It has been a week since South Africa joined several other countries around the world in locking down to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But beyond the impact this has had on people’s lives, it has highlighted how essential access to reliable, high-speed fibre infrastructure has become for the economy to keep going.
It should come as no surprise that the government has identified it as a critical service. Fortunately, many people are still able to work remotely and fulfil most of their job requirements, albeit in a digital-centric way. Broadband penetration is critical to the economy – in a study conducted by the World Bank it was proven that for every 10% increase in broadband penetration there is an increase between 1.19% and 1.35% rise in GDP. South Africa is in desperate need for all kinds of economic stimulus and hence the importance of keeping these services running during a lockdown period,
Of course, this entails more than just video conferencing and sending more e-mails. It reflects a fundamental shift in business approach that will enhance how companies operate. Once the lockdown ends, the landscape would have evolved to such an extent that nothing will return to normal.
This push to allow for working from home has put pressure on IT departments to ensure systems still run smoothly. If anything, it has illustrated that ageing connectivity such as ADSL can no longer be relied upon. And while much is made about the user-friendliness of wireless technologies such as 4G/LTE, and 5G, the high cost of mobile data and the incapacity of the networks to deal with the influx of demand does not make it a viable option either.
One of the challenges mobile operators face is high contention rates. This means that the more users are on their networks, the slower access becomes. We have seen LTE users experienced a speed decrease from 20Mbit/s to just 0.6Mbit/s when people started flooding video-streaming sites, rendering them virtually unusable. And beyond zero-rating data to limited educational resources, the mobile providers have given little by way of a fresh value proposition to consumers during this difficult time. The recent price reduction was long overdue and is still not close to rates offered by the fibre operators.
For their part, many fibre operators have provided consumers with upgrades that automatically doubled their line speeds, and offered free installations and increased capped products by as much as three times. This faster access is essential given how consumer usage patterns have now changed from download only to needing to upload data as well.
These changes have seen application marketplaces experience a significant shift in focus. During the week of 14 to 21 March, business apps topped 62 million downloads globally, an increase of 45% over the previous week. Furthermore, Google has made the premium features of its Hangouts Meet application available for free and Microsoft is offering a free six-month subscription to Teams, to name just two examples of how changing consumer behaviour is changing the market dynamics of connectivity solutions.
One of fibre’s strengths is its scalability and capacity – it is virtually unlimited. This means users’ line speeds can be upgraded in real time with no disruption. And because it provides a smooth transition to the cloud, fibre also enables companies to automate many administration-intensive processes, thereby freeing up users to deliver more strategic value to the business.
Take schools and institutions of higher learning, for example. The situation has forced them to start working on distance-learning options. If learners cannot return to school, e-learning becomes essential to help them keep up with work. This highlights the significant digital divide in the country where millions do not have access to the systems to allow for this to happen.
This requires educators to think differently and look for viable alternatives. It could very well pave the way for SMEs to come up with more innovative ways of educating and working in this time of crisis.
On the corporate side, the lockdown has forced many companies’ hands in getting them to examine how best to use cloud-based business tools. This is critical if remote workers are to be empowered and help organisations remain fully functional during the lockdown.
Some of these tools can encompass everything from transitioning the PBX into the cloud that redirects company calls to employees’ mobile phones, embracing unified communication solutions such as Microsoft Teams to ensure team members are still in touch with one another and can deliver on their project deliverables, and even using the Adobe Sign e-signature service to send, sign, track and manage signature electronic document processes.
But irrespective of the solutions used, the common denominator is having fast, reliable connectivity infrastructure. Therefore, fibre network operators have a critically important role to play in the country and must take this responsibility seriously.
Agility has become essential for survival. Society must work together to address the critical needs in the country. To this end, people must collectively take ownership of the issues faced. For example, parents need to be more involved in their children’s education and employees accept the responsibilities that come from working from home and ensure that they are disciplined.
South Africa is already starting to see this change. Fewer vehicles are on the road meaning people are spending less money on petrol, there are reduced emissions that benefit the environment, and fewer traffic officials who can be used to assist police and the military with other, more essential services. Small entrepreneurs will start to broaden their target markets placing pressure on large corporations improve their value proposition.
Once the lockdown ends, fibre would have shown how it can create a better life for people while still enabling many to continue to do their work. There are lessons to be learnt from this as the country starts accepting this more effective way of working instead of trying to return to how things were.
Fibre has evolved from a luxury to becoming a utility such as electricity and water – one that has become essential to help grow the economy. Fibre will allow customers to accelerate the migration to cloud-based services as it provides higher speeds, no contention ratios and higher reliability.
- Jacques du Toit is CEO of Vox