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State of Fibre in SA

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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 Cable.co.uk 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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Broadband gets a helping hand

Behind this week’s news that MTN fibre provider Supersonic has launched a fixed LTE service is an effort to rethink home connectivity, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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This week, MTN made its biggest play yet into the market for fibre connections to homes, but its biggest impact may well be within the home.

The mobile operator’s fibre-to-the-home subsidiary, Supersonic, launched a Fixed LTE offering on a month-to-month basis, meaning that homes in areas not yet wired for fibre can receive high-speed broadband. More important, they can get that access at rates that seem unprecedented for mobile data. 

There are two differences from regular packages, however. For one thing, the SIM card that comes with the package only works in specific routers that have to remain plugged into a power supply. For another, the data allocation is split half-half between regular hours and a Night Owl timeframe: the hours between midnight and dawn.

“It just needs users to adjust their internet behaviour a little,” says Calvin Collett, MD of Supersonic. “Conducting massive mobile phone updates or downloading an entire library of Netflix content shouldn’t be prioritised during the day, but should be scheduled for Night Owl data consumption.”

The biggest benefit, aside from pricing, is that one does not have to wait for fibre to arrive in a specific area. While Supersonic’s core business is fixed-line fibre-to-the-home, it is now set to leverage its parent company’s massive mobile data network.

“MTN’s LTE network coverage sits at 95%, after billions of rand was invested in network upgrades in recent years. There is absolutely no reason why those waiting for a fibre connection shouldn’t move to Fixed LTE.”

Collett argues that consumers are far more savvy and well informed of developments in the telecoms space than observers think. They carefully investigate the products and services they choose to spend on, and are looking for the best deals available.

The result is that Supersonic has quietly built up a side business in installing what is called a Mesh Wi-Fi network, consisting of a main Wi-Fi router connected to the standardfibre or LTE or router, and a series of additional access pointscalled plumes, placed in areas of low coverage through ahome.

The plumes – small pods that plug into any power point –connect to one another to expand the network across a wide area. Where traditional WI-FI extenders lose up to half the fibre bandwidth with every extension, the plumes maintain most of the speed regardless of how far the network is extended. All the pods connected to the same router form a single network with the same network name, eliminating the complications Wi-FI extenders usually introduce.

“The traditional Wi-Fi router has replaced the dial up connection, and we’re all happy about this – the infamous dial up tone is ingrained in the brains of anyone over the age of 30,” says Collett. “Wi-Fi revolutionised our way of life as the router gave us access to the internet without directly connecting to a modem. 

“We’ve moved forward, transitioning from ADSL to fibre. While fibre allows for high speed internet access, it is still connected to your Wi-Fi router. Naturally, the further you move away from the hub, the poorer your internet connection will be. Those dead spots around the house can become frustrating when your Wi-Fi signal shows 1 bar and it takes 5 minutes to load a single web page. Mesh Wi-Fi is the solution.”

Collett says he specifically researched a product that looked good, offered app-based management and required no cables. His research led him to Silicon Valley, and the result is the Supersonic Plume Mesh network system.

The drawback is that installation can be complicated for the non-technical consumer. To plug the gap, so to speak, Supersonic sends out technicians who conduct a Wi-Fi sweep of a home and advise how many Plume devices will be needed for 100% coverage. Based on this the technicians make a recommendation for an optimal “smart Wi-Fi”solution. Once installed, though, the network can be monitored and managed from a Supersonic App.

We tried it out and found it was a tale of two experiences. The initial experience was frustrating, as the pods tried to find each other. This is a necessary evil, it seems, as the Plume Mesh network optimises itself over a period of several days. That means the experience at the edge of the network can be very poor at the time of installation. After a few days, however the network was flying.

With a 100Mbps line, the experience next to the main router was around 105 Mbps, both up and down. That in itself was something of a marvel. But the biggest impact was felt at the furthest point from the router: where a Wi-Fi extender had previously delivered speeds of below 10Mbps, download speeds of 80Mbps became not only commonplace, but almost taken for granted.

