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Day one of AfricaCom closed with a rather informative session, as Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele, Facebook Internet.org vice-president Chris Daniels and Akon Lighting Africa co-founder Thione Niang took to the stage.
Cwele said that the spectrum issue is being tackled, Daniels touted Facebook’s innovative internet connectivity devices and Niang called on people to look at electrification before internet access.
Here are some of the standout quotes and takeaways from the session.
Are people using free WiFi to be productive?
Cwele gave an update on government-backed free WiFi projects (ostensibly talking about Project Isizwe), with some insight into what people were using it for.
“…we were worried, what are these people going to use this WiFi for? Are they going to use it for naughty things?” the minister quipped.
“But we are very happy that over 80% of them, they’re using this free WiFi for job opportunities and educational content. And that’s encouraging us to invest more in these technologies,” Cwele added.
Cwele acknowledges pricey cost of communication
“On the cost to communicate, South Africa is still one of the relatively expensive countries in Africa in relation to broadband costs,” the minister told the AfricaCom audience.
“High mobile and data tariffs are detrimental to the economic growth as they stifle competition and add to costs of doing business,” Cwele continued.
“My department, in partnership with the regulator Icasa… we are undertaking a number of measures to contribute to the lowering of the cost to communicate.”
And calls for cheaper smartphones
Smartphones have dropped in price over the years, to the point where you can get them for well under R1000. But the minister says that more still needs to be done in this sector.
“Yes, I love these nice international smartphones and our people also love them — but they can’t afford them,” Cwele explained, saying they want cheap, basic devices but not “skorokoro” handsets.
Cwele seems to think that SA can be a tech/gadget manufacturing hub
The minister reckons that we can churn out a few gadgets for export as well.
“We just import a lot of gadgets as a country. And we do have a capacity to manufacture,” Cwele says, calling on industrials to invest in the country because “we do have skills” and “incentives” that are in the process of being finalised.
Minister acknowledges spectrum issue
Of course, South Africa has been lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to freeing up spectrum from analogue TV.
“A lot of companies… we’ve allowed them to experiment with that. If you check our new policy, we’ve chosen not to regulate those aspects…” Cwele explained.
“We know that spectrum is… oxygen for operators,” the minister claimed, saying it was “engaging” with the private sector and other “stakeholders” on the process.
“Forget about internet and connectivity”
Niang co-founded Akon Lighting Africa along with rapper Akon, retelling the story of how the artist got involved in the project. The co-founder says that Akon was a guest at a mentorship programme run by Niang in Washington.
“Akon asked me what do we need to do to help the continent. And I remembered those days where our house would never have electricity growing up, until I went to America at 20.”
It’s rather sobering that Thione Niang told AfricaCom to put electricity first
Niang told Akon that he wanted to do something in the energy sector as 600 million Africans don’t have electricity.
“Forget about internet and connectivity. They (people without power) just cannot even have a light at home so… their children can study,” the co-founder told the AfricaCom audience.
Akon Lighting Africa has a presence in 17 African countries and aiming to be in 44 countries in the next five years.
Facebook is pushing Express WiFi in a big way
The social network is also pushing its Express WiFi service at AfricaCom, which sees retailers and small shops teaming up with Facebook to get a WiFi hotspot. Users can then purchase access to WiFi via the retailers to get connected.
“In India it means that they get three times the speed at one third the price of a 3G connection,” internet.org vice-president Chris Daniels explained on stage.
Daniels noted that, while the African continent uses a lot of satellite connectivity for its Express WiFi operations, they’ll be integrating the Aquila internet drones for operations as well.
The executive added that Express WiFi locations connect to one another via microwave links, allowing one fibre-equipped Express WiFi location to provide a lifeline to the other locations.
Where to next for the service?
Express WiFi is available in India, Indonesia, Tanzania, Nigeria and South Africa, with Daniels adding that Ghana will be going live soon.
“Next year we’ll be in a couple more African markets… A few more markets generally around the world,” the executive explained.
Retailers are apparently seeing big revenue increases
Daniels claimed that retailers participating in the Express WiFi initiative are seeing an increase in revenue as a result of the service.
“What I heard, when I had gone out and I talked to many retailers who were using Express WiFi, is that their revenue has gone up by 10% to 100% in some cases,” the Facebook representative said. “These are small retailers who have a variety of different businesses. This is good for their families and it’s also good for their communities. They’re building businesses based on selling connectivity.”
Facebook to focus on several areas for connectivity
The internet.org vice-president explained that Facebook would be focusing on several “innovations” for connectivity.
“The first is TV white space. We’re going to be rolling out a deployment where the backhaul, instead of being microwave, is going to be entirely TV white space,” Daniels noted.
The second focus area was to increase the range of WiFi. “So we’re using dual-frequency network extension technology, or kind of WiFi mesh technology, in order to extend the reach of the network,” he explained.
The third area was solar power, saying that they’re bringing down the size of batteries and solar panels for Express WiFi.