The Cisco Visual Networking Index Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update is not only the proud owner of the longest report title ever, but of some rather startling facts. The first of these is that global mobile data traffic grew by 74% in 2015. The second is that over the past ten years, mobile data traffic has grown 4 000-fold – a fact followed by 4G overtaking 3G and mobile offload exceeding cellular traffic for the first time in 2015. Not only do these facts point to rapidly growing capacity demands and more strain on already beleaguered networks, but to the need to invest in networks and wireless backhaul strategies that can support the rising tide of data.
“The consumption of data is rising – and rising exponentially. It is estimated that by 2020, an entire generation will have grown up in a digital world. Their reliance on technology and a desire to be connected will transform and digitise the landscape even further, so we need the infrastructure to ensure that this can take place,” says Riaan Graham, sales director, Ruckus Wireless, Sub-Saharan Africa.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not there yet.”
The 2016 Ericsson Mobility Report has put the total number of mobile subscriptions, as of the first quarter of the year, at around 7.4-billion. It has also said that by 2018, the Internet of Things (IoT) will overtake the mobile phone as the largest category of connected devices. It is this very statistic that gives pause when it comes to the capability of the network to deliver on the data promise. Service providers are expected to find the length of a piece of string – predicting backhaul and data requirements with no real idea as to the future of volume and demand. Fortunately, there are solutions making an appearance, touted as possible answers to complicated questions. One such solution is an emerging wireless technology known as Zigbee, designed specifically for Machine to Machine (M2M) communication.
“Zigbee is a secure protocol that connects multiple devices to each other,” says Zayne Nair, a consultant at Deloitte Digital Africa. “This is integral to supporting the Internet of things. Zigbee has recently created a standards document with the hope of aligning the implementation of the technology to ensure all Zigbee devices are able to communicate with each other.”
Wireless is wondrous
The need for high-bandwidth, low-latency data is growing and the technologies that can meet this need are limited. Wireless is perceived as a significant tool for overcoming some of the myriad issues that impact not just the global market, but those unique to the South African context.
“Wireless backhaul as a failover service for primary communication is growing rapidly,” says Marius Visser, executive, Business Solutions, Metacom.
“With all of the problems South Africa is experiencing with fixed wire services, it is almost unthinkable to install primary fixed line connectivity without a viable failover solution being in place. Wireless backhaul with high throughput and low latency is proving an ideal solution for this requirement.”
The technology is also ideally suited for point-to-point connectivity between different premises, if line of sight options are available. According to Arun Abraham, senior manager, Strategy & Innovation, Deloitte Consulting, wireless backhaul will be the most relevant in geographic areas that do not have sufficient wireline infrastructure. And the business case for wireless backhaul rests on its low-cost nature versus wireline backhaul networks over longer distances, along with its faster deployment times and high-performance access. Wireless is cost-effective and growing rapidly as a viable backup to primary connectivity options.
“Wireless is becoming a favourable option opposed to that of a traditional cabled network connect,” says Stephen Green, CTO, MEA, Dimension Data. “A growing mobile application market and IoT are fuelling the connect to market, and are proving to be a catalyst to further driving WiFi. Although wireless has advanced, access to wireless networks can be cumbersome, and, for the less technical, almost impossible. A good wireless architecture and setup is critical to control, manage and connect computing devices seamlessly.”
Superman and kryptonite
Like Superman, wireless backhaul has its own kryptonite. Providers are fragmented and regionalised and business models, plus pricing, remain varied and unsettled. Also, for many operators, there remains a challenge in establishing the monetisation for WiFi as it is still ambiguous when compared to 3G and 4G.
“The issues experienced with carrier-grade wireless backhaul are specifically around the available spectrum in South Africa,” says Jarryd Chatz, MD, BitCo.
“When using ISM, WiFi backhaul (5GB), it is very difficult to provide high throughput over long distances with a stable connection. The other ISM bandwidth, which is 17GB, can provide higher capacity links over a shorter distance, however, 17GB equipment is costly and is drastically affected by weather. Any operator that has a spectrum licence can provide a stable high-throughput connection, but due to spectrum fees, the pricing will not be market-related.”
Spectrum is regulated in South Africa and getting a licence is close to impossible and, as already noted, costly. This has led to some interesting ‘back of the truck’ solutions that don’t necessarily deliver what they promise on the tin.
Ralph Berndt, director, sales and marketing, Syrex, concludes: “As with all technologies, it comes down to the provider and their investment in the underlying architecture. Most providers are more than happy to build highly suspect and under-invested wireless networks that are not able to consistently deliver the kind of service business and individual users are looking for. This is not always the case, of course. Some large investments have been made to build wireless networks in the public spectrum frequencies and these have been able to deliver.”
It’s the 5G party, bring a hat
If you don’t know what IoT stands for, you’ve probably been living under a rock. A rock the latest Pokémon hunter likely lifted while using their data and augmented reality app to just get away from it all. Data is going to rise and rise as IoT becomes a firmly entrenched reality, and it is igniting the demand for the 5G experience.
“There has been an enormous hype around IoT and how it will influence the future,” says James Taylor, senior executive, Business Development, Q-KON. “Some even compare it to the fourth industrial revolution. We have all seen the stats that by 2020, 20-billion devices, 50-billion machines, and four billion people will be connected. Once again, something needs to feed this beast and 5G is earmarked to be it.”
5G is very much a part of the evolving future of mobile communication, driven by the insatiable need for faster data and more data. It also isn’t something that will kick in tomorrow – the estimated arrival date is the not-so-distant future of 2020. That hasn’t stopped Verizon from setting out its testing plans for 2017, though, nor has it slowed down the fierce competition to be the leader in the market.
“Large amounts of money have been invested in researching 5G technologies. A significant stumbling block is the defined need for the network response times to be less than one millisecond,” says Zayne Nair, consultant at Deloitte Digital. “5G will play a significant role in empowering the remote worker, but the challenges of implementing a 5G network are vast and will require network operators to collaborate on finding a solution.”