Seamless mobility needed in South Africa

Von Nicolas Callegari

Even as a journalist reporting on the ICT industry, I sometimes get confused with all the wireless technologies and standards out there, so this begs the question of how the everyday man on the street must be coping with this information overload.

An even bigger question to ask is if he should even care what technologies his business is using, and if the applications are justifying spend in what is quickly turning into a multi-billion rand industry.

?The end-user,? says Motorola government relations manager, Ronnie Seeber, ?should really not be concerned with what technology he or she has to invest in to stay connected most of the time.?

?The real issue,? Seeber says, ?is for companies to roll out a platform that is technology-agnostic, and which will ensure seamless roaming, no matter what connectivity is being used.?

For example, a user may begin watching a soccer match in the office, on his or her desktop PC. As they leave, the connection is transferred to their PDA or cell phone, where they continue to watch the match.

Upon reaching the car, the match is transferred to the audio system, and then again to a monitor in their house, without losing any of the transmission or needing to log-in at every point of connectivity.

?This would be the ideal scenario,? says Seeber, ?but we are not there yet.? In the mean time, there are platforms (such as cell phones) that can already roam between GSM and Wi-Fi connections without losing a call.

Even Motorola?s ?Canopy? product allows for seamless roaming between bandwidth coverage cells, with the next generation of the product being developed based on the WiMAX 802.16E standard.

However, legislation is an issue, and, in terms of the Telecommunications Act, services using the 3.5GHz ISM band cannot be broadcast across property borders.

It is sad that countries such as Zambia, Nigeria and Mozambique, which are all far less developed than SA, have been able to leapfrog SA in the adoption of wireless and (even) broadband because of more lenient legislation.

But the opportunities are coming for the channel to roll out wireless platforms and technologies as legislation slowly comes under debate by both Icasa, government and lobby groups.

Research says...

?The aggressive push by the mobile cellular operators into the broadband wireless data space, as witnessed already by Vodacom and now MTN, will create an additional dynamic in terms of fixed-mobile convergence, as some degree of overlap occurs in the broadband access space,? says BMI-T analyst, Tertia Smit.

?However, our belief is that the dominant impact will be to create new market growth opportunities centered around mobility, especially for business users, rather than to be a straight substitute for a fixed-line -- or even fixed wireless -- access connection. This means that the average business user will have multiple connections, thus driving new growth in overall subscriber numbers.?

Another new dynamic in the market will be the expanded, albeit more niche, role of wireless technologies like TD-CDMA, CDMA2000 and WiMAX connectivity, which will in future also be available via handsets. Currently only TD-CDMA based networks are present in SA, and these are used only to provide Internet access, BMI-T says.

A shift is already being observed as traditional fixed line service providers are moving to incorporate more fixed wireless access in response to newly-licensed wireless access providers and mobile cellular operators offerings. A slew of WiMAX trials are in progress, conducted by players ranging from fixed-line and mobile cellular operators to ISPs and PTNs - including Metro Councils, Smit says.

Wireless Internet connectivity is being stimulated by corporate mobile adoption, new wireless entrants into the market leading to more competitive pricing, as well as improved performance of notebooks, which now make them a very attractive alternative to desktops.

According to Dave Drummond, Acer country manager, by late 2006 or early 2007, the first notebooks equipped with mini PCI cards that feature integrated WiMax should hit the local market. The first WiMax handheld computers are expected to follow shortly after.

?Standards for ultra wideband (UWB) should be thrashed out by 2007, clearing the way for the widespread introduction of computer and consumer electronics products based on the technology,? he says.

The 802.11n standard, meanwhile, will boost connectivity speeds in wireless local and home area networks by up to 100M bps, Drummond says, providing support for bandwidth-intensive applications, such as video streaming in the home, and providing better support for voice and video conferencing applications at work.

?For the first time, wireless local networks will match the speed of conventional Ethernet,? Drummond adds.

While wireless technology has done a great deal for the corporate mobile workforce, the sheer number of wireless standards available today, and the rather complex naming conventions that these standards carry have caused confusion, leading many corporates to back away from making investments in wireless technology until a clearer route forward exists.

Ironically however, corporates should not be backing away from wireless technology, since the need to standardize on one of these technologies is a misconception. Corporates should rather be looking towards these technologies to provide end-to-end wireless connectivity to their mobile workforce.

?Many companies do not understand that Wi-Fi (the most common wireless local area networking technology), Bluetooth (a wire replacement technology for connecting devices and peripherals) and the upcoming WiMax standard (a wireless broadband technology for connectivity over large distances) are in fact complementary, and are designed to work in unison to give the mobile worker a complete wireless experience, from their desktop to the open road,? explains Traci Maynard, Acer business unit manager at Tarsus Technologies.

By using all of these technologies together, corporates can ensure that their mobile workforce is always in contact with the head or branch offices, and build solutions that seamlessly switch between the most appropriate wireless connectivity methodology as and when required.

More than just connectivity

But the real, and often overlooked, story of mobility and wireless technology actually originates far from the wireless technologies themselves.

While platforms such as Intel?s Centrino seem to have done wonders for the mobile market, the killer technology, it seems, is still in battery technology.

?Currently, the technologies and platforms available merely make the most of existing battery technology, but the real mobile breakthrough will be when batteries are improved,? Thomas Agostino, product marketing manager for Intel?s EMEA client marketing group told Computing SA earlier this year.

Technologies can offer seamless connectivity, wider access coverage and even higher bandwidth speeds, but a mobile PC is worthless if the batteries run dead.

Whether fuel cells are the answer, or some other technology is developed, Agostino says that it may be a while before we see any real improvement in the ?mobile? part of mobile computing.