Overview

In line with international trends, Africans are adopting mobile computing, albeit at a slower pace than the rest of the world. Times have changed – businesses need to be in contact with their employees anytime, anywhere and African enterprises are no different.

Observers of the IT and telecommunications industry in Africa, when asked which technologies deserve the biggest share of development resources, list the likes of cellular telephony, fixed line telephony, dial-up Internet access, drop-in Internet access and satellite voice services. Analysts explain that mobile computing won’t even make it onto the list because without basic telephone service or Internet access, mobile computing remains an impractical pipe dream. While that’s true, mobile technologies are set to make a sizeable contribution to Africa’s future in technology.

The simplest way to conduct business in Africa is to go the mobile route – using a note-book, sub-notebook PC or PDA. These devices provide the facilities of a desktop PC without depending on fixed telephone or ISP services being provided – or not provided, as is often the case in Africa.

Roland de Almeida, exports general manager at Acer Africa, a South African hard-ware distributor that exports to 10 African countries, believes that even the big corporate users in Africa, such as international consulting houses, tend to buy at the low end.

Is there a shift from desktop to mobile? De Almeida doesn’t believe so. “There are no signs that notebook sales into Africa are increasing at the expense of desktop systems,” he says.

One need not replace the other, however. Different customer demands require different solutions. Kimmo Heldan, regional manager for IBM East Africa, says: “We haven’t seen a noticeable trend toward mobile computing within this region, but there are international business people who are demanding access anytime, anywhere.”

Despite these viewpoints, computing in Africa is taking off, driven by global trends changing IT in every corner of the globe. One contributing factor is the reduced cost of equipment. Mobile information devices allow users to access and transmit mobile data for a few hundred dollars compared to $3 000 plus for a full notebook.

The African market is reacting accordingly. Analysts predict explosive growth for the mobile device market, with most predicting one billion mobile phones in use within three years. Infrastructure to support and encourage mobile users will play an important role.

Terry Kelly, managing director, Westcon SA, says, “The basic infrastructure in most of Africa is still analogue, and the quality of the connection is very often so bad that you struggle to get a decent connection. Now they can upgrade to digital exchanges and upgrade the infrastructure that will bring them up to date with the rest of the world; alternatively they can leapfrog the technology and go for the very latest technology, being cell/satellite. This way they will be able to cover vast areas without having to lay millions of miles of cable,” he adds.

“If this is the way to go, then Africa will be very mobile orientated. All a business person wants is to get into a hotel room or office, find a universal jack and connect to the corporate network. No frills, no fuss and once you are into the corporate network you can go everywhere from there,” says Kelly.

Ericsson concurs. “These devices, merging voice and data capabilities in an accessible and easy-to-use handset, provide the ideal platform for delivering high-value wireless services for mass consumer use,” a spokesperson says.

Drop-in services

Without a network connection, a notebook user has all the power of a PC but no data communications. The flip side is having data communications but no PC facilities of your own. Drop-in Internet access services are typically kiosks or cyber cafés offering walk-in customers an Internet-connected PC on a fee-per-unit-of-time basis. These are gaining ground as phones shops, police stations, schools, post offices and clinics add Internet access to their service offerings.

Cyber cafés give the local community Internet access they cannot usually afford and also serve the out-of-town visitor. Users of free web-based e-mail accounts such as Hotmail, Yahoo or Excite can access their mailboxes from any location, and need not carry a portable PC with them to do so. A large portion of African e-mail users make use of these services, says Mike Jensen, a researcher of the African telecommunications market.

Jensen says, “These services can be more costly and cumbersome than using standard e-mail software, because extra online time is needed to maintain the connection to the remote site. But they do provide the added advantages of anonymity, and perhaps greater perceived stability, than a local ISP who may not be in business next year.”

