by Mwangi Githahu

Technology

Fibre rollout connects metropolitans

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With all the digging of trenches in the locality in the latter part of September and well into the first half of October, visitors to a number of Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs might have been forgiven for thinking residents were involved in some sort of large scale re-enactment of the First World War

In fact, the reason for the excavation was to provide a conduit for the laying of fibre optic cable throughout Cape Town and beyond, in further preparation for what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

With this rollout, these areas join other parts of Cape Town and the country as a whole, as bona fide members of the fibre revolution.

The development and deployment of fibre-based broadband access networks are meant to enhance the quality of life for citizens in South Africa—and Africa as a whole—providing African countries with an infrastructure, which will increase their effectiveness and competitiveness within the global marketplace. Residents and businesses in the area will be looking forward to hopefully cheaper, faster and more reliable Internet connections.

Vox is one of the leading South African fibre network providers and when asked how much progress had been made in fibre and cellular coverage rollouts across the country, Vox’s CEO, Jacques du Toit, said, “The rollout has mainly been focused in the metropolitan areas but we are starting to see a shift to the secondary towns. We believe that more than 500 000 homes have been passed with approximately 40% of these connected. It is estimated that the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) market could grow beyond 2 million homes in South Africa over time.”

In terms of lower prices and greater availability increasing access to the Internet, Du Toit explained, “Firstly, we need to separate the carrier component from the Internet.” He then added, “I do see Internet prices coming down over the foreseeable future but not necessarily the price of connectivity. There is a fine balance between the cost of the build, the density of potential customers, the average revenue per users and the penetration levels achieved.

“To bring the build cost down, we can deploy aerial fibre instead of using traditional trenching methods. There will, however, be a point where it does not become economically feasible and then operators could decide to stop the rollout. An alternative would then be mobile broadband but the cost of mobile data is 10 times more expensive than that of fibre. Speeds are also limited and contention ratios play a significant role.”

This led to a question about broadband in South Africa and the manner in which the country has tackled its capacity challenges. The Du Toit said, “The issue around capacity is related to the wireless spectrum. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has been dragging its feet for years now but last week, we saw a massive step forward in terms of the spectrum allocation/auction. With the appointment of the Wholesale Open Access Network (WOAN), spectrum will be made available to the industry to continue rolling out services.”

However as far as DuToit is concerned, “The unanswered question remains: who will make up the consortium? Will there be any obligations that need to be committed to and will it be auctioned off to the highest bidder, in which case it will just strengthen the hands of the monopolies?”

I mention the recent Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services statistics, which said the national coverage for 3G remained stable at 99% of the population between 2016 and 2017, while coverage for 4G/LTE increased from 75% to 77% of the population for the same period. When asked how Vox is preparing for 5G deployment, Du Toit replied, “We will embrace a dual approach. We believe that we are well-positioned to form part of the WOAN consortium to provide wholesale services to the industry. Through our wholly owned subsidiary, Frogfoot Networks, we will be able to supply the Layer 2 fibre backbone to participating players.”

The fibre rollout has also had an impact on cellular coverage across the country. The General Manager for Network Planning at MTN South Africa, Zoltan Miklos, estimated that “Approximately 50% of MTN SA sites are connected via fibre nationally.” He added, “MTN has more than 5 000 kilometres of access fibre nationally in key metros, towns and major routes.”

As to whether the South African government is helping or hindering investment in fibre optic infrastructure, Miklos said, “There is currently no national directive, recommendation or guideline from the government and in most cases, municipalities are taking it upon themselves to institute very restrictive regulations, which make implementing fibre infrastructure time-consuming and expensive. An example would be the Tshwane and Rustenburg municipalities that have instituted exorbitant way leave tariffs and highly restrictive regulations.”

Asked about broadband in South Africa and the manner in which the country has tackled its capacity challenges, Miklos responded, “In South Africa, fixed-line penetration is low and for the majority of people, primary connectivity to the Internet will be via a wireless medium. In the absence of a spectrum, MTN has invested in newer radio technologies and infrastructure in the form of radio base station backhaul capacity, core transport and IP data network capacity expansion.” He said further, “Targeted capital investments in our network infrastructure enabled us to deploy the latest technology at cost-effective rates. At the same time, we continue to lower the means to communicate for many of our subscribers and we will continue to do so.”

