|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2008|
|Topic:||Wireless and the power savvy worker|
|Author:||Thami Lawrence Mtshali|
Thami Lawrence Mtshali is CEO of Wireless Business Solutions, which now trades as iBurst. Mr Mtshali was the company’s COO before becoming its CEO. He has held senior posts at Sasol and was design engineer at race tyre manufacturer Goodyear and R&D engineer at Texaco New York. He was also a process engineer at Foster Wheeler in the US. Mr Mtshali’s initial experience was in the Petro Chemical Industry before becoming actively involved in the telecommunications industry, including as the Secretary-General of the African Telecommunications Forum. Mr Mtshali has a BSc in chemical engineering (cum laude) from Tuskegee University in the US and a MSc from Akron University in the US.
Universalisation of telecommunications services is often stymied in remote rural regions by the lack of electrical energy. In regions off the electrical supply grid, it can be difficult or costly just to charge one’s cell phone battery. In some urban regions served by electrical utilities, such as in South Africa, where the energy supplies are erratic, battery-powered wireless devices, such as laptops and cell phones have come to the rescue of businesses that must continue in operation despite power outages.
In recent years, the concept of living ‘off the grid’ has gained in popularity amongst households wishing to live in a self-sufficient manner without reliance on public utilities such as municipal water, gas or electricity. In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom where the idea seems most popular, many people assume that the primary reasons for opting for this kind of lifestyle are environmental. It seems logical that traditional energy sources are eschewed in favour of renewable energy sources such as solar power and even wind power out of concern for the well-being of the planet. However, in the book How to live off-grid by Nick Rosen, one of the top reasons for opting for alternative power supplies is to save money. This is not exactly an overly altruistic motivation, but indirectly beneficial to the environment nonetheless. Whatever the reasons for going off the grid in the developed world, the simple fact is that many developing world citizens have never had the chance to go ‘on grid’ in the first place. And now, in the same way that it is argued that having something and losing it is worse than never having it at all, hundreds of thousands of South African households are being forced to go off grid entirely involuntarily. All of this is seeing the emergence of a new kind of South African consumer forced to adapt to an energy crisis. Not only are we becoming experts on the pros and cons of diesel-powered generators versus battery-powered inverters, many of us are consciously seeking to deploy ‘Eskom-proof’ (South African electrical utility, currently suffering from a lack of generating capacity) technologies in our homes and businesses. Wireless technologies are stepping up to the plate and providing a viable alternative to traditional wired technologies that are more vulnerable to power outages. There are now wireless modems that can be powered by the USB, PCMCIA or ExpressCard slots of the user’s laptop. The declining popularity of the desktop modem is set to decline further as South Africans continue, by necessity, to choose wireless devices with battery back-ups over desk-bound equipment connected to the office wall. It used to be that people who were techno-savvy opted for such state-of-the-art mobile equipment as laptops, PDAs and USB modems. Today, we have seen the emergence of the power-savvy worker who has eclipsed the traditional wireless road warrior. Transformed into ‘Load-shedding Larry’ the road warrior of today chases electricity. While the laptop, wireless modem and cell phone do to some extent enable the South African office worker to continue being productive when the lights go out, sometimes it’s just not that pleasant working in the dark and without access to a ready supply of caffeine. For the uninitiated reader, ‘load-shedding’ is the term used to refer to the deliberate cutting off of the electric current on certain lines when the demand becomes greater than the supply. Although South Africa’s electricity utility has been receiving flack around the issue and investor confidence appears to have dipped in the wake of the country’s electricity crisis, the term was certainly not coined by Eskom which indicates that load-shedding is not unique to South Africa. Indeed, when rolling-blackouts regularly hit millions of Californians during 2001, no one suggested that the state was teetering on the edge of a major disaster. It was a challenge to be managed and so it will be in South Africa. Consider this excerpt from an article written by one Kevin Bonsor at the time of the blackouts: “The scene on the streets and in buildings in California is becoming a very familiar scene on the nightly news. The lack of power paralyzes normal activity, with dead traffic lights creating traffic jumbles, and schools and businesses grinding to a halt. This crisis has been gripping the state for months, but has been building for years.” This all sounds very familiar to South Africans right now. Back to Load-shedding Larry; he will typically use his cell phone to find out from his friends and colleagues where there is a working public plug point and a hot cup of coffee nearby. Usually, he arrives at a hotel lounge or a coffee shop franchise to find intense competition for necessary plug points should the load-shedding last longer than most laptop batteries. It’s very interesting to think of South African mobile workers as a kind of modern herd forced by circumstances to attempt to corner energy instead of prey. There is the same intense competition involved and even a Darwinian survival of the fittest evolutionary process at play as load-shedding negatively impacts upon the fortunes of the deskbound worker without access to wireless technology. One could be forgiven for thinking all of this adds up to quite a gloomy picture for South Africa unless one took a moment to consider why we are in this current power crisis. Sure, the inadequate planning referred to above is one reason many of us are waking up to chilly showers and cold breakfasts. However, the primary reason all of this is happening is because the South African economy is growing and it has been since the early 1990s. I would love to know how many other countries have experienced so many consecutive quarters of positive economic growth during the kind of extreme and momentous transition we have been privileged to experience. And even though growth this year will not reach the 6 per cent level we had all hoped for, it is still forecast to be around 3.7 per cent which is not exactly a recession by any stretch of the imagination. I think this proves the resilience of the South African economy, which is far more robust and developed than many people would believe. South Africa essentially put the brakes on an unpalatable form of government, backed away from the unpleasant place it was headed and somehow we all managed to keep moving forward. I think that’s just incredible, and aside from electricity demand exceeding supply, other tangible evidence of the continuing success of the South African economy can be seen in the growing numbers of citizens with access to wireless technologies. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people become iBurst, Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, Virgin Mobile and Sentech customers. Looking at this long list of wireless operators, none of which existed when South Africa became a democracy, cannot fail to fill one with a sense of pride. It is pride not for pride’s sake but pride in knowing that every base station the industry puts up, every customer signed up and every school connected to the Internet, powers South Africa forward to the kind of economic growth that will bring poverty to its knees. Many overseas visitors I meet are surprised at the sophistication of South Africa’s wireless infrastructure. When Americans were fumbling with their massive analogue cell phones and the patchwork of technologies that were deployed across the United States, South Africans had access to the very latest digital cellular technology. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find any South African without access to a cellular phone. When it comes to wireless Internet, it is clear that wireless data technologies are being adopted with the same enthusiasm that greeted the cellular industry in 1994. And the best thing about wireless data for a developing country like South Africa is that it has a potentially much greater positive impact on the economy because of the easy access to learning and income-generating opportunities that it provides. In conclusion, it is interesting to note that the growth of wireless in this country has been due to our generally booming economy, and now that we are having issues with electricity supply it is wireless that is coming to the rescue of the economy.