Casual Internet access through computing centres of this kind is available in 22 African countries, Jensen says. He cites two airports as offering the same service: Jomo Kenyatta International in Kenya and Harare International in Zimbabwe. Various hotels throughout Africa also offer a similar service, such as Cairo Airport Mövenpick in Egypt; Nairobi Hilton and Intercontinental in Kenya; and Meikles Hotel in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Drop-in access points are likely to grow rapidly, as governments, parastatals, NGOs and profit-making enterprises try to meet Africa’s huge demand for Internet access.

Fixed line

Casual Internet access is acceptable to many users, but travellers have far greater freedom of movement if they can plug in to the local PSTN. Again, hardware costs for notebook owners are low. Many notebooks include a built-in modem, otherwise just add a modem PC card (many will already have a PC card that combines a modem and a network adaptor).

Once the traveller has plugged into a telephone jack he should be able to connect to the world and at least send faxes from the notebook. E-mail and Internet access is less easy. If his company has a remote access server (RAS), he may be able to dial directly into the corporate net-work, probably requiring a long-distance call to the RAS office.

Direct Internet access is trickier. One option is to subscribe to an ISP in the host country. The other is to purchase Internet roaming rights. This is much like roaming on cellular networks and allows the traveller to dial in to a local ISP in the foreign country instead of the ISP to which they subscribe. The local ISP then connects them to the Internet as if they were a local subscriber. ISPs that belong to roaming agreements such as Ipass provide such as service for each other’s members. Ipass ISPs can be found in most African countries.

Fixed line access may not offer full mobility, but it is cheap and can be convenient, being available at most hotels, and may offer a superior connection. The Bay hotel in Cape Town has fitted out its conference centre and eight guest rooms with ISDN lines – guests can plug in their ISDN-enabled PC cards for immediate access. The hotel’s operations manager boasts that the hotel adds no mark-up on the telco’s ISDN standard call rates.

Cellular

The technologies covered so far require the user to be physically tethered by cable to a network. The next step up the mobility ladder is eliminating that cable. Using a cellular, satellite or radio network can do this.

Cellular is the best option, maintains Stuart Fredman, marketing and sales director of the Johannesburg-based Laptop Technologies, specialist in corporate mobile solutions in Africa.

Fredman says, “Through cellular technology, workers can become mobile, that is, they can be connected anywhere, anytime: in the office, at home.”

With cellular gaining ground fast in Africa, Fredman believes it has huge potential as a data carrier. Technology is no hindrance since GSM, Africa’s most popular cellular technology, is inherently data-capable. Africa already supports over 50 GSM networks, with some countries having up to three competing networks. Among these are Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, and Madagascar.

The picture is promising, but the reality is that there is still a long way to go. Unfortunately, a cellular connection cannot be used for data in the same way as an analogue landline. According to an engineer at MTN, the cellular network has to convert the digital stream coming from the mobile user into an analogue signal going to the ISP. But if you thought having a cell phone and international cellular and Internet roaming agreements was all you needed in Africa for mobile data, think again. The network has to offer data services.

Currently, only a fifth of Africa’s GSM networks offer data. Among them are:

Econet (Zimbabwe)
Cellplus (Mauritius)
Loteny (Côte d’Ivoire)
Madacom (Madagascar)
MTC (Namibia)
MTN (South Africa)
Net One (Zimbabwe)
Scancom (Ghana)
Sonatel (Senegal)
Tmm-Mcel (Mozambique)
Vodacom (South Africa)

In South Africa, both MTN and Vodacom offer sophisticated data services including data fax and SMS (Short Message Service) sending and receiving. However, MTN is not offering data on its other African networks (Swaziland, Uganda, and Rwanda), although these may be introduced in the first quarter of 2000.

Internet users within coverage areas of networks offering data transmission have little difficulty connecting. Fredman maintains that although expensive, the best method of connecting is simply to dial the ISP in your home country (the subscriber will have to enable international roaming).

Although this does require an expensive international cell phone call, the ease of use more than compensates for that. Using one dial-up number (with the international dialling code) and one hardware configuration, you can dial from any GSM network in the world.

