Backing African-baked innovation
In 1993, a seed was planted in Dr Fisseha Mekuria’s mind. The Ethiopia-born researcher was finishing up his Ph.D in Sweden when he heard Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Mandela called on Africans to make the region a ‘living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be’. We must devote what remains of our lives to showcasing ‘that the normal condition for human existence is democracy, justice, peace, non-racism, non-sexism, prosperity for everybody, a healthy environment and equality and solidarity among the peoples’. Merkuria was instantly inspired to return to his African roots. But it would take several years before he made the move and took up a role at one of Africa’s leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisations – the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR.
Currently working as chief researcher in the CSIR Next Generation Enterprises and Institutions Cluster, Mekuria is heeding Mandela’s call to support African evolution by supporting mobile development across the continent. His research focuses on broadband communication and wireless spectrum development. “We’re developing technologies to make broadband more affordable so that we can connect rural and underserved communities,” he says. In Africa, and in other emerging economies, more and more of the connectivity technologies are wireless. “But spectrum is a superhighway. And, much like a regular highway, when the number of users increases, you get congestion.”
He and his research team are exploring how to utilise spectrum more efficiently. What they’ve found is that much of the spectrum that is traditionally only used by broadcasters and TV stations is lying idle.
Working closely with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to solve spectrum underutilisation, the CSIR was able to develop a system to spot and reallocate idle spectrum. The system they created identifies ’spectrum frequency holes’ that can be used to deliver broadband communication services. It identifies where the spectrum areas are free, thus ensuring that new broadband service providers don’t interfere with existing TV stations. “By allocating this idle spectrum to mobile broadband network providers, we can now increase the availability of affordable broadband to marginalised communities.” From a business perspective, the CSIR’s spectrum innovation technologies also aid economic development and job creation by a smart allocation of this spectrum to small and medium-sized broadband businesses.
Spectrum is a superhighway. And, much like a highway, when the number of users increases, you get congestion.Dr Fisseha Mekuria
Digital inclusion is lacking across many emerging economies, he notes. “During this Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of advice and information is being shared via the internet. This is successful if you have network connectivity, but a lot of communities don’t have connectivity so they’re put at a further disadvantage simply because they can’t access the insights around how to keep themselves safe.”
Before setting his sights on solving SA’s spectrum stumbling blocks, Mekuria spent much of the 1990s using his mental muscle to develop mobile digital signal processing platforms, at Ericsson research in Sweden. As such, he’s been working at the digital coalface throughout mobile technology’s journey from 2G (text and speech) to 3G (data and high-quality voice) to 4G (video and streaming) and eventually to 5G. “5G holds massive potential, but, as I said before, the spectrum highway is already congested and the kind of high-bandwidth services that are enabled by 5G only make the situation worse.”
This predicament highlights the importance of what Mekuria describes as one of the key characteristics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the efficient utilisation of resources. The 4IR is being driven by a need to address the challenges of today and tomorrow, he adds. From a technology perspective, we see industry frantically developing new technologies to meet the challenges of the future.
“Innovation is important for evolution. It’s about solving the challenges that we face now and helping us to plan for what we might face in the future,” he says. “In my field, we’ve seen a massive shift in consumer demand over the last decade or two. Today, people want to be able to transact, search for information and entertain themselves anywhere and at any time. This rise in demand for connectivity challenges us, as researchers, to come up with innovative ways to use spectrum more effectively and to create an environment where businesses can be launched and jobs created because of new consumer requirements,” he adds. “As society changes, and the challenges that we face as a society change, technologies need to adapt so that they can meet the requirements of society.”