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Fibre revolution comes to townships

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The fibre-to-the-home revolution that has swept suburban South Africa is about to arrive in the country’s townships, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Fibre-to-the-home is this decade’s magic ingredient for high-speed, painless and unlimited Internet access. But, until now, it has been the province of the privileged. Only the more affluent suburbs of South Africa’s cities have been afforded the luxury of the dedicated optical fibre cables that typically run in trenches along leafy sidewalks.

That is about to change.

Vumatel, the company that sparked the FTTH revolution when it won a contract to supply fibre to the suburb of Parkhurst, is at it again. This time, it plans to connect the townships of South Africa. It has come up with a low-cost alternative to wiring dense suburbs, and intends to offer uncapped high-speed broadband for a mere R89 a month.

To put that in context, the average spend on a cellphone in lower socio-economic segments is typically around R100. Fibre, coupled with in-home Wi-Fi, can replace a large chunk of cellular spend by moving voice traffic from the mobile networks to voice over WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, among other. All data use in the home would move off the expensive data services provided by the mobile operators.

With wide-scale roll-out, this could prove immensely damaging to the operators. More significantly and to the point, however, it could prove immensely beneficial to those who have previously been kept away from the largesse of high-speed, unlimited access.

The Vumatel service will offer a 100Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speed, which typically costs more than a R1000 a month in more affluent suburbs. How is it possible, then, to offer it at a mere R89 a month?

Only with a great deal of commitment to finding an affordable broadband solution for the mass-market.

“We think that the FTTH deployments as we and other operators are doing them are great for the country, because we are moving connectivity forward at a macro level,” says Vumatel CEO Niel Schoeman. “But it is clearly not addressing the information divide between the less fortunate and the leafy suburbs, and potentially exacerbates inequality in terms of information access.

“We’ve been trying to come up with a solution to address townships, to provide that abundance of information to residents of townships. We think we can do it by providing it at R89 a month for a 100Mbps uncapped service. We think that is fundamentally different to a 500MB data allocation on a prepaid service, which has been the only kind of option for connectivity.”

Vumatel will initially roll out the service in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, with an estimated 400 000 residents in the target area.
“That is our township equivalent of the announcement that we were connecting Parkhurst. We’re going to give it a go between now and March.”

The question remains: how is such low cost possible on a business level?

On the surface, the answer lies in Vumatel’s October 2016 acquisition of Fibrehoods, a provider of aerial fibre similar to overhead telephone lines. However, that in itself would not cut the costs so radically. Until recently, Fibrehoods had also been serving wealthier suburbs.

“Clearly, to make that price point work, we need to work hard at the capital cost of deployment,” says Schoeman. “The topography of townships doesn’t lend itself to the typical buried, trenched solution, so we’ll use aerial fibre.

“The price is possible thanks to a combination of technologies , the potential number of customers per square kilometre, and the fact that it will also be potentially contended up to 20 times, meaning 20 customers will use the same 100Mbps line. So each customer is always guaranteed 5Mbps upward, but the probability of getting more like a 20Mbps service is high. Not everyone will be using the same line at the same time.”

Vumatel will also use its fibre to provide Wi-Fi in public spaces in the townships. This service will be possible, partly, thanks to corporate social investment from its 49% shareholder, Investec.
“We’ve looked at a broader Wi-Fi deployment model, but we don’t think it creates the abundance that closes the digital gap,” says Schoeman. “You can use the analogy of water: Wi-Fi hotspots create wells where people can collect water whereas, if you provide piped water to homes, you see people growing gardens and using it in an unlimited way. We want to go deep into every home, uncapped, at high speed, and see if we can make a difference.”

Unlike the suburban model, where Vumatel lays down the fibre and leaves it to Internet Service Providers to deliver access, it will initially provide access itself. It will piggyback on the Dark Fibre Africa grid that will link it to the broader Internet and undersea cables, but will acquire and distribute access and data services itself.
“We first want to see if we can make the model work rather than having to add additional margins for service providers. Our philosophy is always open access so, if it works, we will see if we can let service providers offere innovative services.”

Schoeman believes the eventual fibre market for all service providers will be as much as 35-million. He says it will be possible for Vumatel to bring fibre within reach of another 10-million people in the next couple of years, at a cost of between R2-billion and R3-billion.

“We want to see if we can kick off another catalyst event like Parkhurst, and start a storm: to see if we bring abundant connectivity to low income homes.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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