Friday, April 17, 2009

Cell phones, dentures, public swimming pools and the Internet

We are a connected nation - despite the spectacular failure of the Government's policy of "managed liberalization".

For many years Telkom was allowed to starve South Africans of bandwidth. 1 Gb of capacity in South Africa costs about R 50.00, as opposed to about R 2.00 in the USA. The CITY of Luxemburg has about the same amount of internet capacity as the entire South African nation.


And yet, despite this, in a population of about 49 million people, 42 million own cell phones.

I was reminded of this "connectedness" again while I was camping last weekend: I met a gentleman who mentioned offhandedly that his friend could not join us as he was searching for his cell phone and dentures. Apparently he lost them in the public swimming pool the previous night.

When one arranges the worlds "cell phone", "dentures" and "public swimming pool" in the same sentence, it is par for the course that "brandy and coke" and "gratuitous inebriation" are implied. Not that I am a stranger to idjit braais. On the contrary, but the funny thing was that no-one batted an eye about the story. Cell phones are more common than dentures - even in camp sites and public swimming pools.

Who could have predicted pot bellied, balding, topless guys with a brandy and coke in one hand, tongs in the other and dentures (mostly) in the mouth will have a cell phone stuck in the elastic of their black PT pants while discussing the Bulls vs. the Sharks and lovingly turning the wors?

The image seems to be the antithesis of technology and yet it is not. Communications technology is so interlinked with our everyday lives, we swim (and drink) with it.

The internet too is about to become as integrated into our lives as cell phones already are. In fact, cell phones will loose significance in all ways other than the fact that it is a method to link to the internet. A Tsunami of abundant and cheap bandwidth is about to hit our shores...and it will change the way we use the internet - just as sure as cell phones and dentures don't float.

Africa (and specifically South Africa) is currently connected the the rest of the world via the SAT3/SAFE cable systems running up the west coast of Africa to land in Portugal and Spain and east directly to India and Malaysia. The cable has a capacity of 120 Gbit/s west and 130Gbit/s east.

It replaces the SAT2 cable commissioned in 1993 which has 0.5 Gb capacity.

To make "capacity" easier to understand: "capacity" means the amount of data that can be transmitted in a given time (speed or bandwidth) - typically measured as Gigabits per second. To give you an idea of relative speeds - to download a 4Gb DVD movie over the SAT2 cable would take about 64 seconds.

To download that same DVD via the SAT3 cable would take about 0.26 seconds or you could download approximately 4 DVDs every second.

In Jun/July 2009 the new SEACOM cable is expected to give live - connecting at 1 310 Gbit/s. It will download your DVD in 0.024 seconds....faster than you can blink your eye. In fact, you can download 40 complete DVDs every second.

By early 2010, WACS (West Africa Cable System) will run from Cape Town to the UK and touch land in several African countries in between. Capacity is expected to be around 3 891 Gbit/s. That is about 122 DVDs per second.

Then comes EASSY toward the end of 2010 with another 1 310 Gbit/s capacity - in theory. Political wrangling amongst the member countries and Telkom (a major stakeholder) have delayed implementation by at least a year.

So, from a current international capacity of 120 Gbit/s on the SAT3 cable, we will upgrade to a total of 6 631 by end 2010 - if all current projects complete. That is a 55 times more international bandwidth than we have now...enough to download 207 DVDs per second...or transmit about 140 000 digital TV channels at the same time.

On a national level, local companies are spending 1.4 billion rand to build a 5 000km fibre optic network in South Africa - independent of the Telkom infrastructure - to be ready for the 2010 soccer world cup.

All new long distance cables are "fibre optic". They contain very thin strands of a special glass fibre which conducts light instead of electricity as were the case in conventional cable systems. The really cool thing about the new cables are that they do not suffer from the same physical limitations as electrical cables:

You can only jam so much electricity into an electric cable before it melts. Problems like resistance, interference and capacitance severely limit the capacity of these cables. Not to mention the fact that, in South Africa, no multi million rand copper cable is a match for our nocturnal informal copper recycling entrepreneurs.

Not so with fiber cables: Since fiber cables work on light pulses (immune to electrical problems) the cables can be upgraded to faster speeds several times before they become saturated. This means that the cables being installed today, will serve us for many years to come and that the bandwidth being added to South Africa today, will be here long after the world cup is done. (These cables yield plastic (or glass) when burnt and are therefore not "recyclable")

I wonder how a South Africa would look where 42 million people have cheap and fast internet access via their cell phones?


  1. Hi Waldo
    I thoroughly enjoyed the CoHost news letter. It had me in stitches. Inebriated is the word for the dude at the swimming pool. But I can tell you, I will sound so educated in the Gbit/s arena that the guys will think I'm studying on the sly to make them look dumb. Thanks for the information and particularly for your wonderful sense of humor. Sandy

  2. Hi Waldo,
    If what you say is true about what we could expect regarding these internet speeds by 2010, then I just start to wonder what Telkom is going to charge the man out there.
    Considering that one is charged almost R300 for a 54Mbps line?