Missing the video revolution

At the Cisco Partner Summit in Boston in 2009 I was in attendance when the networking company revealed research it has been conducting into network traffic. Cisco predicted that by 2013 90% of all consumer IP traffic on global networks will be video. Cisco’s research suggested that a revolution is underway in video communications and IPTV. And that South Africa is missing out on it – because we simply do not have the bandwidth.

When Apple announced the iPad in January I watched live coverage of the event on my favourite online channel – TWiT. Presenter Leo Laporte and a group of US-based journalists did a better job of covering the occasion via online streaming video than any of the conventional news channels. It was raw, on-demand journalism and a clear indication of things to come.

Watching the stream in South Africa was painful at first. The standard quality stream from TWiT requires 1000Kbps for smooth viewing, and while my Telkom 4Mpbs ADSL line is capable of four times the minimum requirement I still had to switch to a 400Kbps stream to avoid buffering delays.

My ADSL line is also not the norm in South Africa where most people have to contend with choppy wireless connectivity or slower DSL speeds starting at 384kbps. At those speeds, and with the latency and packet loss of wireless, accessing Youtube is a challenge, never mind streaming live video. Whereas in most of the developed world a 1000kbps stream is peanuts – you could watch it smoothly while running bitorrent and speaking to your mother on Skype.

So while South Africa sits in the dark ages, so to speak, the rest of the world forges ahead, binging on online video. In the USA users stream movies via Netflix on their Xboxes and other devices, or watch television on online services like Hulu. Youtube now accommodates high definition video, and if you live in South Korea or Sweden you’ll be able to watch those massive, high resolution files without any buffering.

For most South Africans even a short, low resolution video file requires minutes of buffering before it can be enjoyed without hiccups.

Local video services like Zoopy have gone someway to bringing us video services on local bandwidth – which does make a positive difference. What we need is more local content producers and aggregators to make services available domestically, and to fill the gap until our bandwidth catches up with the rest of the world. But even if we did have the equivalent of a local Netflix, it would still be challenging to watch a feature film over local bandwidth, because our domestic networks are an even bigger problem than the lack of international pipes.

In January I watched high definition video streaming wirelessly to a car connected via LTE in Paris – something I can’t do with my desktop computer at home. When you experience online video or IPTV in a developed country it makes you realise just how far behind the curve we are in South Africa.

This is especially sad given the possibilities that video holds for developing countries. Video bridges the gaps created by literacy and travel constraints, allowing teachers to show pupils things without the latter having to read. The teacher can also be anywhere in the world and the content can be prepared ahead of time. It isn’t the solution to the puzzle of education in Africa, but it could be a prominent part of it.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that we are making progress in the race to catch up with the globe when it comes to broadband – and perhaps even leapfrog most of the developed world when we get there.

At the moment, however, we are falling behind even our African counterparts, like Nigeria and Kenya where domestic networks and regulations are fast progressing to unlock international bandwidth in a meaningful way.

In South Africa we still face regulatory hurdles and a hybrid industry where old meets new in a unique way, and within a chaotic, deregulated market.

It’s going to take time for the dust to settle, the regulator to process the likes of local loop unbundling and spectrum allocation, and older networks to be consolidated with up-and-coming competitors. We also need the additional international capacity, and accompanying economies of scale that will come from undersea cables like WACS and Eassy, to bolster what has begun with Seacom.

It’s happening, but not fast enough for impatient geeks like me. In the meantime I’ll have to stick to more conventional means of obtaining video, and be thankful for my 4Mbps DSL connection, limited as it is.

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.