I've seen the future, and it's fibre
While fibre connectivity is the foundation on which most digital technologies flourish, it’s vital to understand SA’s unique ecosystem to overcome the digital divide.
The world is going through a significant transformation, driven both by increasing digital transformation and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many traditional approaches have had to evolve rapidly to meet these new circumstances. One only has to look at how schooling has changed in the past 18 months, with access to education for some becoming more virtualised; the same with healthcare, or the rapid developments in ecommerce during this period.
According to Vino Govender, chief of Strategy, M&A and Innovation at Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), all of the above changes are highly reliant on connectivity that is both high-speed and high-quality. The fact is that while some of the last mile might be covered by 5G, the real infrastructure that sits behind it and makes it work so effectively is fibre.
“It’s worth noting that as new use cases for digital technologies arise across industries, so an increasing amount of processing power will be required at the edge. Remember that computing power at the edge is the foundation needed to establish autonomous systems, which are increasingly required to handle the complexities of the digital world,” he says.
“Fibre will also be vital in enabling AI processing and machine learning algorithm use cases. As these systems mature, so we will need even more fibre connecting to the edge. Or to put it another way, fibre will play the critical enabling role in ensuring that both current and future technologies can operate efficiently and effectively.”
Fibre rollout study
All well and good, but the financial case for fibre is such that its rollout remains focused mainly on the large metro areas. How will SA be able to take full advantage of the digital revolution if large parts of the country are still without fibre connectivity?
“I believe that fibre rollout is gathering momentum, and although the focus is currently on metros, we will see it being taken to smaller towns and peri-urban areas soon. Even developed nations have struggled in taking this kind of connectivity to more remote areas, and we can learn from their challenges. We feel that the best approach is through a mix of private companies and government intervention, as many of these developed nations are currently doing.”
Another challenge is that different countries have different contexts, so whatever solution is chosen must be picked to suit a particular context. It’s vital to clearly understand the scenarios on the ground first. “To this end, we’re undertaking a study over a period of months that we hope will provide more clarity on the most appropriate and suitable financial and technology models,” continues Govender.
He points out that it’s important for a country like SA to investigate things properly to avoid potential errors in implementation, or failures that may exacerbate the already significant digital divide.
“We can’t simply take a cookie-cutter approach. Our country has a unique ecosystem, with its own specific needs and opportunities. It’s important to be able to understand the potential return on investment and the possible risk too, not to mention having a clear grasp as to what the most appropriate last mile technology will be. It’s a complex issue that needs complete consideration.”
Technology’s nervous system
It’s ironic, Govender says, that while the world becomes increasingly wireless, so the networks themselves become more wired. This is because fibre remains the key to successfully implementing the latest technologies, such as AI and biometric security solutions.
“Think about it: if you enter a premises that uses facial recognition biometrics as part of its security, the system will need to scan your face, connect to a database and search that for a comparison. Once this is done, the response from the system may be that this person is red-flagged and not allowed to enter, but this can only be done effectively if the system can receive and return its response very rapidly. Fibre is the best at providing the kind of speedy responses needed for such a system to work properly.”
Essentially, AI is like an electronic brain, and the fibre network is like the nervous system – it needs to carry the messages back and forth fast enough for them to be effective and for the user to avoid getting burned, he continues.
Govender suggests that the rise of IoT, in conjunction with fibre networks, will improve things further, as this is a technology that gives inanimate objects a voice.
“With the massive growth of IoT, AI, advanced analytics and more, we’re witnessing the rise of a plethora of technologies that are essentially data-driven and require vast amounts of information to be moved between points. Fibre remains the key to successfully enabling these solutions, although obviously all types of access will play some role in this.”
Govender argues that the key to a technologically enhanced future is not merely fibre, but open access fibre. It should be noted DFA is an open-access fibre infrastructure provider. The open access principle, he says, favours the efficient use of capital, by making a one-off investment in a network with enough capacity for hundreds of service providers to use. This means telcos no longer need to invest in their own individual fibre network infrastructures, reducing their capital expenditure and eliminating duplication of services.
“Perhaps the most tangible benefit is that it enables service providers to pass on cost savings to end-users. Just as pertinently, an open access network supports the efficient and accelerated deployment of digital services, a crucial steppingstone to the goal of creating smart cities,” he adds.
“Smart cities are obviously part of the longer-term journey for fibre connectivity and the open access world envisioned. But this is the digital transformation of an entire city, and transformation is a journey. To succeed in this journey will take more than just an efficient and well-connected fibre network – the relevant people will need to focus on mobilising resources, prioritising agendas and enabling the environment. They will also need to consider our nation’s specific constraints, such as the energy, water, and safety issues that must be considered.”
Nonetheless, he adds, a world built on a fibre foundation will be well positioned to significantly boost job creation and business growth. “Technology like this is only an enabler, it’s not the solution – it comes down to how you apply the technology as to whether you will derive value from it. The key to this connected future is not so much the fibre it will be built on, but, rather, on the creation of an enabling environment that will allow for new developments and creativity to flourish.”
* This feature was first published in the November edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.