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What is the future role for WiFi?

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Kathy Gibson reports from SATNAC 2015 – WiFi is proving to be pretty controversial: its supporters believe the technology could offer the solution to universal connectivity; but others think its lack of scalability and security will severely limit its usefulness.
A panel discussion at the South African Telecommunications and Network Applications Conference (SATNAC) debating the role of WiFi in modern cities failed to determine the best business model for rolling out the technology and where it will prove to be most effective.
Alan Knott-Craig, CEO of Project Isizwe, is adamant that WiFi hotspots are a non-starter as business model – but that the technology itself has a huge role to play in connecting people who don’t have access to copper or fibre.
“My personal perspective is that the vast majority of connectivity will be via wireless,” he says, adding that technology will come down the line to take care of some of the technical issues like noise that are problems today.
Prenesh Padayachee, MD: wholesale services at Telkom, believes that WiFi’s role is more as a complementary technology than the main access medium. “As prices come down it becomes easier to look at complementary technologies. In addition, things like Internet of Things (oT) will make WiFi much more relevant as cities start to look at those technologies.”
Hayden Lamberti, MD of Always On at Internet Solutions, says there are two main areas where WiFi will play. “These are as a bearer of mobile data, particularly where consumers want big downloads; and to bring the country online – to connect all of the 54-million people in the country minus the approximately 7-million who already have a broadband connection, so they can start to participate in the economy.
“There are various different models addressing those needs: I think it’s going to be very interesting to watch because I don’t think anyone knows what the perfect model is.”
Andre Stelzner, CIO of the City of Cape Town, points out that the city turned to WiFi when it needed to provide access.
“The reality, in a city that people regard as first world, is that the digital divide is there,” he says. “But our thinking is that this is a basic service; that telecommunications and access to the Internet is a vital service and it is through WiFi that we hope to be able to address this.”
He says the city believes it has a role to play in providing universal access, and that some of it needs to be free. “We see our WiFi initiative as being similar to what we are trying to do with our fibre investment: getting into areas where there is currently a lack of demand so commercial operators don’t want to go in there. So our emphasis is on addressing the infrastructure gap.”
Knott-Craig stresses that WiFi can fill the gap left by expensive access technologies and help the poor cross the digital divide. “In my opinion, the top 4% of the country will have fibre to the home; and the rest of the people will use wireless to connect,” he says.
“The reality is that the vast majority of South Africans will not be able to get on to the Internet in a big way – ever.
“But we need to talk about Internet the way we talk about water. In my opinion, by 2020 you will have free WiFi as a basic layer; every citizen will be able to talk to a free WiFi zone .
“Tshwane has a great model for that. It just says Internet should be free for the poor, with the city paying for it. It should be like the free water and electricity quotas.
“The amount of economic development that is stimulated by Internet access will compensate for the cost,” Knott-Craig adds.
Lamberti, on the other hand, doesn’t think the Project Isizwe model as deployed in Tshwane is sustainable. “It might work for a self-contained case like Tshwane, but I don’t think you will be able to scale it in a meaningful way,” he says.
“In a perfect world, Alan is right – but we don’t live in a perfect world.”