South African network operators need to make substantial investments in local exchange infrastructure before a world of truly ubiquitous mobile connectivity becomes a reality.
That's according to Mark Taylor, MD of Nashua Mobile, who says that rising fuel prices and growing traffic are forcing many South African workers and businesses to seriously consider mobile and remote work as a way of controlling costs and saving time.
However, the country's telecommunications infrastructure is still not ready for the pressure of coping with a vast number of people, working from home and on the road, across wireless and fixed-line links instead of sitting in an office working on a local area network.
Says Taylor: "The major operators are all in investment mode, at the trenches operators have dug up across Johannesburg to lay down cable testifies. The new investments they are currently making in fibre-optic cable in metropolitan areas and in undersea cables should translate into faster connectivity and more abundant bandwidth within the next three years.
"However, fixed-line operators will need to address exchange infrastructure to ensure that this part of the telecommunications network doesn't become a bottleneck after last-mile connectivity and international bandwidth problems are addressed. It is also concerning that the current investment is almost exclusively focused on the major metropolitan areas."
Taylor points out that better telecommunications infrastructure in smaller towns and cities could play an invaluable part in developing the economies of some of the country's poorer areas. Businesses would also benefit because they would be able to set up contact centres and other facilities that depend on technology in areas where rental and labour costs are lower.
"Cellular data services can be expected to show dramatic growth in the years to come. MTN and Vodacom already have more data card users than Telkom has ADSL users, and cellular data services are available in many parts of the country that are underserviced by Telkom," says Taylor.
However, the network infrastructure of the cellular operators is starting to take strain. All networks will need to make substantial investments in capacity at their cellular sites and in backhaul connectivity to keep up with demand, especially as they try to capture a larger share of the data market.
Says Taylor: "Once the right infrastructure is in place, the opportunities for large and small businesses will be immense. For example, they could deploy new applications such as virtual call centres. Companies could create shared infrastructures in glasshouse environments that allow for hosted call centres or PABXs. Telephone calls could be routed from these environments to an employee (a contact centre agent, for example) working from home.
"Broadband technologies – wireless, mobile and ADSL – are all becoming more accessible to the mass-market and prices compare favourably to dial-up for even light Internet users," says Taylor. "Users can expect to continue to see broadband services become cheaper and faster over the next few years, if operators make the necessary investments."
The mobile data market can be expected to continue its grow as the network operators introduce newer and faster technologies such as High-Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA), the next evolution from HSDPA, and eventually, Super 3G, which will provide download speeds of up to 100Mb.