Staying connected in locked down South Africa

Adrian Schofield shares his perspective on connectivity and ICT in South Africa.

Like most of the world, South Africa is in lockdown. Measures came into force on 26th March and rules have proved more stringent than in some places - although not as much as others - with troops policing the ban on jogging, dog walking and the sale of alcohol and cigarettes.

As per the rules of this global pandemic, economic distress is mounting, people - especially the disenfranchised and vulnerable - are terrified for their lives, while those lucky enough to be in safe corporate jobs are negotiating the challenges of working from home. Yet everywhere the availability of technology underpins all social and business activity and comes with its own unique set of challenges particularly in this southern African state.

In a recent editorial, IT Web highlighted the pressures on the internet. Many poorer South Africans are still only connected via a mobile handset, complete with exorbitant data charges, and, to date, no nationwide measures to cap data, or make it more affordable. Bandwidth consumption, fuelled by the mass confinement, is also having an impact on the system - although Aussie Broadband stats show it's evening entertainment, rather than daily business, that is causing the spikes.  

Adrian Schofield, who has spent more than half his life working in and for the South African ICT industry, spends much of his time these days consulting for the Institute of Information Technology Professionals (IITP), and describes how, without broadband, he has contracts with three LTE providers to cover the data required to work from home. Many of his colleagues have also needed an upgrade to achieve true home connectivity, he tells us.

"We moved our server from the office to a data centre and implemented a virtual switchboard so that our Receptionist can continue to answer calls and direct them to staff members," he says. Adding: "It is too early to sense the feedback from IITPSA members themselves. Like our own staff members, most of them are still working out how to make work from home functional."

Some pundits have suggested that, as Wuhan is one of the main manufacturers of the fibre optic cable that makes up so much of Africa's undersea broadband network, their recent lockdown is likely to have a big impact on South Africa's ICT infrastructure. This could mean substantial infrastructure project delays, as well as slowdowns in broadband speed, if breaks in the cable can't be fixed quickly enough. After all, it was only 2009 - before that the majority of the cable had reached the southern tip - that a carrier pigeon famously proved faster than broadband at crossing South Africa.

Schofield does not buy into this argument. He believes despite Wuhan's monopoly on fibre, the problem of resources "might be self-correcting" as there will be a reduction in demand from countries like South Africa, as they deal with their own lockdowns.

"This will allow the Wuhan producers to recover their output levels," he says. "The city is already beginning to restore its activity levels and although people movement has been decimated, cargo movement continues."

In terms of pressure on the fibre network itself, Schofield believes that there is excess capacity, that is now being utilised to carry the increased traffic at better speeds. "We (southern Africa) are vulnerable to submarine cable breaks (WACS and SAT-3 recently) but we can make better use of alternate routing than we have in the past to mitigate such issues. I think Liquid Telecom is setting a good example."

One area outside of immediate connectivity, that Schofield think is very important when it comes to the impact of Covid-19 on South African ICT is Critical Skills Visas (CSV). Thousands of immigrants are admitted through this system each year and a high proportion of them are in the ICT sector.

"The lockdown has brought that to a halt and even visas already issued were cancelled if the worker had not already arrived. We don't yet know what will happen to such workers whose visas expire during this period. They will not be able to apply for renewal, nor will they be able to fly home in many cases," says Schofield. "ICTs have been recognised as essential services, but it is likely that the regulations around COVID-19 will hinder their ability to meet all the needs of their clients."

In a second role, Schofield is CEO of B-BBEE ICT Sector Council - an organisation that seeks to strengthen transformation initiatives in line with the government's Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment initiative. Although the programme itself shows all the legacy of South Africa's chequered history, in this position, the challenges are more universal to a world in lockdown.

Schofield describes how a new 22-member Council was appointed in February and only had the opportunity to meet once before the lockdown. Now, with members located across the country, in a range of positions and occupations, the issue is how to include everyone in a series of virtual meetings. A lack of superfast internet is clearly not the problem here. In fact, confronted by 22 conflicting voices on a four-hour Zoom call… a few breaks in the service might provide a welcome respite.