Attending high-level telecommunications conferences such as the South African Telecommunications, Applications and Networks Conference (SATNAC) is always a bit intimidating.

While our job is to understand technology and how it works so that we can report to you folks in a meaningful way, the high-level engineer talk that happens at telecommunications conferences can often leave you feeling flustered and – for want of a better word – dumb.

This year’s SATNAC was different however.

The theme of the conference was The Data Tsunami – Enabled through Software Defined Transformation. That sounds like a mouthful but to distill it down to it’s simplest explanation the conference looked at how data can be used to improve services for telecommunication firms and ultimately – end users with the help of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation.

That having been said, there was also a lot of talk about the human element behind the technology and of course those that use it. Speakers such as WITS University vice-chancellor Adam Habib, Telkom Group chief executive officer Sipho Maseko, WITS Business School Digital Chair Dr. Brian Armstrong and BCX chief digital officer Rapelang Rabana spent much time talking about the human aspect of technology which was refreshing to hear.

Telecommunications issues no longer just about telecommunications

One core issue that I took away from SATNAC is that telecommunications is no longer just about telecommunications.

As Dr. Enrique Hernandez-Valencia a partner at Nokia Bell Labs Consulting revealed to attendees, communication service providers can no longer afford to ignore over the top (OTT) services such as WhatsApp and Netflix or write them off as a non-starter when it comes to competition.

In future communication services providers will have to offer users better experiences.

We see this to an extent already with services such as black from Cell C and View+ from Vodacom which makes movies, series and even music available to subscribers. In terms of black, Cell C customers don’t use data to stream content from that platform but services such as these need to be expanded upon.

This is also not a 10 or 20 year exercise either. With services such as Netflix and Spotify gaining ever more traction in the public space, CSPs will have to work hard to make this a reality soon but there is a hurdle in the way.

Spectrum spectrum everywhere but not a drop to spare

We know that the vast spaces between human settlements be they towns, villages or sprawling cities makes connectivity a labourious process.

For this reason spectrum is vital to delivering services and being ready for the commercial availability of spectrum.

As you might be aware, spectrum is a scarce resource in South Africa and Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko cautioned government during his keynote address at SATNAC.

“Regulation and policy can be a big enabler for data growth but regulation must keep up with the market and tech advances. Regulators sometimes almost exclude themselves from the debate,” said the CEO.

Speaking about the recent news that the Electronic Communications Amendment Act is now before Parliament and we might soon get news about the Wireless Open Access Network, Maseko says that policy and regulation must be designed around the needs of the future rather than addressing today’s issues.

The tech is here, it just needs implementing

By far and away the most incredible part of SATNAC was hearing about the technology that brings about transformation.

The star of the show was of course 5G because it is such a versatile technology. We’ve spoken about the baseline benefits such as lower latency, higher throughput and increased stability before but 5G also paves the way for other technologies.

Director of Cloud Opera Innovation at Huawei, Alan Bryne gave a fascinating talk about Intent Driven Networks (IDNs) which allows firms to create a digital twin of a network that aids in pre-emptive maintenance, network management and much more all centred around improving user experience. For instance, should you watch video at a particular time every day, the network can adapt to deliver that content in the best way possible, in real time.

Of course all of this requires communication service providers make the moves necessary but they in turn are held up by regulators and policy makers.

Telcos are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place because they want to start making services such as 5G available but are held back by regulations.

But what surprised me the most about SATNAC is how passionate every speaker was about Africa, even the international firms such as Nokia are looking at the continent with a fresh vigour that you can’t help but be inspired by.

Digital innovation has the power to change lives especially in Africa and it’s vital that governments around the continent realise the potential that access to technology can provide.

For many years we’ve done things because “that’s the way we’ve always done this” but that attitude won’t help Africa as the fourth industrial revolution progresses.

To paraphrase vice chancellor at WITS University, Adam Habib, if we lag behind during this revolution in technology we will fall behind the rest of the world once again. So how do we insure that doesn’t happen?

Wait. What exactly is the point of SATNAC?

Ironically the solution rests in SATNAC itself.

While the conference features keynotes from experts the point of SATNAC is to give students that pass through the Telkom Centres of Excellence (COE) programme a chance to present their fresh ideas to the aforementioned talking heads.

The first COE programme started in 1997 and in 1998 the first SATNAC was held to honour those students.

Having engaged with a few of the students and overheard their hushed conversations ahead of presentations, there are some great ideas emerging from our universities and there is something we could all learn from these engineering and computer science students.

Just because we’ve always done something a particular way doesn’t mean we have to do it that way anymore. In fact I’d go so far as to say we should challenge everything we know and if it needs disruption then so be it.

After a day and a half of intense discussions about networks and services I walked out of SATNAC feeling hopeful about the future of telecommunications in Africa and what it could mean for the continent.

Of course we need government to move with haste but perhaps we’ll save that discussion for another conference.