The fibre revolution in South Africa

April 1st, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT

 

Gustav Smit

Gustav Smit

Did you know that fibre existed in South Africa in 2007?

Yes, nine years ago it did exist in South Africa, but it was a well-hidden, underutilised technology, not available to our mobile network operators, the “second national operator”, value-added service providers, businesses or people at home. We had no choice but to accept substandard, low quality services like EDGE, 2G and limited GPRS mobile services powered by microwave solutions, 256 k dial-up modem connectivity powered by ageing copper infrastructure, and legislation protecting the monopoly of the incumbent telecommunications operator at the time. This was the situation in South Africa, only nine years ago, while Western Europe and North America already had an oversupply of fibre infrastructure by the year 2000, with all its advantages.

The “fibre revolution” started in 2005 with the decision by the High Court to allow mobile operators and value-added service providers (as they were called then) to build their own networks. The monopoly was demolished. It was also the birth of the now well-known term “open access”, which was introduced to South Africa by Dark Fibre Africa (DFA) in 2008. The idea of using one world class fibre network to service all communication needs, sharing capacity amongst everybody that needed fibre, was highly successful, and grew rapidly.

South Africa is however not an easy place to grow start-up businesses. The red tape meant that getting permission to install fibre networks in cities and towns proved to be a massive stumbling block. Although everything was done to remove this inhibitor, it still exists today, and is still slowing down the roll-out of fibre to every building – with a considerable impact on the country’s economy. The decision by provincial government and metros to invest billions of rands to duplicate existing fibre backbone infrastructure also did not benefit the industry or the economy.

South Africa has excellent fibre backbone capacity and infrastructure. Between Telkom, Neotel, DFA, some mobile operators, and lots of smaller fibre owners, almost every city and town has access to fibre. What we need is fibre tails (also called access links) into every building. Five years ago efforts to convince treasury five years ago not to allow provincial governments, metros and city councils to spend billions of rands duplicating fibre backbone that already exists, did not have any impact. Government should have, and still needs to, spend resources on boosting access to fibre by assisting the private sector to tackle the massive task to build the “last mile”. Not only will a project like that create tens of thousands of job opportunities, but it will also have a huge impact on the struggling economy of South Africa. It is a well-known fact that every 10% increase in access to good communication infrastructure and services, can add as much as 1,4% growth to the economy.

Although there are many internal, external and macro challenges, the telecommunication industry in South Africa is healthy and growing. South Africa needs consistently improving technology. The key is access to fibre, and reliable world class fibre networks that are well-maintained. The growth in fibre availability over the last nine years did play a role in our economy and our personal lives, and will be part of our success and existence going forward. Fibre to the business, with all its benefits, LTE-A mobile networks, 100 MB per second lines into homes, and access to the outside world via the internet, have become reality already, and will improve immensely over the next few years. Fibre made this possible, and what awaits us in future, will all be dependent on the quality and availability of fibre.

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  • Rooikop

    The fibre may exist but you cannot buy any services on it! Have been trying to do so since about 2007. I have a business and all the major players’ fibre run on my sidewalk. Vodacom tower within 120m from my door yet the cheapest I am able to get fibre is R9k per month on a 1mbps line – with an exorbitant fee as they apparently have to trench more than 10km to install fibre!. Telkom sells to the complex next door but not to me – the people in the complex next door also do not want to tell me who they dealt with in Telkom and they are also not prepared for me to piggy-back onto their service, even though I had to give right of way for them to install. Fibre business in this country is seriously screwed up.