‘Notspots’ on the road in SA – and Icasa

delmar-on-the-road

In the UK, it seems, they have things called “notspots” – the opposite of hotspots, places where mobile voice and cellular data connectivity is simply non-existent.

In developing and testing the Magaliesberg Biosphere and the N3 Gateway apps, I’ve discovered more than my share of South African notspots.

This country’s notspots are a problem but until very recently we had the means (and, almost, the money) to get rid of them. And then the government got too clever for its own good…

When we first launched the Platinum Road app a couple of years ago it required the user to download a pretty hefty app: more than 50MB. When we launched the N3 Gateway and Magaliesberg Biosphere and the new Platinum Road apps we chose to make them “online” as opposed to the first Platinum Road app which was “offline”.

With the initial Platinum Road app what this meant was that, once you had the app installed on your smartphone or tablet, the audio would find you, as long as you turned on Location and Wifi. You didn’t need to be connected to a cellular network. (No data connection, no data charges.)

With the new apps, though, we decided to go online because we can do so much more that way: updating content on the fly, telling people about great short-term specials, even road closures. But this needed connectivity. And some pretty small data charges. We figured this was a good trade-off.

So I hit the road, for days on end, with four devices with four SIM cards, testing iOS and Android and, most importantly, how good the various networks were at delivering audio content to my array of devices, far from the urban areas where 4G is taken for granted.

The results were mixed. Very mixed. In the boondocks some networks are better than others. Some devices are better than others.

The wonder of our apps is that, as you drive into a particular place, the app suddenly kicks into life and starts telling you a story relevant to where you are. We’ve worked hard to position the trigger distance carefully; sometimes you will notice that the audio quality isn’t as good as with other points of interest. That’s because we’ve had to keep the audio file size really small. Because Cell C or MTN’s signal reach is sometimes pretty poor. On occasion, even, the signal reach is non-existent. So the apps don’t work so well.

But in 2016 Icasa (the Independent Communications Authority of SA) put up for auction new bandwidth – arising from this country’s belated migration to digital television. One of the conditions the successful bidders would have been bound by was to cover the country with, basically, 4G by 2020. But then the  minister of telecommunications went to court to stop the auction because he had some idealistic idea about wholesaling the spectrum so that we could all own a bit of it.

Can you imagine what the benefits of wall-to-wall 4G rural penetration might be in terms of rural upliftment, job creation and entrepreneurship? We could use our apps to direct foreign travellers to historically-disadvantaged crafters, restauranteurs and tour operators. They could use our apps to showcase their wares and their capabilities. Our apps would work, with blinding efficiency anywhere. While costing the user next to nothing. For amazing, value-added content of all sorts.

But we won’t be getting 4G in the countryside anytime soon, not in the Magaliesberg, the foothills of the Drakensberg, the Dargle Valley or  the empty stretch between Swartruggens and Zeerust. Because the minister knows best.

(Thank you for using our apps. If, on the road, your cellular service provider doesn’t finish picking up a particular point of interest, your mobile phone will sometimes get stuck try to keep playing that particular point of interest. Or it may decide to start playing a POI from far away. If this happens, try to again download the chapter you want to listen to, or hit the ‘Back” function. We’re working hard to make our apps as robust on the road as possible but until the cellphone companies are given an incentive to invest in very expensive 4G infrastructure in rural areas we’re always going to be up against it. Unless you’re with a mobile company that really has invested in rural communications.)

Peter Delmar (The Highwayman)