Cellular offers arguably the best combination of physical convenience and price. Satellite hand-sets and antennae are bulky and call costs stratospheric, whereas to connect to a GSM network, notebook users need only a PC card, a data-enabled handset, and a cable connecting the two. Some GSM handsets, like the Ericsson SH888, have built-in PC cards and can talk to the notebook through infrared transmissions.

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Wireless Application Protocol

Cellular technology companies such as Nokia believe they have seen the future of wireless computing in Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). WAP is an open standard that regulates the movement of data between a mobile phone and the Internet, intranet, LAN, or WAN. WAP enables cell phones to browse special websites written in Wireless Markup Language (WML) in contrast to the HTML used for conventional sites.

A WML web page is like an HTML page stripped of all the pictures, colours, sounds, and other multimedia. WAP websites will be able to offer services such as information, secure banking and booking tickets to events, through a cell phone interface.

Jiri Batek, country manager of Nokia Networks, believes that the future of mobile computing lies in cellular access devices. “Already the Wireless Application Protocol has been launched and is set to be a standard in all cell phones made next year – regardless of vendor.

“Cellular communications is big in Africa, where the fixed line infrastructure invariably leaves a lot to be desired. A businessman wants access to e-mail, and possibly other data like stock quotes or weather services. He does not need a full laptop for this – his cell phone is more than adequate, or will be as the devices become more feature rich,” says Batek.

“A notebook is a great deal more expensive than a top of the range cellphone. This means that in Africa where prices of traditional data access devices are beyond the reach of average income earners, cell-phones will become the preferred data communications device,” he predicts.

Batek warns, however, that cellular networks need to be able to make use of the data possibilities and the technology needs to be in place.

“This is not something that is in the distant future, as more and more international cellular operators begin targeting African countries to run next generation networks.”

At the end of 1999, WAP was already here. In Scandinavia, WAP services were in commercial use, while in South Africa the two mobile network operators, MTN and Vodacom, had introduced WAP services but widespread usage was not expected until the first quarter of 2000. In November 1999, one major South African bank, Nedbank, announced and demonstrated a WAP banking service. The service was due to go live in early 2000.

The possibilities for Africa are endless. Data services could be provided at a fraction of the cost of the traditional desktop PC and with a mobility bonus. The fisherman in his boat on Lake Malawi could dial up for a weather report. The coffee and cocoa grower in Cote d’Ivoire could get peruse a list of commodity prices. In any country, the small-to-medium business owner could transfer money from one bank account to another or make third-party payments.

Technically with WAP the mobile user must make a point-to- point data call, but GPRS is on its way and will allow packet switched data to be sent directly from mobile devices – the phone will be continuously online to the GPRS-capable network. Incoming e-mail will be immediately delivered to the mobile device and outgoing data delivered, without a point-to-point call being made. Users will be charged per packet of data, rather than per minute of connected time, as is typically the case with WAP.

GPRS is being rolled out in Europe now – Nokia already has 19 GPRS customers worldwide. South African networks will probably introduce the service in the second quarter of 2000.

South Africa’s soon-to-be-licensed third network is sure to be GPRS-enabled from day one and will have an advantage in the data department over its forerunners. One of the problems facing Vodacom and MTN is that to be commercially successful GPRS services need to run at relatively high speeds. This in turn requires extra capacity on the part of the net-work and both networks are stretched for capacity. This is especially so in the high-income urban areas, the very same areas in which GPRS services will be in highest demand.

Within a few years advances such as wireless video phones and wearable devices will be on the market, perhaps even in common use. Much of the new functionality will be made possible by the 3G mobile standards developed by the ITU. With 2Mbps transmission rates on offer, many data users will simply go mobile. How much more so in Africa, where PSTN lines are in short supply?

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Satellite

Satellite networks offer the ultimate freedom from terrestrial infrastructure. With the new LEO and regional GEO systems entering service recently, the data capability of satellite is attracting a lot of attention, said Tim Farrar at the African Com-puting and Telecommunications Summit held in August in Cam-bridge, UK. He pointed out that broadband data services would be offered by the new generation of satellite services, such as Teledesic, for example.

