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The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown to curb its spread has had an unprecedented impact on South Africa’s economy and business environment.
The lockdown not only saw many industries forced to cease operations, a fundamental shift in how people work and communicate took place.
Face-to-face meetings were off the table and people were required to work from home as their offices were closed. This saw boardroom tables replaced with tablets running Zoom, and managers designating tasks via WhatsApp and Slack.
The impact extended into the personal and social lives of South Africans, too. A quick trip to the shop became a scheduled event, meeting up for dinner was prohibited, and all education and entertainment activates moved online.
“COVID-19 was a shock to any business,” said Mark Harris, Managing Director of Altron Nexus – a connectivity-focused company which is part of the Altron Group.
Fortunately, Altron Nexus operates in the important space of connectivity - particularly critical communications, fibre networks, and smart systems – and it was able to support its clients during this disruptive period.
For companies who had a digital-first approach to business in place, or were agile enough to rapidly implement one, the shift from “business as usual” to the “new normal” was taken in its stride.
Businesses which were not able to quickly adapt and did not have connectivity plans in place, however, did not fare as well.
"Businesses needed to send employees to work from home. To be able to work from home, you need connectivity,” said Harris.
The impact was also clear to see in sectors such as education, where schools and learners who had fast and reliable Internet connections could take their lessons online – and ensure children continued to learn.
Schools whose teachers and learners did not have Internet connectivity and the required devices - such as laptops, tablets, or smartphones - were left behind, as no schooling could take place during the initial stages of the lockdown.
This was a major shift for the education sector, said Harris.
“It was unparalleled. Suddenly you had teachers who have never used technology having to use technology platforms, and needed connectivity, to do the basic education required during this period.”
Harris added that in a specific case a school and its teachers had access to connectivity and the required devices, but children and their parents could not take part in online lessons due to a lack a of Internet connectivity at home.
The result was that the school had to stop the online lessons for all students, to ensure no one was left behind.
Fortunately, many organizations and businesses have adopted a digital transformation strategy quickly and efficiently – allowing them to continue operating as the lockdown progressed.
This was possible thanks to reliable, stable, and fast connectivity – whether it was fibre, fixed-LTE, 5G, or mobile connections.
In fact, connectivity is now seen as vital to many businesses being able to function at all.
“The world has changed, and I do not think it is ever going to go back,” said Harris.
“Digital transformation is real, and [the] connectivity to support it is real.”
While South Africa does have pockets of Internet excellence in South Africa, there is still a large digital divide which exists between those with who have suitable connectivity and those who do not, added Harris.
Many households in the country do not have access to broadband connections, while businesses which are not based in metropolitan locations face the task of balancing a connection which if both affordable and can deliver adequate capacity.
Altron Nexus and Huawei are well aware of the digital divide which exists in South Africa and are making a concerted effort to bridge this gap.
As a result, the pair have formed a strong partnership to deliver many standout connectivity projects in the country.
This includes the Gauteng Broadband Network, which will connect the provincial government’s offices, over 2,000 schools, and 16 hospitals to a world-class Internet connection.
“It has been a huge success in the way we have rolled out this network, and all of a sudden you have got connectivity into hospitals to be able to exploit the latest technology and applications and systems in order to improve health services,” said Harris.
On a metropolitan level, the City of Ekurhuleni partnered with Altron Nexus and Huawei to roll out its public Wi-Fi network which covers municipal offices, public facilities, and commercial and residential areas within the metro.
Harris said these success are thanks to the strategic partnership it has with Huawei - a global leader in communication and connectivity.
“The only partner who could have got us to where we are is Huawei. It is more than just a company that supplies technology, they have deep capability and what we have found is that with their capability and our capability, we had a competency that could be successful in rolling out networks,” said Harris.
This includes Huawei’s leadership in 5G, SD-WAN, and smart city development.