The fastest-growing network in the country

SqwidNet is the national network provider for the Internet of things (IoT) in South Africa

Phathizwe.jpg

A wholly-owned subsidiary of Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), SqwidNet is a wireless network provider with national coverage and the official South African Sigfox IoT operator since November 2016.

SqwidNet covers 85% of the South African population with its network. With over 90% and 75% coverage across municipal and national highways respectively, it has become the fastest-growing IoT network in South Africa. Since its launch, SqwidNet has partnered with over 30 ICT service providers, which are at various stages of deploying ICT solutions across a number of industry verticals.

“Our main role is to not just be the connectivity provider, but the cornerstone that enables South African businesses to innovate using millions of connected things,” says Acting CEO, Phathizwe Malinga.

Malinga is no stranger to the role of a strategist, as he consulted with both Max Healthcare and the Life Healthcare Group while he was employed at Life healthcare. He has been involved in the information technology industry for over two decades. In his previous role as Head of Application Strategy at the Life Healthcare Group, Malinga oversaw the IT application strategy and software development for the group.

“SqwidNet is the local implementation partner for France’s Sigfox network. Sigfox is an ultra-narrowband technology which operates in the industrial scientific and medical (ISM) band. What makes it important to operate out of that band is it’s free and regulated by ICASA, this lowers the cost of enablement for both us and our customers.

“We’re deploying in the 868 megahertz range, which has been used for industrial, scientific and medical operations—your emergency services and your ambulances would use it, and for research also—it’s a free-to-air radio band. When Sigfox enters a country, the first thing they do is approach the government, ensure that that spectrum is clean and being used for what is intended and then they build our business model from there.

“We’re operating in a very thin sliver of the spectrum between the TV broadcasters and the mobile operators but because we’re ultra-narrowband, we’re scale-friendly, so the more devices we have operating on the 868, the better it is for us. The technology that we deploy uses what we call geolocation so besides it having GPS, you can get an increased location accuracy on a device just by using geolocation It’s a machine-learning technology that learns from Sigfox but it also learns from GPS devices, so the more GPS devices that are out in the field, the better the non-GPS devices start performing.

When we deploy a base station, we anticipate two million IoT devices but we operate it as if only one million IoT devices are going to connect to that base station. In the country, we’ve deployed over 600 base stations so far, so that would mean we are ready for at least 600 million devices,” explains Malinga.

Sigfox has established a network presence that now reaches 45 countries, covering 803 million people with a footprint that exceeds 3.8-million square kilometres. This rapid global expansion of the Sigfox network has further fuelled the growth in device and platform development, which is a key contributor to the availability of solutions that drive digital transformation in businesses.

Sigfox gives a voice to the physical world, thanks to a dedicated network. At least three base stations service each section of the coverage area and every message is sent in triplicate to ensure that every device has a reliable and secure connection. This allows us to offer a business-grade SLA. The service focuses on simplicity, autonomy and small messages. There is no signalling nor negotiation between a device and a receiving station. The device decides when to send its message, picking a pseudo-random frequency. It’s up to the network to detect the incoming messages, as well as validate them. The message is then available in the Sigfox cloud and forwarded to any third-party cloud platform chosen by the user.

“As we have reached our set target of 85%, we view our coverage as nationwide. That percentage of the population lives on about 30% of the land and we will attend to the other areas on a case-by-case basis. So if you live out in the middle of the Karoo and you have a farm, and your prided cow, Bessie, is the only thing that you will be deploying for, we will come out and we will make sure Bessie can be seen,” says Malinga.

“Some of these IoT devices are going to be deployed in somewhat unusual places, potentially places where a signal can’t penetrate too easily, and that’s the beauty of ultra-narrowband. We can go from what was previously maybe one metre, and penetrate down to floors that are underground without you needing to do anything extraordinary. We are working on indoor coverage for areas like mines, for example. Say you’re in a shaft many metres below the ground, we do provide a technology called repeaters. These repeaters are quite self-contained, they make sure that any device that’s in the mine—or any device that’s tracking your asset—is covered,” he adds.

SqwidNet, together with its partners, is working on some notable projects that have entered commercial deployment. These include air quality monitoring around a waste management facility where the customer wants to ensure that they operate responsibly by monitoring for gases such as hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds. Another notable project aims to detect intrusions at thousands of facilities with the benefit of optimising maintenance and the associated service delivery. Asset tracking, be it from a location perspective or associated asset usage, is a popular customer request resulting in the deployment of solutions today that are able to track both valuable and high-value goods.

A very passionate topic for SqwidNet and Sigfox is conservation.

“Sigfox has a foundation and we are working closely with wildlife conservationists in South Africa and Zimbabwe on better ways to unobtrusively track the rhino, which incorporates our goal to protect not just the rhino but the park. It’s all about movement and situations beyond the rhino—it’s everything,” Malinga says.

Malinga explains that there’s a great interest in SqwidNet’s technology. Because it’s so ultra-narrowband, it’s difficult to jam, and they’re starting to see good applications in that space, which is uniquely South African in terms of the uptake.

Sigfox technology is proprietary in terms of the standard—Sigfox maintains that standard—but it’s not closed in terms of what you can do with it or asking for permission to develop for it.

“It is an open ecosystem that we run and we believe that as SqwidNet, we are building an open-access IoT ecosystem,” says Malinga.

“The technology’s benefits lie in it being low-power and low-cost. As an IoT platform, SqwidNet allows for South Africa to deal with a number of its challenges, especially at a local government level. From ‘below the ground’ to ‘above the ground’, our technology allows for a smarter industry, from mining to agriculture, to manufacturing and logistics, to home and security. With SqwidNet being part of the Dark Fibre Africa family, we inherit all of these values from our parent company. This forms a great basis. Finally, with Sigfox as our technology partner, it affords our customers transparency to what we do,” he concludes.

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