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SATNAC 2002 - Solving the 'digital divide'
25 September 2002, News

SATNAC 2002 took place at the stunning Champagne Sports Resort in the central Drakensberg from 1–4 September. Hosted by Telkom, this is a premier event that gives industry, academia and operators the opportunity to publish on matters their year’s progress achieved in applied research in telecommunications.

SATNAC (Southern African Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference) grew from the tele-traffic symposia of the mid '90s to what it is today - this year's delegates numbered well over 300 and more than 90 papers were delivered. Acting deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Natal, Professor Lance Roberts, opened the conference.

With the capabilities of telecommunications rapidly moving ahead, and now with ubiquitous access via wireless and satellite, Roberts noted that conferences need to highlight the impact that telecommunications has on communities. He said that the SATNAC conference represented an ideal opportunity to network with peers, and that it was important for engineers to work in conjunction with specialists in the social sciences to examine and assess how their developments are affecting communities.

Centre of excellence

The plenary opening was chaired by Charlotte Mokoena, head of Telkom's Centre for Learning (CFL), where the official Charter of the Centre of Excellence (CoE) was formally signed. Launched in 1997, the CoE programme is not only growing local telecommunications and information technology skills, but it is also yielding substantial benefits for the universities and technikons involved and has assisted Telkom and its many partners in solving technical problems. The CoEs are jointly funded by telecommunications players in the private sector, Telkom, and the DTI - through its Technology and Human Resource for Industry Programme (THRIP).

Currently, there are 12 CoEs located at tertiary institutions around the country. In addition to developing skills in science, engineering and technology, the centres are aimed at creating partnerships between historically disadvantaged and advantaged institutions. Skills retention for South Africa is also a significant benefit of the programme, says Telkom. Since many talented post-graduate students are attracted to opportunities overseas, the CoE programme sets out to show them that they do not have to leave SA to do exciting work. SATNAC is the flagship of the Telkom CoE programme.

Solving the 'digital divide'

The key issue at SATNAC 2002, was 'Solving the digital divide'. In his keynote address, Telkom's Chief Technical Officer, Reuben September, said that a major challenge in bridging the digital divide is the enablement of people, particularly in rural areas, to harness the power of the computer and to provide community centres where people can share knowledge and explore the value of the Internet.

"While telecommunications is about building bridges between people and information, there is no single answer to bridging the digital divide. To supply equipment to connect people and their computers is only a small part of the equation. Another important issue is the development of user-friendly interfaces that accommodates the various languages and cultural diversities," he said.

In quoting Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union, who said "turning the digital divide into digital dividends, was at the heart of the ITU's work," September said: "Remember that Africa, more than any other region, faces demanding development needs and a huge risk of falling further behind. A culture of what I like to call 'digital dexterity' must be fostered among the youth through development programmes aimed at improving computer and technology skills."

He stated that Africa - home to one in eight of the world's people - has just one in 50 of the world's fixed line subscribers; one in 66 of the world's mobile cellular subscribers and one in 70 of the world's PCs. The gap between Africa and the rest of the world with regard to Internet connectivity was huge, he said. Africa's Internet users account for only about 1% of the world's total, while computer penetration is less than three per 1000 people. At the same time, the rate of growth in Internet host computers in Africa is much slower than that achieved in countries such as Latin America and Asia-Pacific.

September noted that key factors widening the digital divide was the significant lack of: connectivity meeting affordability levels (basic and broadband); bandwidth for application driven needs; relevant and affordable applications; human interface devices that are compatible, affordable and user-friendly; a synergistic strategy to integrate service offerings.

"To supply equipment to connect people and their computers is only a small part of the equation. Another important issue is the development of user-friendly interfaces that accommodate the various languages and cultural diversities," he stressed.

He urged the ICT sector to find solutions to these issues, and highlighted the potentially significant role for the Telkom CoEs in merging innovation, collaboration with communities and skills development.

"New technologies are also drivers that can help close the communication and information gap between rural and urban areas. Through the CoEs, Telkom is constantly evaluating the value that new technologies can bring to South Africa."

A fundamental philosophy within Telkom is to grow the network elements without replacing those existing. According to September the telecoms industry is moving to a new process that builds on available technology and networks. Here, blending the new with the old can enable faster and more cost-effective building of bridges between people and information.

"Dense wave division multiplex (DWDM) is an example of this unique blend of evolutionary and revolutionary processes. It allows the growth of the Telkom transport network without replacing infrastructure, using existing fibre cables. Another example is the use of ADSL which increases the bandwidth of an ordinary copper wire telephone line by about eight times."

In terms of Telkom's efforts in network expansion and evolution September revealed some figures: in terms of connectivity, access lines were increased by over two million in the last five years, with 80% in underserviced areas; in modernising the network, digitisation of the voice fixed network today stands at 99,8% from 74% in 1998; while bandwidth has been significantly increased with 195 ATM switches now connecting customers and, ADSL has now been launched in Gauteng.

ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) is a technology that turns an ordinary copper telephone line into a fast multitasking access tool. While maintaining the existing telephone service, ADSL also provides data transmission at significantly higher speeds than an ordinary or ISDN (integrated services digital network) dial-up service. At SATNAC delegates were able to try out a demo ADSL system that powered wireless data networks (802.11b, WiFi, wireless LAN) as well as a VSAT system providing basic telephone and fax plus high-speed data.

A number of ICT challenges lie ahead for the country. Some of these include affordable access and applications, speed of delivery, networks and standards, and importantly, user interfaces and customer premise equipment. As an enabler to bridge the 'digital divide' September believes that the Telkom CoEs - as hub for innovation, collaboration, and skills development - will go a long way to achieving this end.

Brain-storming

At the SATNAC 2002 think-tank, over 90 papers were delivered covering the themes: Access Technologies; Operation Support Systems; Broadband Services; Next Generation Networks; Optical Communication; Core and Voice.

The conference also explored topics that included commercial issues in South African telecommunications, innovations in telecoms, SA telecommunication legislation and industry structure, and telecommunication management and training.

Hosted by Telkom, key sponsors of SATNAC 2002 included Alcatel, Cisco Systems, Ericsson, Grintek Telecom, Marconi, MarPless and Siemens. SATNAC 2003 is scheduled for 31 August to 3 September 2003 and will be hosted at the Royal Swazi Sun hotel. For more information about SATNAC, contact Hans van de Groenendaal, vdgroeh@telkom.co.za, 082 553 4539.


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