Will Seacom Enable a sea change?
Bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. It is a problem which is as old as the Internet is in South Africa and which is seemingly impossible to solve with an intractable Department of Communications, an obstinate monopoly and an unwilling government as primary obstacles. However, the telecommunications industry in SA is, if nothing else, endlessly optimistic that the situation will change - and so it does, albeit rather slowly - to deliver the bandwidth necessary to enable real broadband services.
The latest glimmer of hope comes in the form of Seacom, an undersea cable which will link the pointy part of Africa to the rest of the world. When it is commissioned early in 2009, Seacom is expected to add a whopping great 1.5 terabytes of connection capacity to existing links. With that, believes Louis Yssel, CEO of YSL Group, SA consumers should start seeing the Internet as it should be - along with the benefits that high-speed connectivity enables.
"What we have thought of as a fast connection in this country to date, is not even broadband. International access remains the real bottleneck which inhibits the capability of especially voice and video applications to run satisfactorily," Yssel says.
He questions how many SA Internet users access multimedia content or connect with friends or colleagues around the world using video communications. "The applications to do so are available, some are even free. But it is the old bugbear of costly or insufficient bandwidth which limits the usefulness of these applications," he says.
Scaling out from individuals making calls, he says the many other benefits which are presently curtailed include the ability to deliver lectures or classes by video link, or for doctors or other professionals to render assistance remotely. Or for companies to rapidly exchange important data.
"More bandwidth means these and a hundred other scenarios can happen," Yssel says.
He draws particular attention to unified communication, which research house Gartner expects to go big in 2009. "South Africans can't afford to be left behind as the rest of the world - with ample bandwidth - forges ahead with improved methods and modes of communication. The real power of unified communications, that of integrating voice, video and every other method of exchanging messages except postal items, depends on bandwidth. More bandwidth will deliver a more satisfying user experience," he states.
However, the inevitable fly in the ointment concerns how access to that bandwidth is to be managed. "The best case scenario is that the rights are sold to competing organisations; the worst case scenario is that it is monopolized by Telkom. That will result in a rerun of the old challenges and limitations with which the market has had to deal since day one."
Yssel retains the optimism common to many ISPs which have been banging their heads against a wall for upwards of a decade. His only concern, however, as Seacom approaches completion, is whether or not the seemingly massive 1.5TB capacity be enough. "We've seen that with hard drives. Once people have access to digital content and the boundless possibilities of the Internet, capacity never seems to be sufficient," he concludes.