Put SMS on steroids to reduce Africa's comms barriers

Read time 4min 50sec
Ivan Kartun
Ivan Kartun

Is it worth trying to revitalise "old" technology such as SMS when the newer instant messaging platforms are so much slicker and are the de facto means of communications for the "now" generation?

"Absolutely," says Johannesburg-based IT entrepreneur Ivan Kartun. He maintains that data-driven, Internet-based communication platforms ignore African and South African realities: that more than two-thirds of the population does not have access to the Internet and data costs are too high for most would-be users.

To address this, Kartun founded Onli.co.za and developed an intelligent encryption, compression and referencing algorithm.

To prove the efficacy of the algorithm, he and his team have developed Onli SMS, the beta version of which is set to go live by mid-May and which, he says, "puts SMS on steroids".

"The technological neglect of SMS as a communications medium effectively excludes the 60% of the African population that does not have Internet and data access to the so-called 'fourth industrial revolution'. However, with over 80% of Africans already having mobile connections that are not being used to their full potential, this exclusion is easily reversed."

Kartun points out that far from being a waning technology, SMS is still widely used. For example, around seven billion SMSes were sent over the Vodacom network alone last year.

"Individuals like you and me who have ready access to data might not send many SMSes, preferring to use something like WhatsApp. But look at your Internet-connected smartphone. How many SMSes do you receive every day? How often do you get SMSes from your bank with alerts or one-time-PINs to enable you to complete a transaction? How many advertising and marketing SMSes do you receive?

"The reason all these businesses use SMS is because it is more reliable than Internet-based instant messaging platforms. In addition, you are more likely to receive an SMS in remote locations where there is no data or WiFi or 3G connectivity," he says.

Breaking SMS limitations

However, SMS technology has barely changed over the past 20 years. It is still limited to 160 characters per message, and - unlike instant messaging platforms that offer "end-to-end" encryption - it may be considered relatively insecure.

According to Kartun, Onli SMS changes that. It enables messages of up to 467 characters - and possibly more in the future - to be sent in a single SMS. It also allows for the message not only to be transmitted in an encrypted format thanks to "end-to-end encryption", but to remain encrypted on the recipient's phone until the recipient enters an alphanumeric password or applies biometric authentication to decrypt it. Then, once read, it is automatically re-encrypted.

"This means that anyone who gets hold of your cellphone when you leave it unlocked on your desk, for example, or if it is stolen, will not be able read your sensitive messages, such as your bank balance, or use a just-sent OTP to defraud you," he says.

The Onli SMS encryption is far stronger than the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES128) used in most commercial security applications, he notes.

"AES128 allows for up to one times 10 to the power of 77 or one with 77 zeros permutations; Onli-encryption is much faster and can provide one times 10 to the power of 467 - one with 467 zeros - permutations," Kartun says.

Found in translation

The Onli SMS beta version also incorporates translation technology - a vitally important capability given there are some 1 500 languages spoken throughout Africa. Even in SA with its 11 official languages - and large immigrant population - communication is often hampered by a lack of understanding of different languages.

In its beta version, Onli SMS can automatically translate messages to and from seven widely spoken languages: English, Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, French, Portuguese and Somali.

"Think of a mine where the mine manager wants to send an urgent message to hundreds of workers about a problem at a shaft. He composes the message in the language of his choice which, for example, could be Zulu, and the workers will receive the message in the language of their choice which might be any one of the seven languages currently available on Onli SMS. They can respond in their chosen language and the mine manager will receive every response in Zulu.

"This could be an extremely powerful tool for any industry that uses SMS to communicate with its employees and customers: mining, banking, transportation, distribution, healthcare and social services are just a few that come to mind," he says.

To facilitate the growth of Onli SMS's translation capability, the company has set up an assist program, Hug-A-Lot (Help us get African languages openly talking) to enable anyone to contribute to the inclusion of their language into the app.

"A language only has to be translated into any one of the other languages once for it to become available to users of any other Onli SMS language. Ultimately, our aim is to provide Africa with the ability to communicate securely, without any language barriers, across the SMS network," Kartun concludes.

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