Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

IN THE 21st century, one expects to be able to connect to the internet at any time and anywhere. Connectivity needs to be uninterrupted and data needs to travel quickly; it is as if internet connectivity has become a human right. This is a growing belief of people across the world, regardless of their monetary wealth. As such, companies have recognised the business case for bringing wireless connectivity to low income earners and the impoverished in SA.

Wireless connectivity is being achieved in SA through WiFi, a technology that allows electronic devices to connect to a wireless LAN (WLAN) network. Millions of South Africans are being exposed to WiFi at a low or no cost to them but somebody is paying for the technology.

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One company which has become a major player in the WiFi technology arena is VAST networks. VAST operates an open-access WiFi network which its clients can then use to provide WiFi services to general consumers. VAST initially set up WiFi infrastructure in shopping centres and offices across SA, serving the country’s middle and upper class.

It is now bringing technology of exactly the same quality to townships for the first time.

"We will operate in three Gauteng townships by the end of this year. This will be the first WiFi service that many people living in townships will be exposed to. It will be outdoor-based and I am excited that we can reach more people with WiFi technology," says VAST Networks’ CEO Grant Marais.

The identity of each township will be revealed later this year.

VAST is the only platform in Africa that offers Internet service providers and mobile operators a platform that creates a virtual representation of their network.

There were various proprietary offerings before VAST which included offerings by AlwaysOn, MWeb, Wireless G and Telkom. However, as an open access provider, VAST takes responsibility for the WiFi network, allowing others to run their services over the top of it.

The company was publicly launched in November last year through the joining of the WiFi assets of two market players: MultiChoice-owned Internet service provider (ISP) MWeb, and Internet Solutions.

An open access network meant a variety of data service providers could use the same platform. Anyone wanting to deliver a service to end-users could use VAST Networks’ infrastructure on the same technical and commercial terms as any other Internet Service Provider.

VAST has around 2,200 access point hotspots which customers can use to connect to the Internet. A hotspot is a physical location where people can obtain internet access, using WiFi, via a WLAN using a router connected to an internet service provider.

"VAST Networks aims to keep people connected at all times. The network is SA’s most developed and seamless WiFi ecosystem which offers an integrated on-the-go WiFi experience," says Marais.

VAST Networks’ locations include shopping centres, hotels, central transport hubs, including major airports and railway nodes, hospitals and restaurants, and leisure and entertainment venues across SA. VAST earns its revenue through various means.

"VAST Networks sells data to mobile operators and ISPs and also offers infrastructure as a service," says Marais.

BMI-TechKnowledge telecoms sector specialist, Tim Parle says VAST’s move into townships makes sense.

"VAST is deploying fibre in various township areas in conjunction with Link Africa. The combination can provide widespread, high-speed access for many users. As an open-access player, this will will attract service providers who want to expose their brands to people in those areas. Research shows that more than half of the phones in use in SA are smartphones, and by extension are WiFi-enabled. Access to free services (free to the end user) is in high demand", Parle says.

Craig Carthy, a director at Link Africa, says VAST and his company are working together to provide WiFi services across SA. Link develops and lays down the fibre cabling which is used for the service. VAST then pays Link a regular fee to use part of a cable.

He says only a few companies including Link Africa, have managed to create functioning businesses within SA’s fibre cabling industry.

"The barriers to entry are very high. Developing fibre infrastructure is hellishly expensive. This is why we plan very carefully. We have strong relationships with companies like VAST. Right now we are renting out our fibre infrastructure to various clients such as MTN and Vodacom and are working through a backlog of potential tenants," he says.

Clearly, there’s big money to be made from the demand for wireless connectivity, considering that by the end of last year, there were about 10,000 WiFi hotspots around the country, which suggested 19% growth within a year.

SA is still behind the rest of the world, nonetheless. Research released by global WiFi company iPass two years ago indicated that there was one WiFi hotspot for every 6,160 South Africans — far lower than the global average of one hotspot per 150 people.