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Speakers at ITWeb`s conference punt wireless as a cure-all WIRELESS TECHNOLOGY has been hyped as a veritable cure-all for South Africa`s connectivity woes.

Where most countries in the developed world have a wired infrastructure to fall back on and upgrade, South Africa`s fixed line communications capabilities are far from world-class. Add to this the fact that some rural and under-serviced areas within South Africa have never seen fixed connectivity of any description and we`re starting to get a clearer picture of the challenges the country faces in getting everyone connected.

On the wireless front, however, it`s completely different. The chances are extremely good that the vast majority of rural communities have seen and used wireless technology. In fact, the latest figures from the GSM Association show that 98% of the country`s population has mobile coverage today.

With this massive coverage area and the healthy uptake of mobile services, there`s little sense in rolling out a wired network when various wireless services will suffice. Some of today`s newest wireless solutions rival most wired connectivity in their quality of service and performance, but are far more cost-effective and speedy to roll out.

And CEO of Network Solutions says because we`re talking about the wireless space, it`s not as much about one or another technology as it is about airspace.

"It`s more about spectrum... who has it, who needs it... what`s available and how much it costs. And many parties are fighting for spectrum at the moment."


It seems that South Africa`s hopes for a completely connected society will rely heavily, if not entirely, on the wireless market. Who are the players?

The field is mixed. First up, Brierley says there are some powerful, specialised hardware vendors, `specialised` because they have moved away from the simple provision of hardware into partnerships with network providers.

"Margins have eroded substantially, so partnerships provide them with additional revenue opportunities," he says.

"Next up, there are the wireless broadband providers such as and iBurst, and the `wannabes` - the VANs and ISPs who have been in the Internet market for some time and want to up their game in the broadband market.

"Where the current wireless players are using their own infrastructure (and thereby taking care of their own last-mile issues), the wannabes are contending with a lack of `last players` (since has the monopoly) and are thus looking to provide mobile and wireless last-mile solutions for themselves.

"Next, you have the mobile network operators," Brierley continues, "who need little introduction, and the municipalities, who are strongly pushing towards becoming licensed to run their own networks."

Unlike the other players, however, the municipalities have no financial gain in mind. They are doing this in an attempt to bridge the digital divide and bring Internet services down to the under-serviced parts of the market.


While the players may have different reasons for getting involved in the game, Brierley reiterates the battle is all about spectrum. Everyone is either looking for some, or to increase what they already have. "The `wannabes` are having issues getting sufficient (or any) spectrum, Sentech and iBurst have good allocations, and the mobile network operators (who currently have the most spectrum of all, but are experiencing massive growth), have begun looking for additional spectrum."

The latter have been turned down repeatedly, however, he says, and believes that Icasa is reticent to allow the mobile operators too much spectrum, since this will allow them to move outside of their traditional space.

Interestingly, while all of the players in the `wireless race` are looking for more spectrum, Telkom (who isn`t generally considered a wireless player) has a fair amount to go around.

"In fact, I`d go so far as to say that Icasa has been very kind to Telkom in terms of the spectrum it has been afforded. And Telkom is cyber-squatting," he says, "not using its spectrum properly and occupying space that others could be using."

So why are some players getting spectrum and others not? Brierley says this is one of the eternal questions in the market. "Obviously, the more spectrum Icasa gives out, the more the market will experience and this, in turn, benefits the customer," he adds. "Icasa should, therefore, give more spectrum to the market."


Despite the battle for spectrum, Brierley says the broadband war is in full flight. "The Internet is growing at 30% to 40% per month right now, and I`m not looking at new users as an indicator - that`s just considering the amount of capacity being bought by all players month on month," he continues. "And compounding this, there`s a backlog everywhere. Telkom has something like a 50 000 user backlog at the moment."

He says that both MTN and (the quiet giants in this arena) are showing growth rates of 10% to 20% in users per month.

