“Unprecedented” has undoubtedly become the buzzword of 2020. We have had to adapt to many changes, and tech innovations are no exception to this, says Steve Briggs, Chief Commercial Officer at SEACOM.

While COVID-19 caused a global economic slowdown, it was also a catalyst for – though not the sole cause of – rapid digital transformation.

Predictions are that the amount of digital data created globally will be 163 zettabytes by 2025 – which shows that the pace of digitalisation is accelerating. Improvements in connectivity and other developments in technology are fundamentally changing the ways we live and do business and, for leaders and business owners especially, it’s more important than ever to stay ahead of digital trends. These are the trends that I think we should be paying attention to as we move into the new year.

New kinds of connectivity

The introduction and roll out of 5G is expected to transform any industry that relies on connectivity – and not just mobile connectivity. Whereas 4G can only transfer around 1 GB of data per second, 5G has the potential to improve this by a hundredfold. Telecoms giants are deploying and developing 5G phones and networks at a steady pace and 5G is becoming a highly contested subject in the US–China trade war.

5G not only promises to provide faster speeds and more reliable mobile networks, but also to further enable smart technology by increasing the capacity for connected devices and allowing the prioritisation of specific connections in a network.

The challenge for South African networks, however, will be accessing the 5G spectrum to provide these services, and then finding ways to decrease costs. The global economic potential for 5G is expected to create $13.1 trillion worth of revenue as well as 22 million jobs by 2035.

As a perfect partner for 5G, Wi-Fi 6 also started rolling out in 2020. As the number of devices on Wi-Fi networks is expected to grow, so will the volume and quality of data that needs to be transferred. We can expect Wi-Fi 6 to handle more information up to three times faster than its predecessor, with smarter capabilities.

Combined with our continued investment in fibre infrastructure, Google’s new Portugal–South Africa undersea cable, and low Earth satellites that can provide high-speed Internet access to isolated locations, connectivity has the potential to bridge the digital divide by providing universal Internet access to communities across our country.

The future of cloud and edge computing

Improved connectivity is good news as we embrace remote work (I’m sure most of us have had our fair share of problems on video calls!), but now’s also the time to be investing in cloud infrastructure. Currently, the cloud is being pushed to its limits, with cloud traffic expected to process 95% of all data centre traffic in 2021 compared to 88% in 2016, and it’s expected to grow by 41% within the next two years.

Cloud technology enables improved and secure communication, remote collaboration, and streamlines various business processes with effortless scalability. The decentralisation of information could also democratise education in developing countries and allow more people to live as digital nomads. With the aid of cloud computing, hardware will be less of a concern in the future – replaced by a new generation of software. In the gaming industry, Google Stadia is a great example of this, as people will be able to run high-end games in full quality on something as simple as a tablet.

Edge computing is also bringing information processes closer to where they’re needed. Rather than having information travel halfway across the globe, more cloud hosting services will be putting their physical servers closer to customers, improving connectivity speeds, customer experience, as well as security and privacy since encryption can be done on devices rather than servers. For African countries that rely on European servers for most cloud services, this will be especially significant.

Privacy and cybercrime

As digital transformation continues, so will the commodification of personal data, and increasingly people and companies will have to choose between the convenience that digital platforms and services offer and keeping their data private.

Many companies have been fined heavily for leaking user data, such as Equifax, as well as lacking transparency regarding ad personalisation, such as Google. While these fines are often a slap on the wrist for tech giants, privacy concerns will continue to be a priority into 2021 for individuals and businesses. Because the world lacks global privacy standards, consumer data has become “free game” and AI has made collecting and using people’s personal information easier than ever.

The onus is also on businesses to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their customer data against cybercrime. If organisations want to avoid seeing themselves in a brand-damaging headline, they should make 2021 the year that they take digital security seriously.

The rise of intelligent technology

Artificial Intelligence, automation, and machine learning are indisputably laying the foundations of a digital future. AI has been able to simplify complex business processes, analyse massive amounts of data in ways humans never could, and will potentially play a role in nearly every industry in years to come.

AI-optimised manufacturing has led to greater efficiency in outputs and product quality, while also reducing waste. The same effects can be seen in agriculture as it helps analyse farm data, raise yields, and reduces costs of labour. AI is also transforming healthcare as it is becoming an increasingly reliable tool for doctors and healthcare professionals to make informed decisions.

Language model AIs have improved immensely over the last few years, and a shift is happening in the way we may interact with this tech in the near future. The revolutionary language model GPT-3 looks promising, with many potential applications, including the creation of an AI workplace assistant that can be used to navigate business processes in natural conversation.

While many people may think AI will take jobs away from people, it is more likely to become a tool that people will use to complement their work, or allow them to focus their skills on tasks that are less menial and repetitive. AI is not going away, so businesses should be looking at ways to harness its power in 2021.

A brighter tomorrow

Though 2020 was a difficult year, it has accelerated digital adaptation and transformation. If business leaders begin the new year thinking about how to take advantage of new technologies and trends, I have no doubt that South Africa will be well on its way to recovering from the shock of COVID-19.

Let’s move into 2021 with smart strategies in place so that we are ready to grasp the opportunities that better connectivity, cloud computing, and AI will provide.

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