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Fibrehoods vs Futurehoods: a battle won by consumers

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As fibre-to-the-home rolls out in earnest across suburban South Africa, the army with the most weapons is being left behind on the field of battle, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

In the second decade of the 21st century, fibre-to-the-home represents the arrival of the future. Once the cost of installation is covered, it has the potential to deliver almost unlimited speed, capacity and quality in broadband connectivity, at a similar cost to far slower and unreliable services.

So imagine you have the potential to roll it out to numerous businesses in South Africa, as well as to hundreds of thousands of homes. Let’s say, in the process, you could not only revolutionise connectivity, but also win the goodwill of a consumer base that has done little but vilified you for the previous decade.

What would you do? The answer is obvious. Yet, a company that presides over a 144 000km network of fibre optic cable, and that has been the butt of consumer ridicule since the turn of the century, initially decided to sit out the battle for the future.

The company was Telkom, which has developed its fibre network to serve the exchanges from which copper wire extends to homes and businesses across the country. At one time, it had 5,5-million connections via this fibre-copper marriage. Today it is down to less than 3,5-million. ADSL lines, which deliver broadband to homes and small businesses, reached the million mark for the first time this year, but their growth is constrained by ever-lower ceiling of fixed lines, through which ADSL services are provided.

It’s been obvious for years that Telkom should be modernising its network, replacing copper with fibre and pioneering fibre-to-the-home services. In fact, it had done exactly that for larger business customers, resulting in a nimble, profitable and high-quality business division within the organisation. But it refused to enter the battlefield for smaller businesses and consumers.

Into this gap came the so-called second network operator, Neotel, which also failed the consumer, but got one thing right: it laid down an urban fibre grid, and began serving fibre to business customers more economically and eagerly. At the same time, a private entity called Dark Fibre Africa built out its own urban fibre grid, offering to lease capacity to any operator that needed to light up additional fibre to service its own network.

These businesses opened the way for smaller operators to use these backbones to roll out their own mini-networks in specific areas or niches. For example, Metrofibre serves business customers where many of them are clustered together, such as in central business districts or business parks. And the newest kid on the block, Vumatel, lights up consumer homes, one suburb at a time.

When the Parkhurst Residents’ Association announced last year it had appointed Vumatel as its fibre-to-the-home network provider, Telkom suddenly leaped into battle and declared it would also supply FTTH to Parkhurst, along with a bunch of other suburbs.

It quickly discovered, though, that Vumatel had that high-income suburb neatly wrapped up, and crossed it off the roll-out list. One suburb after another, it is having to do the same, as Vumatel engages directly with resident’s groups while Telkom declares its offerings from a distance.

It is no coincidence that it is even borrowing the terminology used by Vumatel in its suburban marketing. The latter calls the new connected suburbs “Fibrehoods”. Telkom calls them “FutureHoods”.  Unintentionally, the term underlines the extent to which Telkom is responding to competition rather than leading it.

Telkom also appears to have an additional connectivity weapon: LTE-Advanced, or 4G mobile broadband. That means it can offer high-speed connectivity through the simple mechanism of well-placed towers, rather than having to dig trenches across entire suburbs and still have to build connections into homes.

However, Vumatel see this as a means of job creation, and has fine-tuned the process to make it both efficient and economical. The result is that the average homeowner in a targeted suburb pays only R1500 to be linked up, and then chooses the Internet service itself from a range of service providers.

The cost of the service is equivalent to or little more than what many households were previously paying for the combination of fixed-line rental, ADSL rental and data charges. Fibre services typically include a fixed-type phone service at no additional cost.

The announcement last week that residents of Victory Park, Linden, Bryanston South and Blairgowrie had endorsed Vumatel may not have been big news in itself. However, it came on the back of similar announcements by residents of four other suburbs: Killarney, Riviera, Saxonwold and Parkwood. And these, in turn, were underlined by the switch-on of Parkhurst, Greenside and Parktown North.

Each successive endorsement or switch-on is trivial in itself. The momentum it represents, however, is revolutionary. With Vumatel expanding its reach from one suburb to the next, to cover an ever-increasing expanse of suburban Johannesburg, we are seeing nothing less than the emergence of an alternative communications network in the city.

As new suburbs are linked, hundreds of new fibre users suddenly discover the massive impact it makes on work, entertainment and communication activities. Word spreads, and the appetite for fibre mushrooms.

“We typically sat in a chicken and egg situation, where you don’t have high speed broadband so it’s difficult for people to understand what it means,” says Niel Schoeman, CEO of Vumatel. “Consumers are skeptical about paying for something they’ve never experienced. Its only know the price shift has happened that fibre broadband has been commoditised and people are willing to experience it.”

Meanwhile, Telkom has embarked on a marketing blitz to sell its FutureHoods via mobile broadband. But suddenly, its ability to offer both infrastructure and connectivity services in one package has become its biggest weakness: it has to attempt to be all things to all people, which forces it to take a couple-of-sizes-fits-all approach to packaging its services.

Vumatel, on the other hand, is able to draw on a dozen service providers, each structuring its packages to suit a different customer category. Competition between these providers has forced prices down even further. It is not so much a battle as a series of skirmishes that is being fought suburb-by suburb. In almost every case, consumers are the winners.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

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Load-shedding leads
local searches

South Africans are searching in the dark, according to the latest Google Search trends.