"That`s roughly 200% per annum. Everyone is struggling to keep up with the demand," he says.

Brierley says this growth is akin to that of the early days of cellular voice. And although there are numerous potential players, with numerous benefits and value-adds to bring to the table, he says it seems like a two-horse race - at least for the moment.

"Telkom and the mobile operators are running far ahead of the competition, both in terms of the spectrum they have at their disposal and their market dominance. These factors make entrance and success only more difficult for newcomers and smaller players already in the market," he says.

Brierley says one of the biggest misconceptions in the market is that mobile broadband connectivity is expensive. "In global terms, South Africa has the cheapest GPRS and 3G service - $0.35 to $0.06 per MB, by comparison to $3.50 to $1 per MB in the UK.

"And this stands to reason, since by comparison to international mobile operators, our local operators paid a fraction of the money the `Vodafones` of the world paid for their 3G licences," Brierley says.

So what are the best technologies to use?

The alternatives range from the GSM networks covering 98% of the population, to WiFi solutions and the much-vaunted WiMAX solution.


While GSM is delivering far more connectivity in the wireless market than any other technology, WiMAX is getting the most airtime. And because of its adaptability, the GSM operators are interested in it for bolstering the backhaul capabilities of their networks (interconnecting base stations), new fixed line operators are interested in it for its ability to facilitate a quick network rollout and the `wannabes` want it because it can also be used as a client-access technology that delivers ADSL-like performance relatively cost-effectively.

However, Regardt van de Vyver, joint technical director of Neology, says WiMAX is not the magic bullet.

As proof, he quotes James Seng, BWA deployment consultant in Singapore. Seng says that although WiMAX has a typical range of seven to ten kilometres, the actual range is only 1 to 1.5km in suburban areas. And in single sectors, capacity is shared among all users, making for 5 to 10Mbps of connectivity per sector. "

WiMAX will undoubtedly be a player in the market. "We see it working well in the residential and SOHO high-speed Internet access, small and medium business access, Hotspot backhaul and private network services space," Van der Vyver says.

"We expect it to be adopted in major city and metropolitan areas over the next four years, and in small or rurally located cities or town earlier than that," he adds.


Until that time, he says, other technologies will be utilised en masse. "One of these is WiFi, the single most adopted wireless technology worldwide.

"It`s estimated that 90% of new corporate notebooks ship with 802.11 built in," Van der Vyver says, "so the customer premises equipment part of the equation is relatively well covered. With Meshing, WiFi gets taken to the next level, extending it to potentially MAN (Meropolitan Area Network) levels."

It has already been deployed by Google and Earthlink in Mountain View, California, and many municipal metro mesh projects are underway in the US and Europe.

"With the typical node cost weighing in at $4 000, compared to current WiMax technologies, WiFi is the most compellingly priced solution out there," he maintains.


While for some time it seemed that Intel`s bets were hedged in the WiMAX camp, possibly the realisation that it will take longer to become mainstream than anticipated (3G and HSDPA were standardised years before any adoption took place) has made it change its tune.

, Intel country manager for South Africa, says the market will not be cut and dried, with users either relying on 3G, WiFi or WiMAX for their wireless and potentially mobile data experiences. "In order for it to work, all of the technologies have to coexist - and users must be able to roam between them as and when it becomes appropriate.

"WiMAX is optimised for IP-based high-speed wireless broadband. 3G is optimised for cellular voice and moderate data-rate applications," he says.

"Users must be able to get the best of all worlds," he concludes.

He does say, however, that despite what nay-sayers believe with regards to WiMAX`s viability, it will be a strong component of the country`s wireless future.

"WiMAX presents us with an option to connect more people. There is a massive demand for broadband services in South Africa and if broadband costs were lower, more people would be buying devices that vendors are bringing to market.

"If WiMAX helps us lower the cost of access, that`s unbelievably positive," he concludes.

Tags: By  Brett  Haggard