With regard to the fibre rollout and lower prices increasing access to the Internet, Miklos was of the opinion that “MTN’s dual data strategy is to provide data access (and, hence, Internet access) to 3G and 4G technologies nationally. Fibre is the preferred medium because it’s bandwidth can scale; however, fibre deployment is expensive and in some cases, is economically unviable. MTN strives to build and operate the network cost-effectively and efficiently while maintaining a seamless customer experience and expectations.”

In addition, he said, “MTN has made substantial investments, not only in expanding its network, but also in building its own transmission capabilities. To that end, MTN is part of the National Long Distance (NLD) consortium that is rolling out a 5 000-kilometre fibre network grid that will connect major cities across the country.”

Meanwhile, as far as 5G is concerned, Miklos said, “MTN has already started trials for 5G, cooperating with companies such as Ericsson and Huawei. So far, various use cases have been tested and have shown great promise for 5G as they have demonstrated mobility and fixed wireless applications have managed to clock of speeds of 1,6 gigabits per second (Gbps) downstream and 520Mbps downlink respectively.”

Miklos explained that over the past few years, MTN has actively pursued the upgrade of its network. He said in 2017, MTN attained the largest network rollout ever. “Throughout the rollout, our unflinching focus has been on creating the very best network experience for our customers. Our dual data strategy (focusing on 3G and 4G) has driven significant coverage improvements over the past two years, while we also focused on improving our voice quality,” he said, adding, “A challenge was the need to manage legacy technologies, while deploying new technologies, in the spectrum-constrained environment within which we operate.”

“In order to achieve the throughputs and experience that have been highlighted in the MyBroadband Mobile Network Quality Report, along with other independent benchmarking providers, significant investment and planning had to take place. We worked on (amongst others) our radio design, technology features deployed (4x4 MIMO on LTE, LTE Carrier Aggregation, LTE 256QAM modulation support), radio base station backhaul capacity, core transport and IP data network capacity expansion. We have rolled out approximately 2 700 new LTE sites over the 900Mhz band over the last few months. This has contributed to an increase in population coverage by between approximately 4% (currently at 87%). The objective is to ensure we roll out new LTE coverage to rural areas as well as improve LTE indoor coverage in metro areas,” said Miklos.

Sean Donovan, the CEO at TBWA/South Africa, spoke about the economic impact of broadband on innovation, job creation and employment. In an interview, he said, “Multiple studies have shown the very clear correlation between broadband penetration and GDP growth, suggesting that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration causes a 0.6–2.8% increase in GDP, depending on specific circumstances. This GDP growth is a direct outcome of increased levels of commercial output and innovation creating extra jobs and higher employment rates. Added to this is a broader trickle-down effect into society in general with, for example, larger tax intakes for deployment to services, a stronger balance of payments positions, etc. The virtuous circle of increased broadband penetration cannot be overstated.”

In Donovan’s view, the greatest impact of social media on businesses has been that “social media has provided businesses with the ability to create personal relationships with consumers and allows for hyper-targeted communications and advertising”. He said, “In theory, this has provided both a more authentic way of communicating with and a more efficient and cost-effective way of reaching consumers. But all of this happens in the public domain and within the realm of social media, customers can, of course, talk back.”

Donovan added, “The positive aspect of this is that it holds businesses to account against their values, promises, etc. But in a minority of cases, it also provides a platform for individuals to unfairly or maliciously attack reputations, something that businesses now need to increasingly guard against, monitor and deal with.”

History of Fibre in SA

The story of the fibre revolution in South Africa and Africa as a whole can be said to have properly begun with SEACOM—a submarine cable operator with a network of submarine and terrestrial high-speed fibre-optic cable that serves the east and west coasts of Africa. SEACOM’s reach extends into Europe and the Asia-Pacific via India.

