Wel­come to the fu­ture of in­ter­net

SA’s lead­ing physi­cists are de­vel­op­ing new op­ti­cal fi­bre tech­nol­ogy to en­sure that all South Africans are con­nected to the in­ter­net by 2020

CityPress - - News - HEATHER DUGMORE news@city­press.co.za

The fu­ture of our in­ter­net is be­ing de­signed in the base­ment of the physics build­ing at the Nelson Man­dela Met­ro­pol­i­tan Uni­ver­sity in Port El­iz­a­beth. Here, in the Cen­tre for Broad­band Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, lead­ing physi­cists are de­vel­op­ing new op­ti­cal fi­bre tech­nol­ogy that will be able to send and re­ceive vast amounts of data. To give you an idea of the speed of the in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity the re­search team at the cen­tre is work­ing with, you could down­load a CD or DVD in less than a sec­ond.

This is where I meet Dr Valen­tine Cha­bata, who grad­u­ated with a PhD in physics from Nelson Man­dela Met­ro­pol­i­tan Uni­ver­sity last month. His PhD re­search, funded by the African Laser Cen­tre, was on the use of light to trans­fer and re­ceive big data.

“I suc­ceeded in my ob­jec­tive, and man­aged to trans­mit and re­ceive 20 gi­ga­bits per sec­ond over hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres,” says Cha­bata, who is the cen­tre’s first PhD grad­u­ate. He was su­per­vised by its di­rec­tor, Pro­fes­sor Tim Gib­bon. The tech­nol­ogy will be used by the world’s largest ra­dio fre­quency te­le­scope, the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray, and its pre­cur­sor, MeerKAT, in the North­ern Cape.

But even you and I will use it be­cause an equally im­por­tant goal of the cen­tre is to en­sure the tech­nol­ogy con­nects all South Africans to the in­ter­net by 2020, which is what gov­ern­ment has promised.

It’s all hap­pen­ing in this state-of-the-art re­search fa­cil­ity, which is funded by the de­part­ment of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, the CSIR, and lead­ing in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal in­dus­try play­ers, no­tably Cisco, Telkom, Dart­com and Lambda Test Equip­ment.

Here, you will find a lab­o­ra­tory strewn with elec­tron­ics, wires and out­sized reels of op­ti­cal fi­bre ca­ble. Stu­dents and re­searchers work on im­pos­si­bly com­plex physics prob­lems night and day. Their life­lines: a cof­fee ma­chine and a mi­crowave.

The cen­tre was es­tab­lished in 2015 and grew out of the Op­ti­cal Fi­bre Re­search Unit at Nelson Man­dela Met­ro­pol­i­tan Uni­ver­sity, which pro­duced sev­eral mas­ter’s and a PhD grad­u­ate.

“Light is com­plex and in­trigu­ing, and there is so much we still need to un­der­stand about it. Some­times it be­haves like a par­ti­cle and some­times like a wave. Its dual na­ture has puz­zled sci­en­tists and philoso­phers for cen­turies,” says Cha­bata, who is a physics lec­turer at the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Bu­l­awayo, Zim­babwe.

Gib­bon says: “The re­search that Cha­bata has done is crit­i­cal for our prepara­tory re­search on ad­vanced mod­u­la­tion for­mats, where we are look­ing at meth­ods of en­cod­ing data sig­nals into a light wave in unique ways.”

The band­width will en­able sci­en­tists to seek and re­trieve in­for­ma­tion from our uni­verse by look­ing back in space and time over bil­lions of years. It will also help cre­ate a more eman­ci­pated so­ci­ety by de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy re­quired for fa­cil­i­ties such as eLearn­ing in ev­ery school in South Africa, in­clud­ing in deeply ru­ral ar­eas.

It will en­able other crit­i­cal func­tions, such as eHealth, where nurses, doc­tors and health work­ers coun­try­wide and in­ter­na­tion­ally will be able to di­ag­nose and dis­cuss health is­sues on­line. This will help to ad­dress the se­vere short­age of doc­tors and spe­cial­ists that we face in Africa, be­cause the re­motest ru­ral clin­ics will be able to con­duct video con­sul­ta­tions with spe­cial­ists from the pa­tient’s bed­side.

“In Africa, we have lots of chal­lenges, from telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions to ba­sic is­sues like se­cur­ing food and wa­ter,” says Cha­bata, adding that his PhD has pro­vided the tools to tackle the chal­lenges in var­i­ous fields.

“I su­per­vise post­grad­u­ates at my uni­ver­sity, and de­velop course ma­te­rial for un­der­grad­u­ate and post­grad­u­ate stud­ies in op­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions.”

While his home coun­try has a num­ber of physi­cists, he is the only spe­cial­ist in op­ti­cal fi­bre.

Do­ing his doc­tor­ate meant be­ing away from home for three years, and not see­ing his fam­ily. At the age of 44, this meant Cha­bata and his wife, Stella, had to make sac­ri­fices.

They have been mar­ried since 2000 and have three chil­dren, two girls and a boy, aged 16, 10 and four.

Cha­bata says: “I am so grate­ful to Stella be­cause she had to be mother and fa­ther, and run the home while I was away.

“For­tu­nately, we have the in­ter­net and Skype, so we could speak to and mes­sage each other.”

Stella stud­ied fash­ion and fab­rics at the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy and is cur­rently teach­ing at a sec­ondary school in Bu­l­awayo while do­ing her mas­ter’s in tex­tile stud­ies.

Although he has a qual­i­fi­ca­tion that can take him any­where in the world, Cha­bata re­mains com­mit­ted to Zim­babwe.

Gib­bon says they will be ex­tend­ing the re­la­tion­ship with Cha­bata and his stu­dents.

“Sev­eral schol­ars from African uni­ver­si­ties come to the cen­tre be­cause they don’t have th­ese fa­cil­i­ties at their uni­ver­si­ties. It is im­por­tant for us to help grow physics skills on the con­ti­nent.”

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