Why Vodacom launched 3G ahead of its rivals

Jannie van Zyl is one of the pioneers in South Africa’s broadband market. He was involved in Vodacom’s 3G launch, served as the CEO of iBurst, and is the current head of innovation at Vodacom.

He also owns one of the largest private computer restoration operations in South Africa, and his house was named as one of the best automated homes in the world.

MyBroadband readers were given an opportunity to ask van Zyl questions about innovation, computer restoration, and home automation.

The best questions and answers from the “Ask Jannie van Zyl anything” discussion are posted below. You can view all his answers in this forum thread.


rpm – Why was Vodacom able to launch 3G well ahead of its competitors in December 2004?

The technology was available to everyone at the time, so it was nothing to do with technical reasons. Rather, people like Pieter Uys understood what the internet would become one day and drove it without a “business case”.

Secondly, the challenge posed to the technical people on the ground allowed Vodacom to roll out extremely rapidly while others were claiming it impossible and they’ll “eat their hats if Vodacom got it right”. Which the guys comfortably did. And repeated again with 4G.

BTW, I wonder how many people recall we launched the 3G product and pricing on this very MyBB forum? The first post by a certain vodacom3g.


R13 – Looking back on your own home automation project, would you recommend custom development or commercial off the shelf (COTS) as far as possible with a bit of development where needed?

Always COTS if possible. But, in reality, some hybrid model. The problem is that there are no fully integrated COTS systems today, only (some very good) COTS point solutions, say audio, security or lights.

My approach was to use COTS for all the elements (lights, aircon, security, audio, video, etc.) but integrate them via custom development. This allowed for completely functional (but standalone) control of the individual elements while the integration element was custom developed.

But even the integration layer was built on COTS equipment, only the software running on it is custom.


Napalm2880 – I often find it difficult to dedicate time to “cool” personal projects. How often do you work on yours and usually at what time?

It’s a hell of a problem. Work really seems to interfere with our hobbies!

I fortunately don’t sleep much but I also have a number of different passions, including cycling, riding motorbikes, gymming, studying nutrition and a few others that can take many hours per week. So I tend to try and balance time across my activities including my job in Innovation which is as cool but involves A LOT of reading.

But, in reality, we have a lot of time available. There is an old saying “If you want something done, ask someone who is busy. The other people don’t have time.”

Having an understanding and supportive wife is a huge element, though. Just as an example, when I wanted to redo the workshop, I got home one day and Loanne had cleaned it out, painted the walls (herself), installed all the furniture and even set up some of the test kit!


Foxhound5366 – How close are we to seeing a tipping point for Virtual Reality, taking it from the incredibly niche product it currently is to something that every modern home has (like a television), and what are the major factors currently restraining it from reaching that phase?

If we plot all the attempts in the past and we see where we are today, it might well take another few attempts at getting the technology right.

The problem is that we have many more senses that inform us than the few we tend to think about and VR effectively isolates you from all of them but sight. And then it does not properly reintroduce it.

But even if we could get the technology right (4K or 8K lightweight, wireless glasses with super-fast refresh rates), the biggest challenge is that we remove the human from his environment and this is unnatural. You’re just not going to sit in your living room with your family, each in an isolating VR setup. AR would be much better suited here but even then, the technology must develop further. Look at the failure of Google glasses. It was not a technology failure but the acceptance by the people around you.

So, in the short term, VR will have very specific use cases where you WANT to isolate the viewer. Gaming maybe or where your job puts you in a different environment, say inspection of a remote pipeline or underground mine. As always, adult content will drive the uptake!


tumangc – What new innovations do you think will drive the uptake of IoT and 5G in South Africa?

Practically 5G will initially be driven by sheer speed requirements, i.e. broadband and (especially video) for the home market and connectivity for enterprise.

5G will not impact IoT for quite a long time, irrespective of what we all say today.

The single biggest thing that will drive IoT is the cost and battery life of the IoT devices. There are enough use cases today. But these are not being satisfied because of cost and maintenance.

Design a cheap NB-IOT node with a 10-year battery life and go and pick your preferred colour for your supercar fleet.


Vwaldeck – Do you put SSD drives in your restored computers?

Absolutely. And it makes sense.

It’s one thing to demo the coolness of loading a program off a tape or floppy (if you can find a working cassette player or floppy drive) but it just makes sense to add an SD drive to emulate them. Allows to store a crapload of programs and makes it easier for non-retro geeks to also enjoy the machines.

So, I do both. The cassette player and floppy to keep it genuine and an SD drive for convenience and reliability.


Now read: A look inside South Africa’s most awesome automated house

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Why Vodacom launched 3G ahead of its rivals