Easy and convenient, Wi-Fi is set for a boom if, or rather when, Wi-Fi-based offloading takes off. Iwan Pienaar tries to connect.
Many of us do not think twice about quickly jumping on to a Wi-Fi network while waiting at the airport or having a bite to eat. The convenience of having ‘free’ (you’re still paying for the plane ticket and food after all) access to check email, post a social media update, or just catch up on the news is something that has become second nature.
Research conducted by Informa Telecoms and Media for the Wireless Broadband Alliance estimates that the number of Wi-Fi hotspot deployments will grow from 1.3 million a year in 2011 to 5.8 million next year. A significant contributor to this is the growth of mobile data, and with global mobile data traffic expected to reach 16.84 million terabytes by the end of this year, Informa says operators intend to manage this primarily through new pricing strategies and Wi-Fi-based offloading.
Unfortunately, South Africa is still lagging other more developed markets in this regard. “When it comes to offloading and mobile data, the biggest obstacle to overcome is the cost of it. The ISP and telco players are still charging premium prices for their services. Added to this is Telkom who is owning virtually all the infrastructure which is limiting the ability to create a bigger system with more variety of services,” says Sebastian Isaac, business development manager at Rectron, an ICT and consumer electronics distributor.
Jacques de Jager, information and communication manager at MobileData agrees, but believes there are glimmers of hope. “It is true that South Africa is still lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to public Wi-Fi networks, bandwidth, and the cost of mobile data. But good progress is being made with several ISPs and smartphone manufacturers offering customers services that provide access to hotspots. Hopefully, this will create some momentum in the market that will drive down costs and see an increase in more free [Wi-Fi] sites,” he says.
However, analyst Arthur Goldstuck who heads up the World Wide Worx research organisation, believes that South Africans should also have more realistic expectations when it comes to Wi-Fi access. “The reality is that people tend to exaggerate the availability of free Wi-Fi internationally. There are very few major cities where there are pervasive free access. Even those shopping centres and major city areas such as Times Square that have it does not guarantee its usability. South Africa is a developing country so we cannot expect that kind of connectivity around our infrastructure.”
However, Isaac cites Hong Kong as a good example of what is possible. “There you have mobile operators providing seamless interconnectivity with Wi-Fi networks. People do not even know whether they are on their cellular network or a Wi-Fi hotspot,” he says. This is still far off from a local perspective, with Isaac noting: “South Africans are very concerned about the cost of using mobile data and are therefore limiting what they do with it. And with hotspots often restricting the amount of data that can be downloaded, you do not have the rich experience that our counterparts in more developed countries have.”
Other countries also make Wi-Fi a free service with an advertising component attached to it. However, Isaac says that many companies in South Africa are using infrastructure as a large capital investment and want to make money right from the get go. “The Under-Services Area Licences (USALs) also promised much in terms of bringing connectivity to rural and other under-services areas. Many of the licence holders wanted to do offloading into rural communications in order or them to benefit from government e-services, telemedicine, richer education, and so on. But when it came down to technical implementation it never happened and wound up being a failure,” he says.
Adding to this is the increased popularity of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) in the workplace. “People do not only use the internet for education and government services. Content filtering on public and corporate networks create some challenges especially around piracy and privacy of information. From an employer perspective, it also becomes difficult to track what employees are accessing on their personal smartphones and tablets that they are also using for work. But this is just a phase and the market will adjust to a different way of doing things,” says De Jager.
Transitioning between networks
But it is not all doom and gloom. The potential in South Africa exists for a seamless transition between public Wi-Fi and operator networks. “The number of users have grown significantly in recent years as a result of increased smartphone usage. People are hungry for online access and are juggling their needs around the cost aspect. We have already seen the shift happen where people care more about data than they do about voice. Even mobile operators recognise this and are developing and pushing more innovative and cost-effective data services,” says Isaac. De Jager agrees. “The demand for free Wi-Fi is there. Everybody wants to be connected and wants to be part of the digital world. Even televisions and fridges are requiring internet connections for a smart, more enhanced, user experience.”
Given the wealth of bandwidth arriving in the country thanks to the various undersea cables, the cost of mobile data coming down thanks to mobile operators who have identified the growth areas for future revenues, and devices that are becoming more affordable to a wider range of South Africans, the country is well-positioned to take advantage of Wi-Fi access.
“Demand for Wi-Fi will accelerate over the coming years as more people start using smartphones in the country. Most of them will be from the lower income groups who cannot afford data so they will rely heavily on what is freely available. Additionally, we will also start seeing better commercial services becoming available as private enterprises come up with solutions that fill the demand that the incumbent is not providing for,” concludes Goldstuck.