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Uncapped is the new black

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As video-on-demand and fibre-to-the-home begins to switch on in South Africa, the public will begin to learn the real meaning of data demand – and pricing models for data will have to change, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

In the coming months, suburban South Africa will see an explosion in the use of both video-on-demand (VoD) and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH). The former will be driven by intensification of competition between ShowMax and Netflix, and the latter by the race between a growing number of start-ups laying down fibre in the suburbs. The fibre incumbent, Telkom, suddenly  finds itself up against Vumatel, Fibrehoods, Metrofibre, Maboneng Broadband and even MTN, among many others.

High-speed Internet theoretically eliminates buffering, although there’s nothing one can do about content that is housed on slow systems. However, for major commercial services like video-on-demand, the dream of instant streaming becomes reality.

Video-calling from home becomes a quality experience rather than the grainy, jerky visuals that have chased most consumers away from video chat. Online gaming tournaments where split-second reactions make all the difference are suddenly feasible. There are numerous other advantages and benefits, but there is also one major drawback: most fibre subscribers will run out of data almost as fast as they can say “Download THIS”.

The way FTTH works in South Africa is that the customer pays a once-off installation fee to the installer, such as Vumatel or Fibrehoods.  A choice is then made of service providers, who offer a range of packages based in line-speed and data allowance, either on contract or a month-to-month basis. Some of these providers will even carry the installation cost if their service is chosen.

The cheapest services start at 4Mbps with a 20GB cap (WebAfrica), at around R424 a month, and an uncapped 4Mbps service at R499 (Vox Telecom), both for month-to-month services. However, the typical FTTH customer has signed on to get serious speed and quality. Netflix itself advises a minimum speed of 5Mbps to watch streaming movies in high-definition. It says 3Mbps will do for standard definition.

What about ultra high-definition? Although the range of ultra-HD content isn’t great right now, it is accelerating fast to take advantage of new 4K TV sets and the increasing speeds of broadband. Bear in mind, most consumers investing in equipment right now are not expecting to have to repeat that spend in the next five or even ten years.

If one is already considering ultra high-definition movies, the minimum speed required is 25Mbps. For now, however, HD is expected to be the norm.

But then comes the data crunch.

According to Netflix, HD movies use about 3GB of data per hour. So if you are using Netflix to replace existing TV use, and you watch an average of 2 hours a day – and assuming only a single stream – that is already 180GB of data per month. This excludes regular Internet use, which in a typical suburban family of 4 can be well over 100GB when one adds social media, gaming, chat, YouTube binging, and trying out app after app.

This means that, to be safe, a family with fibre would need a cap of at least 400GB a month. If movies and videos are being streamed to more than one device, regularly, even that is an optimistic cap.

The real message is that, if VoD is replacing TV and you are moving existing heavy Internet use to FTTH, then uncapped makes sense.

Now it starts to get complicated. Uncapped services at reasonable speeds start at a seemingly reasonable R799 (from Cool Ideas and XDSL) – but there is a massive discrepancy between download and upload speeds: both offer 20Mbps down and 2Mbps up. Which is fine if one is only watching movies, but not much better than ADSL for high-speed gaming, video calls and anything else requiring high speed in both directions.

In short, the cheapest fast-download uncapped offers may well provide an experience equivalent to ADSL.

The weakness of ADSL lurks in the meaning of the acronym: “asynchronous digitals subscriber line”. The asynchronous part means you get about a tenth of the download speed for uploads. A line running – if you’re lucky – at 8Mbps downloads typically gives only about 0.8Mbps uploads. Hence the horrible quality of Skype video chats on typical ADSL lines.

The cheapest FTTH deals, then are also asynchronous, making them ADSL alternatives rather than the full experience of fibre. Cool Ideas offers uncapped 20Mbps up and down at R899, while XDSL offers the same at R999.

While both offer free installation and only a month-to-month commitment, the drawback of the sub-R1000 options is that most still do not deliver on the future that fibre promises. Based on currently available content, websites and behaviours, a no-limits service would start at around 50Mbps down, while some level of asynchronicity would be tolerable, i.e. from 5Mbps upward.

Here again, Cool Ideas leads the way with a 50/5Mbps uncapped package at R999, while a 50/50Mbps service comes in at R1099. The equivalent priced service from MWEB and Vox Telecom, with the same speeds, have 500GB and 400GB caps respectively, just scraping in to the minimum that a highly-connected family would need.

The truly high-speed home or office may well be looking at 100Mbps speeds, and here the cost shoots up, with Cool Ideas offering an uncapped 100/10Mbps service for R1499, and XDSL at R1549. The 100/100Mbps service from Cool ideas goes up only slightly, to R1599. At the time of writing, no one else seems to be offering uncapped services at these speeds, although Cell C is trialling its service.