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With more 1 million search queries generated in the space of 76 hours, load-shedding was by far the top trending search on Google South Africa this week.

Valentine’s Day came a distant second.

After news emerged last Sunday of the impending stage 3 load shedding, South Africans had generated more than 1-million load-shedding search queries by the time Tuesday came around:

  • “Loadshedding schedule” – generated more than 100k searches on Sunday
  • “Load shedding schedule” – generated more than 100k searches on Sunday
  • “Eskom load shedding” – generated more than 100k searches on Sunday
  • “Load shedding Cape Town” – generated more than 50k searches on Sunday
  • “Load shedding schedule” – generated more than 400k on Monday
  • “Load shedding Johannesburg” – generated more than 20k searches on Monday
  • Load shedding schedule” generated more than 200k search queries on Tuesday

Leading up to Valentine’s Day, South Africans generated close to 300k search queries related to the romantic festival, including searches for quotes and gift ideas:

  • “Valentines Day” generated more than 100k search queries on Thursday
  • “Happy Valentines Day Images” and “Valentines Day Images” generated more than 10k search queries each on Thursday, with “Happy Valentines Day 2019” generating more than 20k search queries on Wednesday
  • “Valentines Day Specials 2019” generated more than 5k search queries on Thursday
  • “Love quotes” generated more than 5k search queries on Thursday
  • “Valentines Day quotes” generated more than 100k search queries and “Valentine messages” generated more than 50 000 search queries on Wednesday

Search trends information is gleaned from data collated by Google based on what South Africans have been searching for and asking Google. Google processes more than 40 000 search queries every second. This translates to more than a billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. Live Google search trends data is available at https://www.google.co.za/trends/hottrends#pn=p40

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Showmax invites
student films

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Thanks to the growing popularity of video-on-demand services, there’s a new opportunity to help kickstart the careers of local filmmakers.

Numerous Hollywood blockbusters (District 9Tomb Raider 2018, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron to name a few) have featured substantial shoots in Johannesburg and Cape Town. While providing great opportunities for SA’s production talent, aspiring writers and directors don’t get the same benefit.

So where can local creatives showcase their work? Broadcast TV isn’t a natural home for unknown short films, and while self-publishing platforms are readily available hosting options, it’s tough to get noticed and get traffic when competing with videos from across the planet.

But with the emergence of video-on-demand services into the mainstream, there’s now a solution. The African film school AFDA has teamed up with the streaming service Showmax to give local talent a much larger platform than ever before. From 18 February, eighteen of the best recent short films made by AFDA students from their Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth campuses will be live on Showmax. Drama, documentary, fantasy, and animation are all represented, in pieces running from under eight minutes to almost half-an-hour long. The full list of movies is included below.

Teresa Passchier, CEO of AFDA, said: “AFDA, Africa’s number-one school for the Creative Economy, is proud to kickstart this exciting and meaningful journey with Showmax and AFDA students, ensuring emerging young African filmmakers’ voices are heard and given a platform. It’s ground-breaking to share young, local, culturally relevant content on the same platform as Hollywood blockbusters. I am certain that this unique initiative will serve to boost and develop the African film industry and the careers of many young South African and African students alike.”

Included in the short films coming to Showmax are the award winners Junior and O-PunchaJunior, directed by Bert Dijkstra, picked up the Audience Award in the Made in South Africa Competition at the shnit Worldwide Shortfilmfestival Awards 2017. O-Puncha, directed by Adam Hansen, won two awards at the 5th annual Eldorado Film Festival: Best Student Made Short, and Best Editing – Alexander La Cock.

Another celebrated film is Sicela Amanzi directed by Mlu Godola, which talks to the subject of water shortage. The film’s heroine Zoleka is a mild-mannered young woman forced to go to extreme lengths when a small community’s only source of water unexpectedly collapses. The power of films like this is they shine a light on critical topical issues in new ways.

Speaking about working with the film school, Candice Fangueiro, Head of Content for Showmax, said: “There’s immense depth of filmmaking talent in Africa and it’s a privilege to be able to give that talent a home and a platform. Showmax is becoming part of the fabric of film and TV production in Africa, and importantly we’re doing this as a partner rather than just as a consumer. This is a key competitive advantage of being local and something we aim to continue to work on.”

AFDA is an Academy Award-winning institution, founded in 1994, and the first and only African film school to win an Oscar – for the Best Foreign Student film in 2006, the postgraduate film Elalini, directed by Tristan Holmes.

The full list of AFDA short films coming to Showmax is as follows:

Film titleDirectorGenre
Lullaby from the CryptKeenan Lott & Raven DavidsAnimation
Ko Ga CherenyaneSibonokuhle MyatazaDocumentary
IzilwaneKyllian RouxDrama
MallemeuleJaco Van BoschDrama
Canal StreetBrodie MuirheadDrama
On the FenceWarrick BewsDrama
The Righteous FewLindo LangaDrama
Hlogoma PeakLuke AhrensDrama
Frozen FlameCameron HeathmanAnimation
WolfBrett van DortFantasy
The Walk HomeSisanda DyantyiDrama
BearWesley RoodtDrama
JuniorBert DijkstraDrama
O-PunchaAdam HansenDrama
UmngenoSiphosethu NdungeDrama
DoreenLuvuyo Equiano NyawoseDrama
ForeverLindo LangaMusical
Sicela AmanziMlu GodolaDrama

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