One of the most useful features of the Plume Mesh is the level of monitoring offered through the Supersonic app. One can observe exactly what devices are connected to which pods – each is given a name, typically of the room, that is visible only through the app.

The biggest surprise of the plume solution is that it has not become a standard solution for Wi-Fi networks everywhere. In an era when we have become deeply dependent on a decent Wi-Fi signal, it has become a necessity rather than a luxury. As a result, home connectivity should be taken far more seriously than merely fobbing consumers off on low-performance extenders. 

MTN seems to have taken this message to heart, rethinking its own approach to home usage.

“Internet access has become the third utility behind electricity and water,” says Collett. “Our goal is to ‘own the home’ but not just by connecting a bunch of devices to a central point. It’s really about how these devices can pioneer habitual change in the home that’s convenient and saves valuable time and money.”

Click here to read about SuperSonic’s pricing.

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Location data key to transforming SA’s transport system

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Location technology can transform South Africa’s transport system – but don’t expect to see self-driving cars on our roads any time soon. What’s more relevant is the need for the public and private sectors to work together more closely to unlock the significant social and economic benefits that more efficient transport and mobility systems would bring to the country, including less congestion and fewer road accidents. 

That was the message from Michael Bültmann, Managing Director, in charge of international relations  atHERE Technologies, a global leader in mapping and location platform services, at an event hosted by the international law firm Covington & Burling in Johannesburg last week, to discuss how digitization could support better mobility, safety and integration in South Africa. 

“Society needs to solve some fundamental challenges, and relevant location data can play a key role in creating a better future for mobility in South Africa. If we know where the goods and people are, and how and why they move, we have the basis for a system that matches demand and supply far more closely, and uses our transport infrastructure more efficiently,” saidBültmann.

“But no company, government or individual can do it all themselves. It’s all about collaborating. If we get real-time data use right, it would have a profound effect on the way the entire economy works: less congestion, fewer accidents, more efficient use of vehicles and public transport, less air pollution, greater quality of life, and potential savings of billions of rands in fuel, time and safer roads.”

Speaking at the event, the CSIR’s Dr Mathetha Mokonyama said that despite the billions of rands pumped into the country’s mass public transport network in recent years, 90% of commuter seats available are still provided by either cars or taxis.

“We have the right to dignity. If you want to see indignity, look at people getting up at 2am to get unreliable transport to a job that only pays R3500 a month. In our country, access to transport is critical for people to make a living, and our focus as a country should be to implement an equitable and just transport system that caters to all sectors of society,” he said.

“It was a pleasure to support the event that brought together so many viewpoints on the question of the effective use of data and location intelligence to enhance the mobility of goods, people and services,” said Robert Kayihura, senior advisor in Covington’s Johannesburg office.  “While the harmonization of regulatory regimes around the continent will take time, a key takeaway from our discussions is the critical need to build a shared vision of the future through consistent public-private dialogue and collaboration in order to accelerate and ensure the sustainable and safe digitization of Africa.”

Paul Vorster, the chief executive of the Intelligent Transport Society of SA (ITSSA), said the effective sharing of data between metros, government and the private sector would ‘go a long way’ to improving the efficiency of existing transport infrastructure.

“The starting point is to improve what we already have. Once we know what we have – that is, data – we can start solving real problems, like knowing where the demand and supply are. But to do this, metros will need to learn from each other, and they often face political hurdles in the process,” he said.

Bültmann said increasing levels of urbanisation across the world were creating the need for cities to better predict, manage and plan future urban movement. Combining and analysing data from different, complementary sources could help South African cities to improve urban planning, relieve congestion and curb pollution for better quality of life.

The event was also attended by Presidential Investment Envoy Phumzile Langeni, the National Planning Commission’s Themba Dlamini; SANRAL’s Alan Robinson; and Dr Rüdiger Lotz, the Deputy Head of Mission at the German Embassy. The guests were welcomed by Witney Schneidman, the head of Covington’s Africa practice and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001) in the U.S. Government.

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