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.”
Tech promotes connections across groups in emerging markets
Digital technology users say they more regularly interact with people from diverse backgrounds
Smartphone users – especially those who use social media – say they are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds. They are also more connected with friends they don’t see in person, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds.
South Africa, included in the study, has among the most consistent levels of connection across age groups and education levels and in terms of cross-cultural connections. This suggests both that smartphones have had a greater democratisation impact in South Africa, but also that the country is more geared to diversity than most others. Of 11 countries surveyed, it has the second-lowest spread between those using smartphones and those not using them in terms of exposure to other religious groups.
Across every country surveyed, those who use smartphones are more likely than those who use less sophisticated phones or no phones at all to regularly interact with people from different religious groups. In most countries, people with smartphones also tend to be more likely to interact regularly with people from different political parties, income levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds.
The Center’s new report is the third in a series exploring digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam. Earlier reports examined attitudes toward misinformation and mobile technology’s social impact.
The survey finds that smartphone and social media use are intertwined: A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media or messaging apps, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. And, as with smartphone users, social media and messaging app users stand apart from non-users in how often they interact with people who are different from them. For example, 52% of Mexican social media users say they regularly interact with people of a different income level, compared with 28% of non-users.
These results do not show with certainty that smartphones or social media are the cause of people feeling like they have more diverse networks. For example, those who have resources to buy and maintain a smartphone are likely to differ in many key ways from those who don’t, and it could be that some combination of those differences drives this phenomenon. Still, statistical modelling indicates that smartphone and social media use are independent predictors of greater social network diversity when other factors such as age, education and sex are held constant.
Other key findings in the report include:
- Mobile phones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. More than half in most countries say they see in person only about half or fewer of the people they call or text. Mobile phones are also allowing many to stay in touch with people who live far away: A median of 93% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with those who are far-flung. When it comes to social media, large shares report relationships with “friends” online who are distinct from those they see in person. A median of 46% of Facebook users across the 11 countries report seeing few or none of their Facebook friends in person regularly, compared with a median of 31% of Facebook users who often see most or all of their Facebook friends in person.
- Social activities and information seeking on subjects like health and education top the list of mobile activities. The survey asked mobile phone users about 10 different activities they might do on their mobile phones – activities that are social, information-seeking or commercial in nature. Among the most commonly reported activities are casual, social activities. For example, a median of 82% of mobile phone users in the 11 countries surveyed say they used their phone over the past year to send text messages and a median of 69% of users say they took pictures or videos. Many mobile phone users are also using their phones to find new information. For example, a median of 61% of mobile phone users say they used their phones over the past year to look up information about health and medicine for themselves or their families. This is more than the proportion that reports using their phones to get news and information about politics (median of 47%) or to look up information about government services (37%). Additionally, around half or more of mobile phone users in nearly all countries report having used their phones over the past 12 months to learn something important for work or school.
- Digital divides emerge in the new mobile-social environment. People with smartphones and social media – as well as younger people, those with higher levels of education, and men – are in some ways reaping more benefits than others, potentially contributing to digital divides.
- People with smartphones are much more likely to engage in activities on their phones than people with less sophisticated devices – even if the activity itself is quite simple. For example, people with smartphones are more likely than those with feature or basic phones to send text messages in each of the 11 countries surveyed, even though the activity is technically feasible from all mobile phones. Those who have smartphones are also much more likely to look up information for their households, including about health and government services.
- There are also major differences in mobile usage by age and education level in how their devices are – or are not – broadening their horizons. Younger people are more likely to use their phones for nearly all activities asked about, whether those activities are social, information-seeking or commercial. Phone users with higher levels of education are also more likely to do most activities on their phones and to interact with those who are different from them regularly than those with lower levels of education.
- Gender, too, plays a role in what people do with their devices and how they are exposed to different people and information. Men are more likely than women to say they encounter people who are different from them, whether in terms of race, politics, religion or income. And men tend to be more likely to look up information about government services and to obtain political news and information.
These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report.
Nokia to be first with Android 10
Nokia is likely to be the first smartphone brand to roll out Android 10, after its manufacturer, HMD Global, announced that the Android 10 software upgrade would start in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Previously named Android Q, it was given the number after Google announced it was ditching sweet and dessert names due to confusion in different languages. Android 10 is due for release at the end of the year.
Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD Global said: “With a proven track record in delivering software updates fast, Nokia smartphones were the first whole portfolio to benefit from a 2-letter upgrade from Android Nougat to Android Oreo and then Android Pie. We were the fastest manufacturer to upgrade from Android Oreo to Android Pie across the range.
“With today’s roll out plan we look set to do it even faster for Android Pie to Android 10 upgrades. We are the only manufacturer 100% committed to having the latest Android across the entire portfolio.”
HMD Global has given a guarantee that Nokia smartphone owners benefit from two years of OS upgrades and 3 years of security updates.