The funding and development of Africa’s first broadband submarine cable system along Africa’s eastern, southern and western coastlines by SEACOM in 2009, brought with it a vast supply of high-quality and affordable Internet bandwidth. Originally envisioned by a group of African investors in 2007, SEACOM is a privately-owned and operated pan-African ICT enabler.

Since those early days, SEACOM has moved beyond being a cable operator to become a major pan-African service provider, offering a full suite of resilient and scalable data services that allow Africa’s growing ICT community to develop and evolve.

Having gone live in 2009, SEACOM introduced several of Africa’s most underserved, otherwise landlocked nations to affordable, world-class bandwidth.

Speaking about the fibre and cellular coverage across the continent and especially South Africa, Byron Clatterbuck, SEACOM’s CEO, said, “A huge amount of progress has been made. SEACOM was founded in 2009 and at that stage, capacity was probably around US$5 000 per meg, and we can’t imagine that today, right? Now we’re down to sub-US$5 per meg.”

Clatterbuck explained that the challenge for SEACOM has always been getting that capacity to the people who want to use it. He said, “The question then, is what will the capacity be used for? Will we be doing things to improve the economy?

“We’re getting more fibre to home penetration, to commercial parks; the mobile networks are upgrading even though there are complaints out there about speed, but there is no question that it’s improved dramatically.”

According to Clatterbuck, “South Africa has one of the highest percentages of Internet penetration on the continent, and that’s good. There is more and more competition, so you can provide more and more services.” Clatterbuck added that, with regards to broadband in SA and the way the country has tackled its capacity challenges, “The government hasn’t interfered and it’s an open, competitive landscape and if you were to compare South Africa to say, Tanzania or Mozambique or Namibia, it’s a totally different world. South Africa and Kenya are competitive, dynamic markets. The government hasn’t restricted the competitive ecosystem that’s developed.”

Clatterbuck has worked throughout Africa and around the world and says he finds it interesting that, “what you don’t see [in South Africa] is the adoption of what could be done with [the fibre rollout] like business process outsourcing and services that could be enabled by connectivity.

“I see it in Kenya, but I don’t really see it in South Africa. And it’s odd, in terms of creating jobs and employment. Think about it, if you can do basic things—that plus good Internet connectivity—what does that mean for the betterment of the world? If Internet penetration grows then it drives an increase in GDP— I think there has been a huge amount of progress and it continues.

“Essentially, the market is becoming more competitive, which means people are receiving better prices and more choice. And this will continue with greater availability. In a big country like South Africa, the challenge is, is it affordable to roll out to rural communities?”

With regards to the economic impact of broadband on innovation, job creation and employment, Clatterbuck said, “We’re quite involved in Kenya. Outsourcing companies are employing thousands and thousands of people who are learning how to crunch data, doing work in real time—like automated driving systems in Silicon Valley. They’re taking what they have, using it, and creating job opportunities on the back of it. I have no doubt, when I look at this Kenyan office, that we’re going to find stars coming out of it.”

As to the biggest non-business benefits of the fibre rollout, Clatterbuck was of the opinion that the Internet, like anything else, can be used for good or bad. “In this case, it’s the transfer of information, having access to information, experience, etc.,” he said.

With regard to SEACOM and 5G development, Clatterbuck said, “Whether it’s 3G, 4G, 5G it’s about getting it to the customer. The difference with 5G is, of course, the speed. Or the potential of the speed to be much faster. However, 5G also requires you to have a lot of base stations. What that means is that there’s going to have to be a lot more fibre connections to these base stations. The mobile operators in South Africa, like anywhere else in the world, have the evolution they must make, which is to fiberise their backbone network, and they’re all doing it now because of that demand for data on the handset. So, I would think that 5G is going to be rolled out where the people will spend money to get those kinds of download speeds.”

Clatterbuck concluded, “If you’re going to 5G trials, where are you going to put it? Probably New York, Tokyo, Sandton and that’s where you can see if you can sell that proposition. But to even do it, you can’t just throw the base stations out there, you must make sure you have fibre in those base stations.

“What you’re seeing in Africa is the content that people want to see, a lot of it’s being stored locally.” 

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