A new era of converged communications

Information and communication are at the heart of any modern business, and thanks to advances in technology these two previously disparate areas have begun to blur into one, creating what has become known as Information Communication Technology (ICT).

Deregulation and additional bandwidth, along with the uptake of cloud computing is further blurring the lines between IT and telecommunications, and has resulted in many more players entering the market place.  With these new players and resultant services presenting a smorgasbord of choice to the end user customer, a skills and competency gap has emerged.  In short, these changes have driven the requirement for companies that have an understanding of the ICT chain from core to transmission to access telecommunications networks, last mile connectivity options to the business including gated communities and delivering the full ICT infrastructure along with broadband connectivity, services, maintenance and support.

The convergence of IT and communication technologies such as telecommunications, broadcasting and even cloud-based services has been enabled partly due to the vastly improved broadband infrastructure in the country. The deregulated environment along with the landing of several undersea cables and improved internal infrastructure has meant that service providers can piggyback off the cabling infrastructure to deliver a whole range of new services and technologies, from voice and data to cloud media services, data centres and even the new move towards Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT). None of these services would be possible without the infrastructure backbone enabled by a deregulated environment.

However, while deregulation has enabled the previously segmented environments of IT, telecommunications and broadcasting to meld into one, the South African environment is still waiting for the local loop to be unbundled.  Opening up last mile connectivity fully is first prize for the consumer and for new service providers. Local unbundling will not only enable consumers to access more bandwidth and better broadband, it will enable smaller providers to deliver services to customers, driving a more competitive environment.

Until such time as this comes about, however, carriers must look to service providers who can deliver alternative methods to provide this last component of connectivity of access to the business. Technologies such as wireless, LTE, which is due for full deployment in South Africa in 2012, and fibre deployments, are all coming into effect to help consumers and businesses alike to take advantage of the abundance of available bandwidth and the converged technologies that this availability offers.

Aside from the challenge of the last mile, the ICT environment in South Africa has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years. Faster, more available broadband has enabled Voice over IP (VoIP) services to become a reality, converging voice and data and challenging traditional telecoms services. More bandwidth has also enabled hosted and cloud computing services to become viable options for businesses and consumers, and a deregulated environment has given international carriers far more choice when it comes to selecting a local partner to develop a point of presence with.

As a result, carrier-neutral co-location hubs have become necessary to provide carriers with a centralised telecoms hub or 'market place' where they can connect with any other carrier who has a presence in that marketplace. These data centres provide interconnection points to a variety of operators locally, providing a point of presence in the country, along with flexibility to change operators quickly and easily, which results in cheaper international calls using a variety of telecommunications partners all over the world resulting in lower costs to the end user.

Broadcasting too has seen a revolution at the hands of improved infrastructure, with a move towards digital enabling a whole new world of opportunities, from Internet television streaming to broadcasting on handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets. Convergence has enabled new broadcasting services to become possible, and traditional television producers have embraced this with offerings such as video on demand, interactive TV and mobile television access. Co-location hubs also come into effect in this environment, providing points of presence for international broadcasters to bring their services into the country and cloud storage facilities for broadcasting.

While convergence of ICT has opened up a world of new opportunities, it reinforces the requirement for telecommunications and traditional IT focused businesses to partner with integration specialists that understand the interconnectedness of the new landscape, and having an end-to-end solution and understanding of skills required across the spectrum for this sector. In addition, the enterprise also requires partners that can bridge the gap between metropolitan networks and their last mile of communications - harnessing fibre and/or WiFi to enhance speed and performance.  

With everything moving into the IP space, IT skills are permeating the entire broadcasting and communications value chain, since the backbone of all of these infrastructures now share a commonality in the need for connectivity and bandwidth. However simply having IT skills is not enough, and a multitude of skills from a variety of previously disparate fields need to be integrated including IT, telecoms and broadcasting, in order to leverage the cross-functionality of the new ICT space.

Service providers need to step up to the plate, offering true end-to-end services across the board of ICT skills, and businesses need to partner with these end-to-end providers to enable South Africa to be truly competitive in the evolving global landscape.

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