SA gears up for Wi-fi calling

According to local providers, it’s only a matter of time before Wi-fi calling becomes a natural part of South African networks

Wifi has long been seen as a high-speed alternative to mobile data networks, but despite widespread adoption on small scales, the technology faces resistance from mobile network operators.

“What I’ve noticed locally is that as South Africans we are very cautious of change and undertake smaller roll-outs to test technology solutions to see if they work before we make huge invests in them. I think with time they will,” Michael Fletcher, sales director sub-Saharan Africa at Ruckus Wireless, told Fin24.

Wi-fi is regarded as ideal for only short range communication and the spectrum is unlicensed – a key concern for large network operators. Despite this, new technologies are causing operators to take a second look at Wi-fi technology, especially in high traffic areas where it is difficult for companies to cope.

“Wi-fi has proven to be a complementary solution for mobile operators in their effort to improve their service delivery to their customers and Wi-fi calling is the next step,” said Fletcher.

Ruckus has demonstrated a number of key technologies that makes Wi-fi viable, especially as regulatory delays continue to stymie efforts to deliver true 4G and even 5G spectrum. Some technologies include secure networks, carrier grade traffic management and long range Wi-fi switches.

In SA, AlwaysOn has launched its Wi-fi calling service, which operates along the lines of popular services such as Skype and WhatsApp calling.

In the US, Sprint and T-Mobile provide wifi calling where the device can automatically switch to a wifi network if the mobile network in unavailable.

Wi-fi could make an impact in rural areas traditionally under-served by mobile operators.

“Wi-fi installations could mean the difference between no ICT access of any kind and an affordable service as it can be used as a complementary medium to enhance the operators’ offering – allowing them to get cost-effective access to consumers in these areas,” Fletcher said.

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In the City of Tshwane, Wi-fi is seen as a critical element of the government’s policy of driving universal internet access by 2020.

The Western Cape government is intent on spending R1.3bn as part of a broadband initiative for the province, in line with the South Africa Connect: Creating Opportunities, Ensuring Inclusion South Africa’s Broadband Policy.

“Pervasive and affordable broadband is likely to stimulate innovation in broadband applications and services. This needs to be accompanied by investments in the development of critical mass, in ICT R&D capabilities, in innovation support measures and in advanced human capital development,” says the policy document.

Project Isizwe has launched a pilot programme of Wi-fi internet access in the rural Eastern Cape at the Ingwe TVET College Mount Frere and Lusikisiki campuses. “Everyone says ‘it’s easy in Tshwane, but you can’t do it in a rural area’, but here we are,” Alan Knott-Craig Jnr, the brains behind Project Isizwe, told Fin24 recently.

But Wi-fi access through calling has serious implications for mobile networks – especially if there was widespread adoption, warned Fletcher.

“The technology used for Wi-fi calling will drive greater amounts of smartphone traffic onto wifi networks and this could fundamentally change the mobile network operator business model.”

He added that consumer patterns have already dictated that Wi-fi is a national connectivity standard.

“The reality is many consumers have become used to the idea of connecting their mobile devices to their home networks or other wireless hotspots to save on costs. It would therefore be a natural extension to use this connectivity for things such as voice calls and text messages.”