By PAUL COLMER, EXCO member at Wireless Access Provider’s Association (WAPA)
WAPALOZA is back! With the Covid pandemic behind us, it was time to get back to brass tacks and chart the way forward for South African WISPS, and what better way to do that than at the biggest wireless industry event in the country.
If you weren’t there, you lost out on some of the most critical brainstorming and networking sessions I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of, so I’ll do my best to fill you in on what you missed. As always, please feel free to reach out to me and to your fellow community members so we can carry on pulling our industry in the same direction together.
I don’t need to tell you what a mess the South African wireless landscape is in at present. From the hype of 5G to the physical threat of unconstrained fibre rollouts, and the lack of Wi-Fi 6E progress, WISPS have their hands full just trying to educate their customers about the pitfalls of competitive services that are made to look far better and more reliable than they actually are.
Thankfully, you only need to glance across the pond to see some of the ideas our American colleagues have come up with to counter these challenges. Indeed, one of our two international speakers at WAPALOZA 2022, Nathan Stookes, grew his company Wisper from an upstart to a multimillion-dollar operation by overcoming very similar challenges to our own.
Like South Africa, the US is 85 percent rural, and so Nathan’s examples of how he navigated the business through technology threats and the urban/rural divide were particularly encouraging. Wisper was the second-highest recipient of CAF2, the Connect America Fund, a funding initiative that we should be looking to replicate back home. Now that ICASA has signed an MOU with the FCC, it’s not that much of a stretch to think that we can actually make it happen.
Our second international speaker, Claus Hetting of Denmark’s WiFi Now, had some pointed insights about the future of wireless spectrum, and significantly the 6GHz unlicensed spectrum band we’ve been championing ICASA to open up in South Africa.
Will we follow the examples set by the US, Canada, Brazil, South Korea and most of Europe and at least partially open the band? Claus painted a very compelling picture of what that would mean to local ISPs, what it would mean to the country, and how close we are to getting it done.
My personal view is that we’re so close, I can almost smell it. Of course, we can’t quite start planning for it just yet, because there are other, more pressing threats to the survival of South African WISPS to deal with first. Two of the most pressing, I would say, are the aggressive fibre rollouts and uncapped LTE/5G bandwidth in the regional and rural towns that were once the exclusive preserve of smaller WISPs.
Solutions to these challenges were among the most widely debated on the WAPALOZA speaker panels. A recurring theme was breaking the ‘myth’ that fibre is the holy grail for Internet connectivity in South Africa. It’s not, because it’s fundamentally unreliable. Take any town and you’ll see miles of pavements broken by fibre providers literally digging over and cutting into each other’s infrastructure.
The truth is, as WISPS we have several existing and emerging technologies that are already starting to help us turn the tide on fibre providers and the vapourware also known as 5G. These technologies were, in fact, the main focus of WAPALOZA 2022, and made the second part of this year’s theme much more relevant.
Numerous participating vendors demonstrated new equipment that can already deliver fibre-like speeds in the open 5.8GHz band that most South African WISPS are already using.
Yes, this is expensive equipment, but it’s also very high performing, and more importantly, it levels the playing field for WISPS that want to compete with their larger competitors. After all, we can’t talk about growing and thriving in our industry if we don’t have technical parity, and one of the biggest takeaways from WAPALOZA 2022 is that now, we do.
Along with the tech demos, which were showcased at the vendor exhibition that ran parallel to the speaker conference for the first three days of WAPALOZA, we had ICASA presenting on their future roadmap, and how the local regulatory environment is evolving.
The good news is that after a positive engagement with ICASA, they confirmed the opening of the 60GHz V-band for multipoint, with several vendors demonstrating equipment - available now -that allows us to build wireless 1-gigabit mesh networks in areas where it’s too expensive to use fibre.
Power to the people
Following the three-day conference and exhibition, WAPALOZA was host to two days of (heavily discounted) training for conference attendees, with certified Mikrotik training, wireless LAN, and power provision training sessions.
The latter in particular was a hot topic throughout the conference and training segment. Reliable power is one of the biggest challenges facing every telecoms provider, not just WISPS. But as WISPS we have the advantage of being far nimbler, with feet on the ground to respond quickly to outages caused by battery theft, for example.
Therein lies another reason why LTE and fibre, for all their economies of scale, are far less reliable. Cellular services are among the first to go down during extended bouts of load shedding, and cellular providers are also far slower to respond to battery theft, especially in regional and rural areas.
As WISPS we have feet on the ground in and around the areas we service, which not only helps us improve our services, it also gives us a more important advantage over competitors: home ground advantage.
One of several points of discussion with WAPALOZA attendees was how to overcome the constant threats to our business, and how to improve customer ‘stickiness’ so they don’t get swayed by the latest and greatest fibre and 5G marketing campaigns. Home ground advantage just one factor in our favour. But to thrive, and not just survive, we must appreciate that our technology changes faster than most, and we need to embrace these changes.
WAPALOZA 2022 was first and foremost a forum for WISPS to see firsthand what’s new, what’s available, and what’s coming down the pipe, and to learn how to take advantage of the opportunities to grow their business. The event was about supporting each other at every turn, training your staff, giving you early access to new technology, discussing and mapping out the future, and reporting back on the ongoing fight for more spectrum.
Taking three days out at WAPALOZA can save you weeks and months of problem solving, feeling like you constantly have to put out your own fires. There’s a solution for every problem, and chances are, if you come to WAPALOZA next time, you’ll find them.
Special thanks to Fixed Mobile Telecoms, our Platinum sponsor, and thanks and gratitude to all of our sponsors for their support, great prizes and giveaways which make these events possible.