Riaan Graham, of Ruckus Wireless sub-Saharan Africa talks to us about Africa's Wi-Fi Opportunity

What is the current state of Wi-Fi in Africa?

Almost no country has the luxury to say that they have enough infrastructure to provide for the exponential growth of digitalisation, inter-connectedness and interdependency of technology and people. I do however think we are moving in the right direction but 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 to truly move forward in terms of digitalisation and connectivity.

Is Africa’s Wi-Fi opportunity really now and why?

Around the world, cities are getting connected: Smart lighting and traffic systems. Connected public transport. Hyper-local air quality control. High-speed public Wi-Fi for citizens and businesses. Cities are collecting data from anywhere and everywhere to make smarter decisions and deliver new services. They’re using their high-tech profiles to attract new businesses and tourism.

For Africa, part of creating this environment means that cities need to embrace all the technological innovations that are available to them. In fact, African cities have the opportunity to start with the latest technology, bypassing older and more well-established cities elsewhere in the world. And if you look at the strides that Africa has made from a broadband capacity point of view, not to mention the fact that we are seen as a mobile continent, we are fast moving into a connected framework from a personal, business and even governmental perspective.

In fact, Africa is already using ICT investment to power its economy to reap more benefits but government and the private sector need to take bolder steps to fast track the process. The good news is that 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 opportunities. Africa’s opportunity is now.

What is driving the growth of Wi-Fi on the continent? Is mobile and Wi-Fi converging?

The driving force for Wi-Fi growth is the need to connect. However, for Africa, while this is our biggest opportunity it is also our biggest challenge. 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. And this is exactly where Wi-Fi comes in. Wi-Fi has an important role to play here. Wi-Fi is already connecting millions of people in Africa and 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.

Is Africa ready for connecting the next billion to the internet? And what is needed to make this a reality?

Internet access on the African continent is still limited. The lower penetration rates in comparison to the rest of the world and access to real broadband still remains out of reach for far too many Africans countries. What’s more, the high price of broadband remains a serious challenge, and many rightly argue, is an obstacle for growth, development and global competitiveness. However, in most of the countries we work in, people tend to connect to the Internet over mobile devices and/or mobile networks. As Wi-Fi hotspots of various kinds become more common, Wi-Fi is now becoming the dominant access medium.

Today, you can get connectivity in places that you wouldn't even have considered ten years ago - hence Africa can no longer be considered as the ‘dark continent’ given the rate at which mobile connectivity is growing.

Just look at Project Isizwe for example which aims to bring free Wi-Fi to people across regions in South Africa including low-income communities – all with a core focus on education, connectivity and overall upliftment. If this project is correctly leveraged it will improve the quality of lives for all South African’s, using the Internet as an enabler – all while allowing increased entrepreneurship opportunities and higher rates of employment, through education. Certainly, based on its success, this model can easily be replicated across Africa.

It is certainly hard to predict whether the African continent will get to a point where most, if not all, will have access to free Wi-Fi connectivity. What is clear is that consumers, no matter where in the world they are based, want always-on connectivity – and Wi-Fi can provide this – and do so cost-effectively, while still offering enough flexibility to service providers to customise it according to the demands of their own market. Considering that video streaming, home automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) will continue to grow across Africa, then it is evident that consumer demand for a richer experience will also grow. While fibre and mobile provide a foundation for connectivity, it is Wi-Fi that will accelerate digital citizenry in the months and years to come.

How about the rise of African city Wi-Fi networks?

With the rise of smart cities the need for connectivity has never been so vital as now. As cities get smarter, they recognise one fact of life right away: any old Wi-Fi technology isn’t going to cut it. Smart City applications demand a wireless network that can deal with tough issues like complex meshing in outdoor environments. One that can communicate with thousands of different devices—smart and dumb alike—simultaneously and one that delivers superior performance for every user, even in high-traffic areas like convention centres, airports and busy downtown shopping districts.

And Wi-Fi is playing a major role in making it all happen. On-boarding millions of connected devices needs to be simple, seamless and secure. Users need to be able to connect to the Wi-Fi from anywhere automatically, without having to constantly re-enter credentials. And no matter how large the Smart City deployment grows; everything should be able to be controlled easily and centrally from the cloud.

To put this into context; when government departments work as a unit and break away from seeing their functions separately, but rather as one, steps can be taken to improve services provided not only on a consistent basis, but also ensuring better management of sudden natural crisis, such as flooding where emergency personnel can be dispatched quickly to save lives.

Another good example of the capabilities with smarter technology would be if traffic lights are fitted with smart sensors and cameras will be able to pick up any incident taking place at an intersection, e.g. a hijacking, robbery or a collision, through efficient and high speed connectivity the sensors will pick up the sound and cameras can be directed to the scene – which can also bode significant gains for effective policing and a safer environment. Further to this, the same technology could be used to measure traffic flows through each intersection in real-time and communicate with the system to recalculate the time traffic lights to create better traffic flow. This can significantly reduce traffic congestion and commuters will be able to plan their routes properly and get to the office on time and less stressed out, which can also influence their productivity.

Another possibility where this technology could influence a positive change is to collect data that will inform the department which roads or intersections aren’t experiencing high volumes of traffic. In such instances, the options available will be either switching off the traffic light or dimming the lights for that period of inactivity and once the sensors pick up movement the lights will work as normal. Functions like these could potentially save the council a substantial amount of money on electricity which can be injected back into already existing infrastructure such as free connectivity for commuters to access the network and get information on water issues and traffic in and around their areas etc.

The are 6 key components to consider when designing smart cities including:

  • Smart energy – the energy delivered has to be managed through a smart grid, which will give off data that indicates where energy is wasted and plans can be put in place to better manage it.

  • Smart transport – this will be effective with traffic monitoring; commuters can be notified through an app or software linked to their cars can notify them of traffic within a usual route and an alternative route can be suggested. In the case of public transport, using buses, taxies and train to commute to and work. Software can be used to alert the depos if more transport is needed at a particular station using human data collected indicating the number of people at a station in a particular time.

  • Smart data – analysing raw data from the metro and adapting it to improve the lives of residents. Take residents in Johannesburg that commute to and from work using buses, for instance, every Rea Vaya bus station can be fitted with software that allows commuters to connect to a bus portal and immediately be notified to how long their bus will take to arrive at the station and what the holdup is. This allows for the commuter to decide whether to wait for the bus or get some errands done in the meantime.

  • Smart infrastructure – ensuring that all new and future buildings are built to function within a smart city. This means ensuring that all buildings are fitted with smart solutions that will help in maintaining and drive additional revenue. In the case of existing infrastructure, audits need to take place to ensure that the smart solutions are fitted in as we do not have the luxury of start from scratch. The smart solutions fitted in new and old infrastructure will operate via connectivity talking to water, light, road, etc.

  • Smart mobility – this is how data travels across the network. IoT allows for connectivity between cities and people through their mobile devices. This is where connectivity comes into play to help transform services. Through mobile apps, people will be able to find smart parking using signals, find restaurants etc. The combination of mobility and IOT holds an immense amount of potential to improve customer services and increases productivity. By 2020 there is a potential to connect 50 billion people, processes, data and things.

  • IoT – with connected devices and smart devices working together, government will have better access to information and provide services through technology to manage residents’ needs.

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