Wi-Fi emerges as SA 'data saviour'

Cape Town - As demand for high speed mobile data grows in South Africa, operators face a potential crunch as the lack of spectrum could put strain on networks.

However, Wi-Fi, once considered as antiquated technology, could emerge as a saviour to meet high demand for data, says a provider.

"It is estimated that mobile data consumption in sub-Saharan Africa has doubled between 2012 and 2013 and will nearly double year-on-year for most of the next six years. Clearly, there is an insatiable demand for mobile data," said Michael Fletcher, sales director for Ruckus Wireless sub-Saharan Africa.

The company has demonstrated a number of Wi-Fi technologies that make efficient use of the spectrum to give high numbers users access to the internet.

In Barcelona earlier this year, Ruckus demonstrated a dual antenna Wi-Fi hotspot that has an extended range for Wi-Fi, potentially taking the technology out of bars and restaurants, and into neighbourhoods and CBDs.


But with expansion of Wi-Fi comes a risk: Because the Wi-Fi spectrum is unlicensed, there is greater potential for conflict as companies and organisations race to provide access.

The answer seems to be that local government entities in SA are rolling out Wi-Fi to give citizens access to the internet.

The City of Tshwane has contracted with Project Isizwe to deliver universal Wi-Fi throughout the metro.

On its website, Project Isizwe says that it has over 85 000 users downloading an average 200GB of data at speeds of 7mbps on the network.

In the Western Cape, the Wi-Fi project is expected to connect some 50 000 residents as part of wider R1.3bn broadband plan to grant internet access, especially to those who cannot afford paid services.

"By 2030 all households in high, medium and low priority wards should have access to the internet by means of various technologies such as public Wi-Fi access, and/or mobile network connectivity," MEC for Economic Opportunities Alan Winde told Fin24.

Mobile operators are building capacity to expand data services and reduce costs.

Spectrum crunch

However, in SA operators' plans for higher speed LTE (Long Term Evolution) are in limbo as the regulator has consistently failed to assign spectrum critical for LTE.

Currently much of that spectrum is taken up by analogue television broadcasters who have been unable or unwilling to make concrete plans to begin digital terrestrial broadcasts.

While mobile operators continue to use spectrum more efficiently, a crunch is imminent if spectrum is not assigned.

"At the moment, our LTE deployment is based on refarming of spectrum so we literally try to optimise the network so we go back to the old 2G network and we refarm that spectrum and use it for LTE," said Steven Barnwell managing executive for Vodacom's operations in the Western Cape region.

Wi-Fi is an ideal technology to offload some of the data demand said Fletcher.

"Instead of the costs associated with smartphone data access, Wi-Fi is being seen as a complementary medium that lets them experience what being connected virtually around the clock means."

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