We chat to Nick Watson, Vice President of Ruckus Wireless for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), to discuss the future of wi-fi and how it can help improve the lives of Africans.

Q: What tech trends do you see in modern business?

NW: We’ve seen a shift in social media being embedded into the daily business practices of nearly every big company in the world. Workforces use social networking as an IP-type application for business, but employees want to use devices that they are comfortable with, and not be restricted to a lockdown application that’s pre-set by IT departments.

The challenge for IT is allowing the workforce to be empowered, but also to keep them secure from any potential threats. Employees are more knowledgeable today. Ten years ago, they were content with whatever device companies provided and boardrooms hadn’t yet realised what they could achieve through IT transformation.

Q: What are the challenges regarding new tech in business?

NW: The challenge is creating different risk profiles for businesses. At one end of the stick, companies want a completely open environment for customers and empower workforces, but this can leave them open to potential threats.

Our specific focus is about how do we connect people in what is an increasingly rich media application? It becomes demanding. People know exactly what they are used to at home. Why would they want their work environment to be any different? It becomes a situation where a company’s workforce brings its own experiences and expectations from home, and often, their own devices too. That has implications.

Q: What implications are there for government?

NW: Government is trying to improve interaction with citizens. But it’s not using the tools that citizens want to use. I think government should work on creating the same experience and connectivity that people are used to at home. In the context of Africa, government’s role is to provide secure, ubiquitous connectivity at a greatly reduced cost of data. In South Africa, including the rest of Africa, the biggest challenge is not connectivity, but rather whether people can afford to be connected. In Europe, the US and many parts of Asia, that problem is virtually non-existent.

Q: How can we solve this?

NW: We need to look at what Facebook is doing in Nigeria. To deliver content and get the next billion people on its platform, Facebook decided to subsidise the cost of connectivity to ensure small business owners and students are able to consume its content. It was great for everyone concerned. Africa needs more initiatives like that.

For instance, Cape Town would like to direct more of the traffic that usually goes to Johannesburg, right? It starts with improving the experience for tourists and business travellers from the moment the airplane lands, and right throughout their stay. They don’t want to look at guidebooks or visit tourism offices, and they don’t want to go through onerous registration processes to get Internet connectivity.

What’s more, they certainly don’t want to pay high prices or be limited on data. I believe the City of Cape Town or any municipality can enable and empower its city. Part of it can be funded through the additional traffic, or even charged back to hotels. Municipalities can conduct environmental monitoring or parking control through Wi-Fi tech, but it requires someone to take a bold step. This can be achieved through public-private partnerships.

In the end, it’s about how we engage with the citizen, employee or consumer by providing a robust, reliable Wi-Fi service, which is secure and pain-free. The technology is there. It’s about delivering affordable, fast and reliable connectivity to enable people and improve the city.

Q: Is public-private partnerships the way to go these days?

NW: The City of New York was widely praised for implementing a public wireless infrastructure that allows various applications to be layered over it, from smart traffic control to advertising. It was made possible thanks to a 12-year partnership with big businesses, and partly funded by the likes of JP Morgan.

The performance of the public Wi-Fi proved to be phenomenal and unprecedented, and led to many people cancelling their cable subscriptions. It’s been a beneficial experience for everyone involved and boosted gross domestic profit (GDP). In Germany, cable companies provided Wi-Fi as an additional service purely to push off competition, but it turned out to be a profitable business model. It requires people who are forward-thinking, both from public and private sector’s side. It can definitely be done. When shared, the cost of infrastructure is often less expensive too.

Q: Why can’t South Africa do the same? What’s the difference?

NW: Europeans and South Africans share the same common problem: we’re often too timid to complain. In New York, people are more vocal and refuse to accept paying high prices for mobile data. There’s always someone who’ll say: “to hell with it” and innovate a solution. The fact is people need to complain more. Go to your service provider and ask them what they’re doing to lower prices. Talk to management of a hotel if you think the Wi-Fi was below standard. Be more vocal about the challenges.

Q: What digital opportunities do you see in Africa?

NW: I know Cape Town’s been experiencing a major drought problem. There are so many significant opportunities that exist with Wi-Fi technology, and it’s relatively simple to do and use. A top-of-mind example is using Wi-Fi and sensor tech
to monitor leaks.

A bank in the Netherlands utilised sensor technology to ensure cleaning staff do not unnecessarily flush clean water down the toilet. They’ve seen a massive reduction in water consumption. This kind of tech can also be utilised for various farming practices. It’s been proven: countries that adopted technology early on, especially in education, had contributed significantly to GDP. Africa has some catching up to do, but opportunities to transform are rife. It’s actually surprising. Africa has a very young population.

Fibre penetration has improved significantly in some parts of Africa. With technology, we need more innovators and providers to put their hands up, but it must also be a collective effort.

Q: How can Wi-Fi tech contribute to employment?

NW: Many say that it could put people out of work, but it doesn’t. There’s often a huge skill shortage. Wi-Fi tech could perhaps automate the production line, but it doesn’t take away employment, and it certainly increases GDP. The challenge lies with an uneducated workforce. Countries must encourage skills specialisation instead of general-purpose skills. To climb the ladder of success, people must have a detailed skill set. Government must make it easier for citizens to acquire these skills, so they can be empowered.

Q: How can Wi-Fi technology benefit business policies?

NW: The policy of a business needs to encapsulate how and where a generation of people want to work. It’s also about training people in new management structures. The most unproductive thing is for a manager to constantly look over an employee’s shoulder. Communication technology and video capability has improved drastically and allows people the opportunity to apply their expertise where and when necessary. Technology’s ability to enable people has been proven. Today, it’s more about whether organisations are able to change, which can often be really difficult.

Q: What gaps do you see in the Wi-Fi market?
NW: What I haven’t seen in South Africa is people capitalising on high-density areas, and what they can do to provide a better service. We’ve started working with several stadia, including other big public venues. It’s somewhat more complicated, but it can be very beneficial. Selectively designed Wi-Fi needs to be implemented where it is of most benefit to large groups of people, like sport stadiums, train or bus stations, or even providing big township areas with external Wi-Fi access that’s affordable. We have the technology to do it. Of course, this will need to be subsidised by big businesses and government. In turn, it’ll provide people with the ability to enable and empower themselves. We underestimate people’s desire to better themselves. It’s about giving them the access to do so.

By Anton Pretorius