Fibre has laid the foundation for a smarter SA, now it’s up to the usersBy Industry Contributor 4 July 2022 | Categories: feature articles
By Shane Chorley, Head of Sales and Marketing at Frogfoot Networks
The start of the digital evolution has been ignited by the laying of many thousands of kilometres of fibre around the country, but it’s now up to end-users to drive innovation on top of that layer by using the available connectivity and intelligence in smart devices in order to make a difference in our homes, neighbourhoods, offices, malls and even cities as a whole.
The expansion of fibre networks was driven partly on the premise that access to cost-effective high speed connectivity was going to revolutionise the way in which we live. While we may think we are far from an automated world, it merely goes to show how well these advances in technology have been infused into our daily lives in such a way that we use them without giving a second thought.
This includes using your voice-activated home assistants, such as Alexa or Google, to turn your lights on or off, or using security cameras that notify you in case of an incident. While many of these smart features were introduced to drive efficiencies, or even create a ‘cool factor’ to wow early adopters, they are now becoming increasingly commonplace.
A visible consequence of this change can be seen in the requirements being placed on your home WiFi network: previously, homes would have a single 2.4Ghz network and that was good enough to meet their needs. Now, you have multiple connected devices per home user (think of PCs, laptops, phones, tablets, smart watches), and smart appliances (TVs, game consoles, fridges). Then, there’s the growing adoption of smarter security through the use of cloud-based cameras that notify you of incidents and even smart switches that can control your lights and other electrical devices.
All of this needs access to connectivity, which means you not only have to extend your network by adding more access points, but also have multiple WiFi frequency bands, such as 5Ghz, to minimise congestion. Gated communities take this much further, with security being complemented with visitor management and access control systems, which though currently are mostly manual, could easily be shifted to a more seamless experience through the use of technology such as automatic number plate recognition or even facial recognition.
There are multiple components to enabling these applications, including fibre - which plays a crucial part - often being paired with wireless connectivity. It’s why the recent 5G spectrum auction in South Africa will go a long way toward driving interest in, and adoption of smart home, smart industry and smart city concepts.
As an example of how the two types of connectivity can complement each other, the arrival of self-driving cars has been made possible through low latency wireless connectivity with seamless handover between base stations, but then these very base stations are reliant on fibre to provide the huge volume of required backhaul capacity.
Looking more broadly, connectivity can help South Africa’s cities become more efficient and sustainable. Connected traffic lights with intelligence would work based on actual traffic patterns rather than changing at predetermined times helping reduce congestion. A future where more autonomous vehicles occupy roads could make a big difference toward reducing road deaths in our urban centres.
Smarter grids and smart street lights that only turn on when people or vehicles go by can help better manage our already strained grid, while sensors can similarly help quickly address water leaks - something that’s critical in a water scarce country like South Africa. Of course, all these sensors and smart devices will need to receive and transmit information to whatever service that monitors and manages them.
On a small scale, this evolution is already underway: due to the consumerisation of smart technologies, many new electronic products are coming with the ability to use connectivity to enable new features as standard - primarily seen in TVs, but this is quickly spreading to other products too. As people replace their older appliances they are automatically being pushed into a more connectivity-driven world without thinking much of it.
The same will happen on a larger scale, such as at a major commercial or retail centre; when they next upgrade their infrastructure, they will do so in line with the technology requirements of the day, and the best possible connectivity that is available, creating a better experience for their users. Early adopters will do so to differentiate themselves, and eventually the rest will have to follow if they are to compete successfully. Smart cities are more complex, and will require robust partnerships between the public and private sectors.
To cater for the growing consumption in data, content and technology providers are increasingly looking at distributed cloud architectures that bring data closer to the end user. Several of these multinational companies already have a presence in local data centres that are based in the big cities, but now organisations are even building edge data centres located at the cellular base station itself - bringing the content right next to the user, be it an individual or an organisation.
Distributed architectures not only reduces latency even further, but decreases the risk of downtime as there is less reliance on national long distance or undersea fibre optic cables to access certain information or use a particular online service. While this may initially only be a nice-to-have or premium feature offered to individual or business users, it’s critical to the long term success of applications such as autonomous vehicles.
This new approach has the potential to unlock sizable improvements in the user experience across multiple applications, which will in turn drive increased usage of these services and adoption of new technologies. Uptake of these improvements will likely be slower in South Africa (as compared to global peers) due to the costs involved, and the rollout and adoption of smart concepts will first gain hold in the country’s metropolitan centres, where demand justifies the investment.
Interestingly, the broader adoption of smart home, smart office, smart industry and smart city concepts in South Africa will result in a similar situation to our example with home WiFi network earlier - and will put local fibre network operators to the test. Most networks have been designed with the intention of providing capacity to 100% of the homes and businesses passed by the cables, but we are likely to see a significant number of additional people, devices and data centres being connected, which can result in us needing up to double the capacity of what we planned for. Operators can’t go around digging up trenches to lay new cable again, and going smart will be a good test of which local operators were built to scale to match future requirements.
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