The likelihood of prohibitive licensing fees is set to hamper the introduction of general packet radio service (GPRS) and 3G (third generation) wireless technologies in South Africa.
For GPRS and 3G technologies to properly take off, countries should emulate the example of Japan, which has lent its full support to the establishment of 3G technologies, as well as to the fertile potential for applications these networks support.
Importantly, Japan is one of a handful of countries that does not charge licence fees for 3G, compared to the rest of the world, which collectively accounts for more than $100 billion in fees. Germany alone, for example, imposes licence fees of $46,1 billion, making 3G highly prohibitive for the man in the street to use.
This approach has led to poor adoption of 3G technologies in general and has severely stunted the awesome potential of the technology to support a host of creative applications.
For example, the Tokyo police, who use 3G to fight crime, are encouraging citizens to take photographs of crime scenes using their integrated camera/cellphones and to send these to the police. This dramatically enhances the effectiveness of the police in that country.
Adding to the success of the 3G phenomenon in the Far East is the availability of equipment, with suppliers steadily meeting the demand for millions of cellphones with cameras.
3G in character
3G represents a fundamental paradigm shift in wireless technology, and the imminent launch in South Africa of GPRS, its stopgap 2,5G predecessor, is key to getting wireless off the ground.
However, there are major industry concerns that it will be so expensive that, much like the beleaguered performance of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) technology, GPRS will wither long before it blooms. In fact, it is possible that 3G will never actually come to fruition at all.
Unless the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) resists the temptation to impose prohibitive spectrum licensing structures that would kill the 3G industry in South Africa, the protected telco market could fall prey to another phenomenon, being emerging wireless local area network (WLAN) technology.
There have been some amazing developments out of the United States in this field. These so-called gorilla networks offer 'under-the-radar' wireless connectivity, and providers are becoming increasingly adept at providing free Internet connectivity to an increasing number of users worldwide, South Africa included.
3G vs WLAN
Many people are now asking why would they even need to bother with 3G if they can have WLAN, which is cheap, easy to set up and increasingly pervasive?
Worldwide, mobile operators are starting to deal with the potential threat of WLAN. In some countries, content to be making the billions of dollars of profits on traditional GSM networks, certain mobile operators are guilty of actively hampering the growth of wireless networks.
In Australia, for example, one mobile operator recently bought out a WLAN operator, possibly to get rid of the potential danger to its business.
Another global trend, however, is seeing many mobile operators responding to the challenge by building their own WLAN networks to complement their existing networks.
The South African telecommunications industry faces its own, considerable challenges on both legislative and political fronts that are dramatically constraining the growth of the market.
These closed, restrictive market conditions make it highly unlikely that South Africa will achieve the utopian example of Tokyo.
Further undermining the progression towards GPRS and 3G in this country is the ongoing sparring among service providers and ICASA's unpredictable approach towards granting mobile licences.
Despite the host of stumbling blocks in the growth path of ubiquitous bandwidth in the wireless industry the groundswell of gorilla wireless networks will have the potential to fill at least part of the gap.
Messaging - instant, e-mail, voice and fax messaging - will become the killer applications of wireless technology, much as e-mail is the killer application of the Internet.
However it happens, the widespread availability of wireless networks will open the floodgate to exceptional messaging applications that wait in the wings, particularly business messaging technologies and tools.