This year the internet in South Africa turned 30. Like a young person who has hit that age milestone, it has come a long way, made good and bad choices, suffered setbacks, enjoyed successes, and, like the 30-year-old with a spring in their step, it too is on the verge of unleashing its true adult potential.
From the very first IP connection at Rhodes University in 1991, the internet in South Africa has gone through a few phases. First, it was used to transfer mails. It then evolved into a tool to search for and share information and today e-commerce is changing the retail landscape. If you look back at the past 30 years, the internet has been a crucial driver in the evolution and modernisation of our society.
19 years ago, Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings said at the 2002 Education Innovation Summit: “Stone Age. Bronze Age. Iron Age. We define entire epics of human history by the technology they use. In fact, technology has been the story of human progress from as long back as we know. In 100 years, people will look back on now and say, “that was the Internet Age”. And computers will be seen as a mere ingredient to the Internet Age.”
It was the evolution of devices and connectivity that enabled the streaming era, which turned Netflix into a household name. Similarly, it was the demand for these types of services that in turn pushed the evolution of devices and connectivity.
As we mark the 30th anniversary of the internet in South Africa, we are on the verge of a new epoch, again enabled by a leap forward in devices and connectivity. We are about to hurtle into a new internet phase: the era of mass connectedness and virtualisation. This era will drive the monetisation of inefficiencies – which are evident everywhere – and this will trigger a new wave of disruption of the status quo.
Of course, it will have personal entertainment ramifications but the biggest, and by far the most exciting, outcome of this hyper-connected world will be a leap forward in the industry, with commercial opportunities that will spawn entirely new industries and services.
The methodical connecting of everything is already happening, it is just that the mass rollout of 5G will exponentially speed this up. 5G will accelerate the connecting of devices around the world, and this will allow us to make smarter decisions, much quicker and more cheaply.
Education, training, every conceivable application for the Internet of Things, power grids, health, mining – you name it, the type of virtualisation and connectedness that 5G connectivity will allow is limited only by imagination, a healthy dose of research and development and – seeing as though we are in South Africa – a spectrum auction that finally takes place as opposed to being put on ice while other countries hurtle forward.
The creation of virtual worlds has massive implications for commercial use cases. We are experiencing it at a simple level already thanks to COVID-19’s enforced remote working – I can be anywhere in the world but be in your space. We can credit the pandemic for breaking down any remaining resistance to virtualisation and cloud-based strategies.
Virtualisation will fundamentally change how we educate and upskill staff. Think about online training as we know it. The trainee and trainer agree on a time and while the course may be online, it is stuck in the old paradigm: fixed times, limited teaching capacity and limited scope to increase class sizes. In the future, the trainee will do the course when she or he finds it convenient. Artificial intelligence built into the platform will be able to track progress, slow down when necessary or go back to key concepts to ensure proper learning takes place. Now, picture that type of platform being applied on a mass scale.
Imagine a world where private renewable energy sources are virtualised, and then supply and demand analysed to deliver unused power, cheaply, to where it is needed in real-time. Imagine no more, this is not a fantasy and it is likely to be a reality long before our internet friend turns 40.
This concept of monetising inefficiencies and distributing capacity is not new, but it is currently not being used to its full capacity and so in the near future it will be applied far more widely. For the sake of analogy: a truck leaves White River with a load of avocados that it delivers to a market in Johannesburg. That empty truck is now the responsibility of the logistics company and it needs to find a return load or operate the empty truck.
A connected truck, whose virtual twin exists on the internet suddenly opens a world where someone can book a single crate on the drive back to deliver an oven to their mother. Another could book a spot for a birthday present for a friend in a town along the route. In this world, you don’t buy or rent the truck anymore – you buy and rent unused capacity. This analogy is useful to understand the concept, but as this picks up pace and starts becoming more widespread and efficient, it gives an idea of the shape of disruption we will see in the coming years.
Monetising inefficiencies is transferrable and inevitable across all aspects of the Internet, including storage or computing power, which can be bought at a fraction of the cost – as it is unused and already been paid for – and distributed around the world. The evolution of data regulation, coupled with powerful computing power and sophisticated security, will change the way our data is accessed and stored. The shifting paradigm will target inefficiencies and find distribution models, opening established industries to yet more disruption.
For years, we have spoken about how 5G will enable real-time applications in the health sector, smart cities, manufacturing and much more. As these devices, and the people behind them, become more connected in the virtual world, the innovators will find the inefficiencies and sell capacity where there is demand.
Internet service providers such as Vox are in the blocks waiting for the starting gun that has been tied up in spectrum auction delays. South Africans can be sure that the research and development already happening means that we are on the verge of an exciting sprint into the future.
- Jacques du Toit, CEO at Vox