Vula Investments, the energy and telecommunications investment vehicle chaired by Mark Headbush — a key figure behind the launch of Wireless Business Solutions and iBurst — has revealed plans to build a nationwide Internet of things (IoT) network through subsidiary Vula Telematix.
Roll-out of the network has already started, with the focus, at least initially, on Gauteng and Cape Town, followed by Bloemfontein and Durban. Vula Telematix, whose other shareholder is Cape Town-based Unipalm Investment Holdings, is deploying technology from US IoT specialist Ingenu (formerly On-Ramp Wireless).
Vula Investments CEO Max Makgoale, who is also CEO of Vula Telematix, said in an interview with TechCentral that although there a number of companies rolling out IoT networks in South Africa, he believes the market is big enough to support all of them.
Dark Fibre Africa, through Sqwidnet, is also deploying a nationwide network using technology from France’s Sigfox, while Vodacom and MTN have expressed interest in building infrastructure based on the nascent Narrowband IoT technology standard being developed by the cellular industry.
Vula Telematix’s network uses “random phase multiple access” (RPMA) technology. It makes use of unlicensed 2,4GHz spectrum — the same spectrum used for Wi-Fi hotspots — which Makgoale said is sufficient to reach IoT devices located in buildings and even underground (such as water meters).
“It is perceived to a very congested spectrum band, but it’s also very wide spectrum. Being wide spectrum, means there are lots of opportunities to optimise it,” he said. “You can transmit between channels, for example. The secret sauce in RPMA allows us to operate without interference and get higher throughput to endpoint devices so they can report much more frequently.”
Ingenu’s technology is able to deliver superior throughput speeds — 55kbit/s on the uplink and 20kbit/s on the downlink — which makes it better suited than some rival technologies to delivering over-the-air firmware updates and other, more bandwidth-intensive applications, Makgoale said. He believes delivering firmware updates to IoT devices will become crucial in the future given security concerns. “If you have a million devices out there, you simply have to be able to send firmware updates to them.”
Vula Investments already has experience in building IoT-type networks, having been responsible for building the network that supported Ithuba National Lottery machines countrywide. Also, subsidiary Telsaf Data has extensive experience in deploying point-to-point and point-to-multipoint connections for some of the country’s big operators.
Vula, Makgoale said, is in talks with Ingenu about licensing its technology not only in South Africa, but in all markets in the Southern African Development Community region. “South Africa will be the springboard to the roll-out.”
He said Vula has already deployed infrastructure in Pretoria and Johannesburg. The focus will soon turn to Cape Town, followed by Bloemfontein and then Durban. He declined to say how much the company is investing in the network, describing it as “significant”.
It has secured a deal to do smart metering for the Drakenstein (Paarl) municipality in the Western Cape and is running several pilots around the country through partners, including a precision agriculture project, a refuse management system and a livestock tracking system.
Vula will work mainly through partners, Makgoale said, while it focuses on building and operating the network infrastructure.
It is deploying its high-site infrastructure on towers owned by American Tower Corp, but is also exploring using Sentech towers. “Demand will determine the number of high sites we end up having.”
Eventually, IoT will be “bigger than mobile” when measured using the number of connected devices, Makgoale said. “There is space for everyone. If you believe half of what the analysts say, there will be billions and billions of devices connected. Even if that is an overestimation, and you believe only half of what they’re predicting, there’s still enough space for everyone.”
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