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State of Fibre in SA

By Jarryd Chatz, CEO at BitCo.

There’s no question that South Africa has lagged behind in the global connectivity sphere, especially in the arena of high-speed Fibre Internet. Right now, though, business and home consumers are enjoying a healthy period of competition, expansion and improvement for Fibre offerings. Although progress may not be as fast as initially thought, every day more and more South Africans are gaining access to broadband Fibre, allowing them to take advantage of cloud-based business solutions, streaming entertainment services and the literal world of opportunities that this kind of reliable ultra-high-speed connectivity facilitates.

South Africa playing catch-up

Already in the year 2000, Western Europe and North America were enjoying the benefits of well-developed Fibre infrastructure. Meanwhile, here in South Africa we were struggling with industry monopolies along with municipal permissions for digging and trenching so that Fibre-optic cable could be laid. With these barriers lasting all the way through to 2007, South Africa found itself on the backfoot in terms of broadband internet.

The result? In 2015, South African broadband costs were up to ten times higher than in the United Kingdomthen ranked 19th in the world for connectivity – and local speeds were five times slower. Fast-forward a handful of years though, and South Africa is gradually climbing the global rankings for broadband quality. Out of 200 countries analysed worldwide in the annual study, South Africa sat in 76th place as of 2018 (a climb of four places) and had a mean broadband download speed of 6.38Mbps (in 2017 it was 4.36Mbps), against a global average of 9.10Mbps.

We’re still behind Madagascar (24.87Mbps) and Kenya (10.11Mbps) for speed test results in Africa, but the situation is continually improving, and right now South Africa is covering ground, literally. As of March 2018, 280 000 South African homes – typically in major metropolitan areas – had Fibre, up from 191 000 the year before, and there was year-on-year growth of 112% in terms of fibre accessibility (439 000 households reached in 2017 vs. 933 000 in 2018).

The future of Fibre coverage in South Africa

With the major metros and surrounding suburbs largely saturated in terms of broadband accessibility, 2019 promises to be a year that rollout extends to other smaller urban areas, and then further into rural South Africa.

This expansion aligns with Government plans to have Fibre-optic cables throughout South Africa, as part of the “South Africa Connect” broadband policy gazetted in 2013. The ultimate objective of this plan is to have 100% penetration of affordable, high-quality broadband (at a minimum speed of 10Mbps) across the country by 2030. Truthfully, the reaching of such idealistic targets is likely to be delayed because it’s such a slow and expensive exercise. To replace all conventional copper telephone lines – which underpin popular ADSL internet access – with superior Fibre-optic cables means a rough estimated cost of R60 billion.

An unfolding present of increasing speed and falling prices

Still, even with a slower spread of Fibre coverage, South Africa consumers are expected to benefit across the board. The greater the demand for Fibre, the higher the speed will become and there are more options now than there ever have been – although most Fibre providers do not yet offer speeds higher than 50-200Mbps.

At the same time, the current price of Fibre in South Africa is likely the most expensive it will ever be, and consumers can expect it to drop in the near future. Due to high outlay and maintenance costs associated with light-transmitting fibre-optic cables, the first locations to receive Fibre coverage locally were more affluent, higher-LSM areas, where people could afford it, and infrastructure companies could more easily make back their investment. As Fibre is rolled out further in future, expanding on existing networks, and as more homes and businesses install it, it will become cheaper so that eventually even poorer rural communities will have access.

All this said, companies looking at business fibre today, as well as private individuals investigating FTTH (Fibre to the Home), should always consider the impact that factors such as line speed, capping, contention, network ownership and the nature of technical support have on costs. Service providers offering cheaper subscriptions plans may, for instance, base their pricing on the fact that their upload and download speeds are asynchronous, or the last mile of connectivity to your office or home actually isn’t fibre – in which case, your connection speed may be slower than you thought it would be.

Fibre today in South Africa is better than ever, and continually improving. For consumers to capitalise on its potential, though, it is important to settle on your needs – whether personal, professional, or a combination of both – and then shop around to best meet them. And just as important as the connectivity package itself is the service that supports it.

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