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By 21 November 2018 | Categories: interviews

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If you have had an internet connection for any length of time, chances are you are at least somewhat familiar with Seacom, the company responsible for the undersea cables that connect countries and continents.

However, as a recent in-depth interview with Steve Briggs, Seacom’s chief commercial officer revealed, the company is involved in a great deal more than just providing subsea cable infrastructure.

Briggs offered insight into what is happening with regards to connectivity in Africa and South Africa, and how much or little progress is being made on that front.

Indeed, connectivity has only become more important, with the onset of digital transformation, and most businesses thriving or dying, depending on how well they can access a digital economy.   

Starting at the beginning

Briggs explained that Seacom began by catering to the large carriers, both fixed line and mobile networks. Then, three years ago, the company launched a business to business venture into key markets, of which South Africa is one, aimed at connecting enterprises. More recently, it has expanded into the SME sector as well. One of the big shifts is that in recent years, Over-the -Top (OTT) players have actually surpassed the large carriers in terms of demand. This, he noted, is not surprising, especially as the demand for streaming services have only grown.

Another significant – and positive – development is that Fibre to the Business has expanded rapidly. Briggs elaborated that it has only been in the last couple of years that fibre has reached a critical mass, becoming viable with the right price point, and enabling businesses to really take advantage of high-speed networks.

“Whereas two years ago a customer would have started off on our entry level product which was a 25 mb/s link, they have easily gone to a 50 mb/s or 100 mb/s link today,” he continued. This then has a knock on effect for an organisation, particularly an SME, enabling them to  transform their own businesses, move to the cloud, or venture into hosted services. With this, Briggs enthused that businesses see the demand for their services increasing as well.

Counting the cost

Amid this heartening picture of connectivity being more available, and thus enabling businesses to grow, there is a down side. It’s no secret that the data prices are still higher than we would like in South Africa.

However, this is a complex issue. Briggs explained that, as context, large amounts of the South Africa population skipped the desktop PC/notebook phase of accessing the internet, with the vast majority connecting from a mobile device. This has meant that mobile networks have to have a high speed data capacity as broadly rolled out as possible. The fact that South Africa is a large country exacerbates matters, as it makes providing national coverage an expensive endeavour.

“If you just look at the capital expenditure (capex) that the mobile networks have been spending for the past five years, particularly Vodacom and MTN , they have probably been the biggest investors in the country across all the sectors, pouring billions of rands into their networks. So I would say we are in a much better place than we were five years ago around getting 4G and high speed data available,” he elaborated.

Silver linings

Exacerbating matters is the difference in price points, with the poorest tending to pay the most, as they buy data in ‘sachet size packets’ rather than buying gigabytes of data on a contract.

So if connectivity is a pivotal part of growing a business, and essential to participating in the digital economy, and yet still expensive for large portions of the population, what is the solution?

Part of it, Briggs emphasized, is for there to be continued innovation in the free Wi-Fi space, with more initiatives like Project Isizwe helping those on mobile devices benefit from affordable internet accessibility. “While the mobile networks help create the demand for data, I think for the foreseeable future the democratisation and mass access to data will not be on mobile networks but rather on free Wi-Fi, or the rollout of community type Wi-Fi access,” he added.

In Part 2, Briggs lays out some of the innovative use case scenarios of Wi-Fi, possible futuristic scenarios we could see emerge, and the impact technology is having on people.

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