Where to for WiFi?

Signs from 2014 are encouraging, showing SA is headed in the right direction to take advantage of increased connectivity.

Tyson Ngubeni
By Tyson Ngubeni
Johannesburg, 10 Dec 2014

SA may be some way off before boasting universal connectivity, but if this year is anything to go by, we can at least say we're heading in the right direction. Although the value and possibilities enabled by increased Internet access should always be the focal point, the building blocks are falling into place, putting the country well on the road to tapping into its vast benefits.

The tail end of 2014 brings the expected reflections on the year that was, so I'll start off with an outlook from the very beginning. This year was billed as a watershed for connectivity - one in which SA might take a giant leap to quench the thirst for that connectivity.

According to research by the Wireless Broadband Alliance and Informa, global public WiFi hotspot numbers will reach 5.8 million by 2015, compared to 1.3 million in 2011 - marking a 350% increase.

Take into account the increasing amount of smart devices, as well as manufacturers playing ball to Africa's price sensitivity by pushing more low-cost options, and you get a sense it bodes well for a connected population.

Keep walking

If this year's sequence of developments in WiFi is maintained, SA's won't be a "giant leap" towards ubiquitous connectivity, but short, determined strides in that general direction. Much has been written about what some of the major metros are doing in this respect, with the City of Tshwane chief among them. Building on last year's momentum, it has even gone mobile, recently introducing WiFi on buses, giving commuters 250MB free data daily.

Project Isizwe, the non-profit organisation (NPO) tasked with deploying the network, expects demand for the connectivity it is providing. CIO James Devine recently told ITWeb the city aims to equip its entire bus rapid transit system with WiFi, while the public is steadily increasing its use of existing hubs. More than 300 000 unique users have connected this year, according to the NPO.

But, it is not the only one dabbling in this space, with more hubs emerging across the country - albeit some with limited data generosity.

* Minibus taxis are giving commuters 50MB a day;
* Hotspots are available at transport hubs, including airports;
* Businesses are adding connectivity as a value-add for customers; and
* Telkom Mobile is growing its range of hotspots across SA.

My dream scenario would see SA awash in a flood of free WiFi.

My dream scenario would see SA awash in a flood of free WiFi, breaking the shackles of data bundle costs and banishing the all-too-familiar search for a good signal in some areas. But that's too far off, I'm afraid. In the meantime, someone should tell me if they find a fountain of eternal data bundles, because topping up often feels like holding too much water in the palms of my hands. It trickles away too easily and the thirst is too great.

Overcoming barriers

Despite the positive outlook for increased hotspots, the Wireless Broadband Alliance says barriers to adoption of public hotspots include cumbersome authentication procedures, costs (where applicable) and user discovery of available networks and security.

Meanwhile, local challenges include backhaul, according to Michael Fletcher, sales director for Ruckus Wireless sub-Saharan Africa. While there is a lot of fibre in the ground, it isn't always in areas where it's needed, he notes.

The growing amount of available hubs means both the private and public sector are trying to bridge the access gap as smart devices also increase. Extracting as much value from connectivity is the goal, but what has been seen throughout 2014 shows SA is at least on the right path.