

The first fibre cables came online only in this century even though the first undersea cable arrived from Europe in the 1800s, but in the two decades the increase has been incredible.

There are eight currently with two more being laid.

A home user with a fibre connection most likely has a 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) connection. Streaming a movie in HD requires at least a 4Mbps speed.

The first cables could handle about 300 Gigabits per second (Gbps) which is 300 000 Mbps.

The current eight can deliver up to 100 Terabits per second (Tbps) which is 100 million Mbps.

The next two cables, one by a consortium that includes MTN and Facebook called 2Africa will add 180 Tbps which is more than the total of previous eight and Google’s Equiano named for a writer from Nigeria is reported to be able to handle 200 Tbps.

That is enough capacity to move data from outside South Africa at a rate of 480 Tbps or 480 million Mbps enough to give each of the approximate 18 million households a 25 Mbps line.

So once we are connected to the world we need to connect those inside the country.

Fibre again is the principal tech to handle the bulk of the data. South Africa has laid over 150 000 km of it connecting first the large urban centres to each other then the outlying areas and as many of the residents of those centres to the network.

I recently lost my fibre connection at home for the day and I could hardly get any work done.

Along with the fibre network is its connection to the mobile networks (the thing that saved me when my fibre was down).

Those speeds are due to rise further as the additional spectrum can be allocated to add 5G speeds to the main urban areas which allows incredibly high data speeds.

The improved connections does not only allow us to survive in a work from home scenario, but it is the building block for making cities more connected and able to manage more with less effort.

Adding connectivity to homes and the electricity and water networks would allow for demand and supply to be managed at a household level. Rather than entire areas needing to be deprived of water or electricity and the risks of surges, you could manage what is being used in a home allowing lights to remain on while automatically turning off circuits that use a lot of power.

Besides supply it could improve on the billing and payment too. Enabling everyone to get basic access to online banking would allow those accounts to be connected doe digital payment. It may not make everyone happy to know that a municipality could debit your account for services rather than hope you pay, but the same system will be able to monitor municipal functions and automatically report issues to the likes of the Auditor General’s office to allow action to be taken sooner.

If you add the transport networks and the various security camera networks, you can better manage traffic flow and congestion. If Gauteng grows at the rate it could and its growing and more affluent residents begin buying more cars, the city could grind to a halt on the highways.

Balancing the spend on public transport and more smarter ways to allocate buses and trains with the start and end times of employers and you can reduce cars in most parts of the city. Cabs and ebikes can take care of the final parts.

This is still very much the optimistic view, but it would not be possible without first building the capacity to connect everything.

Cloud computing

The next element that has seen a welcome increase is the investment in data centres to handle the explosion in cloud computing which powers the applications that can run the smart and connected services described above. Having the data processing situated in the country allows for the demand on the external traffic to be reduced while serving as a hub for users in South Africa and our neighbours. Work to have the undersea cables to not just connect to the continent, but to begin to connect with fibre across the continent will enable for a lot more growth for the many countries that just need the access to begin their own digital rise.

There is the physical infrastructure to boost jobs but also the maintenance of it and all the applications that it will run. From Huawei to Amazon and for the biggest so far from Vantage will build an enormous 60 000 square metre data centre. If you can imagine what a computer that uses 80 megawatts of power then you can imagine what the largest data centre in Africa looks like. While the power requirements are significant the design uses renewable energy for much of the power.

Joburg is a hub for data centres and so will drive an increase in demand for skilled operators to manage it.

Then there are those that will use all that computing power. Big retailers like Walmart and PicknPay have been improving their offerings via more powerful apps. VodaPay is building an app of apps in collaboration with Alipay that became the dominant financial operator in China.

Having the data centres in the country may also help manage potential risks from a lost connection even with so much cable capacity but also potential piece of mind knowing that the data in those centres will be subject to what is permitted by SA law. There is still some way to go but the many digital pieces of legislation like the Popi Act add additional protection and assuming the government gets it right will allow for its own data to be managed from inside the country using open but secure methods to enable business and potential investors to get accurate and even live data about important indicators about the economy.

The spark for innovation

Access, processing power and more people working in the field enable a lot more innovation to happen and to look to tackle the problems that affect us. Should those same problems also affect others in Africa we have a new market and some may solve global problems and have a much bigger market.

Paymentsense is a digital payment company that created a listing of what it called the most innovative cities using some novel metrics to rate each location.

The list put Cape Town in the 11th spot globally and some of the metrics might be exact indicators we will see rise thanks to the improved access and connectivity.

It includes traditional metrics like patent applications and business registrations and also a count of top universities which all make sense they also look at how often the phrase “how to start a business” is used but the count that is quite novel is not the best indicator of innovation is the count of ideas listed on Kickstarter.

Cape Town in 11th position had 257 ideas listed on Kickstarter even though London in position 20 had over 19 000. The scope for growth though is massive as Cape Town’s 300 000 patent applications is still tiny compared to the 6,5 million in the US. Our new business registrations at over 350 000 was more impressive although London topped out at over 600 000.

So with access to the world and cutting edge processing available for more innovators, the slow but steady progress points to a significant potential for much more growth.

20 October 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology