The future of SA

October 10th, 2007, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

by  Dave Gale, Storm Telecom

Universities are looking for new communications partners to connect them to the world. It’s a big responsibility: without the pipes, they’re going down the tubes.

There is an aphorism in academic circles: “publish or die”. If you’re not publishing original research, or contributing to academic discourse at a high level, you’re not only unable to compete – you’re not even in the game.

South African universities have to struggle with transformation, with creating skills relevant to our country’s needs, with very limited funding, and with being on the far side of a long plane ride to major centres of research. It’s pretty tough.

But they have been doing it. South African universities are still managing to stay engaged with top-tier research institutions in the US and Europe. And – more importantly – with institutions in China and India, which are our peers as “almost developed” developing countries. This is particularly true in the engineering and sciences fields, where technology is not just key – it’s all-important.

So yes, we can hold our heads high – but much of the success achieved is through sheer determination and grit, because our universities still have to struggle every day with wholly inadequate network infrastructures.

How inadequate? Put it this way – South Africa connects into the G?ANT (Gigabit European Academic Network) at 155 Mbps. European institutions connect in at multiples of 10 Gbps. That is not two or three, but hundreds of times as fast! Fair enough, they’re close to each others but China isn’t, and links in at multiple gigabits per second.

This isn’t just a my-pipe-is-bigger-than-yours locker-room-size contest. It’s a basic requirement for participating in international research collaborations. It’s a basic requirement for developing new technologies. It’s a basic requirement to be competitive in the modern world. We’re not trying to keep up with the Joneses – we can’t. We don’t have the funding or expertise to stay up with the Cambridges or MITs of the world. We’re needing to keep up with the da Silvas and Novaks and Guptas and Changs. Our peers like Brazil, Hungary, India, China.

There are any number of modern technologies that specifically require high speed, low latency connections, notably for voice and video services. This is where a huge amount of commercial opportunity awaits. Many web technologies (especially in the Web 2.0 space) assume a high speed internet connection to function effectively. Modern business applications are often the aggregation of multiple services being pulled in from servers scattered around the office, country or planet. Many consumer and business applications are embedding voice and video. All require high speed links.

We don’t just need fast links to make applications work, we also need development skills and technology strategies that can only be honed in a high-speed network environment. If our students and researchers are learning in an environment that mimics the business environment of five years ago, they’re in trouble.

Turning academic achievement into business success is vital for the future of South Africa’s economy. Look at Yeigo, a startup created by some UCT computer science graduates and launched through the Cape IT Initiative’s Bandwidth Barn business accelerator. This company designed a voice over internet protocol technology to allow you to use your cellphone’s data channel to make cheap voice calls.

Great technology, especially in telecoms-constrained Africa. But while it’s valuable now, in many ways it points towards a developmental dead-end. The rest of the world is heading to broadband with voice running as a virtually free service on it. We’re developing better tyres for the wheel, when the rest of the world is climbing onto rocket-ships. So where to from here?

South Africa’s Tertiary Academic Network – which connects the major tertiary education institutions – is looking for new network partners as its old contract with Telkom comes to an end. It is looking to a new breed of communications service providers to give it high-tech network services that also stretch limited budgets the furthest.

Technology is not just an enabler of science and engineering research – it’s a communications enabler. Not only do universities need to provide fast technical resources to laboratories, they need to provide effective, low cost communications to all staff and students. Cheap international phone calls. video conferencing. The stuff of collaboration.

This is a critical period for South Africa – in this race, once you fall off the back of the pack, regaining your position becomes well nigh impossible. We’re not trying to win the race – that’s unreasonable. But we must stay in the running.

Contact Dave Gale, Storm, Tel 021 442-4200, dave@storm.co.za

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