MWEB offers an insanely fast 1Gbps download service, with 100Mbps up, but astonishingly places a data cap on it – a mere 500GB. The R2499 cost may be dirt cheap compared to an equivalent service just five years ago, but customers of the service would want a bit of uncapped to go with it.

The bottom line for both customers and service providers is to appreciate that isn’t their father’s ADSL. In a new content world, with quality of image and format rising fast and data demand going up even faster, uncapped is the new black.

Speeds may vary, and different usage will require different speeds. But just as ADSL as we know it is no longer good enough, service providers’ current data caps are out of sync with the content explosion these same service providers are promising.

* 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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Deezer to host Hotstix’s Mandela tribute playlist

Deezer is celebrating Nelson Mandela on the centenary of his birthday by hosting a tribute playlist created by music legend Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.  

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Mabuse, a legendary figure in African music, first rose to prominence in the 1970s with his band Harari and later developed a name for himself as a solo artist. One of his best known songs was the global hit BurnOut in the 1980s.

The playlist takes the listener on a captivating musical journey through the life of Nelson Mandela.  It was compiled by Mabuse, who consulted with Mandela’s family and friends to ensure that the music would be relevant and accurate. The playlist also features commentary by Mabuse, which was recorded in his Soweto home.  

“I have tried to tell the story of the music that Madiba loved,” says Mabuse. “The Playlist excludes the time in prison obviously, as Madiba would not have had exposure to music in that time.  We have focused on the music we know he loved before and after that period. This recording was really an emotional journey for me, but an incredible opportunity to document these memories.”

The playlist features the music the young Mandela loved, such as The Manhattan Brothers, Solomon Linda, Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba.  It includes struggle songs from Chicco, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.  The playlist also includes Mandela by Zahara, one of the younger artists who caught Madiba’s ear.

Mabuse also offers stories of his own songs, such as Shikisha, a song greatly beloved by the former President.

“I was delighted to share my thoughts and hope the listeners enjoyed the musical journey,” says Mabuse. “Madiba did enjoy music immensely and we all have a purpose wherever we are in the world to celebrate culture and to learn from different cultures and music forms and styles.”

This playlist was inspired by the Nelson Mandela 100 campaign, calling on corporates and individuals to act as sources of inspiration and engage in conversation and action.

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Sports streaming takes off

Live streaming of sports is coming of age as a mainstream method of viewing big games, as the latest FIFA World Cup figures from the UK show. Africa isn’t yet at the same level when it comes to the adoption of sports streaming, but usage is clearly moving in the right direction.

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England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden was watched by just under 20 million viewers in the UK via BBC One. While this traditional broadcast audience was huge, it was streaming that broke records: the game was the BBC’s most popular online-viewed live programme ever, with 3.8 million views. In Africa, the absolute numbers are lower but the trend towards streaming major sports events on the continent is also well under way.

According to DStv, live streaming of sports dominates the usage figures for its live and recorded TV streaming app, DStv Now. The number of people using the app in June was five times higher than a year ago, with concurrent views peaking during major football and rugby games.

Since the start of the World Cup, average weekday usage of DStv Now is up 60%. The absolute peak in concurrent usage for one event was reached on 26 June, during the Nigeria vs Argentina game. The app’s biggest ever test was on 16 June with both Springbok Rugby and World Cup Football under way at the same time, resulting in concurrent in-app views seven times higher than the peaks seen in June last year.

The World Cup has also been a major reason for new users to download and try out the app. First-time app user volumes have tripled on Android and doubled on iOS since the start of the tournament.

“While we expected live sports streaming to take off, it’s also been pleasing to see that the app is really popular for watching shows on Catch Up,” says MultiChoice South Africa Chief Operating Officer Mark Rayner. “Interestingly, some of the most popular Catch Up shows are local, with Isibaya, Binnelanders, The Queen and The River all getting a significant number of views.”

With respect to app usage, the web and Android apps are the most popular way to watch DStv Now, with Android outpacing iOS by a factor of 2:1.

“We’re continuing to develop DStv Now, with 4k streaming in testing and smart TV and Apple TV apps on their way shortly,” says Rayner. “The other key priority for us is working with the telcos to deliver mobile data propositions that make watching online painless and worry-free for our customers.”

The DStv Now app is free to all 10 million DStv customers in Africa. The app streams DStv live channels as well as supplying an extended Catch Up library. Two separate streams can be watched on different devices simultaneously, and content can also be downloaded to smartphones and tablets. The content available on the app varies according to the DStv package subscribed to.

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