Currently there are three main satellite services being offered in Africa:

– Inmarsat Inmarsat offers a range of services, each of which includes data. In the mainstream at the time of writing was the Mini M service. The satellite hardware retailed for around $2 700 and was about the size of a laptop computer. Add a notebook PC to this and you have a hefty package that will need to be mounted on a vehicle to be truly mobile.

Data speeds for Mini M are no faster than those of Iridium: 2.4kbps for either fax or data. Call costs depend on the tariff package but were typically around $2.40 per minute.

Prime users of the service, said Nicholas Acton, managing director of Station Africa Telecoms, a Johannesburg-based Inmarsat service provider, were geologists, pilots, mine managers, oil rig operators, safari operators and foreign affairs officials travelling abroad.

How much of the traffic is data as opposed to voice? At Telecom 99, Inmarsat’s Andrew Ivey said that data accounted for 40% of traffic but this was expected to grow significantly to 70% by 2003.

By early 2000, Inmarsat will have ramped up its data offering by bringing on stream its M4 service, which is being designed to increase data speeds up to 64kbps (fax will increase to 9.6kbps). Hardware costs for the system are expected to be around $8 500 and calls charges around $8.50 per minute, although subscribers will have the option of paying per packet of data. Payment by packet “will bring the possibility of dramatically lower costs for those requiring mobile Internet access,” the company promises.

– Globalstar Globalstar will offer fax and data services at 9.6kbps. Pricing will be at around $24 a month subscription and $2 per minute for data calls. Alternatively, subscribers will be able to skip the monthly connection fee and pay $3 per minute for calls. These rates will be for calls made to destinations in the same region of the subcontinent. Calls out-side the region will be subject to a 15% premium. Handset costs will be around $1 400 for the Ericsson model and $800 for a Telital unit.

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HF radio

When all else fails, do it yourself. High frequency (HF) radio offers complete independence from a network operator, spans vast distances (up to 3 000km or more) and costs very little to operate.

At least two companies are promoting their HF offerings in Africa: Codan Pty Ltd is an Australian company promoting equipment branded with its own name and it competes with British company Barrett Communications.

The big hurdle with HF radio is getting a licence. If this can be obtained, the user must buy expensive HF single sideband (SSB) equipment. Codan has a full data option that works with its existing HF radios.

A Codan base station with modem and Internet software is around $6 300. The price tag may seem high, but there are no call charges or monthly subscription fees. Unfortunately, Codan’s HF modem is capable of only 1.4kbps uncompressed or 6kbps compressed.

For Internet-based e-mail the ISP must offer HF capability. This is available from an ISP called Bushnet, based in Uganda and with branches in some neighbouring countries.

Alternatively, an interface can be installed in a central office to link the radio to the local telephone network (PSTN). This allows radio users to transmit data to a central office and have it forwarded over the PSTN to an ISP.

Conclusion

While mobile computing appears to be slow coming to growth in Africa, it is not with-out potential. A lack of communications infrastructure is the most likely inhibiting factor, as is the low level of basic computing in many areas. That said, the extensive investments both in telecommunications (terrestrial, GSM, satellite, and the others) that enable remote workers to access corporate networks and the Internet, as well as the investment from multinational organisations seeking to develop their African business, suggests that sudden growth is imminent for this market.

The rapidly increasing need for computing at remote locations, coupled with the need for network connectivity, will be met by widespread deployment of communications technology and services, fuelling the use, and further demand for those services.

It is a model which self-perpetuates once momentum is achieved, and while the African market has been slow building that momentum, the ball has certainly started to roll.

BRUCE CONRADIE

 

Shaun Bakamoso

Greetings. I'm Shaun Bakamoso, and I'm thrilled to be your guide through the dynamic world of business news in South Africa here at mbendi.co.za. With a passion for staying informed and a keen interest in the ever-evolving landscape of business, I've dedicated myself to providing you with timely, insightful, and comprehensive coverage of the latest developments impacting the South African economy. bakamoso@gmail.com / Instagram