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Overcoming SA’s love-hate relationship with fibre roll-out

While many residents are excited at the prospect of fibre, fewer understand how operators can lay fibre, writes SHANE CHORLEY, sales and marketing head of Frogfoot Networks.

Put simply, fibre deployment in a particular area causes inconvenience as a result of the trenches that are dug, ongoing construction work, and efforts to reinstate pavements to their original state, but, once put in place, provides a more durable and aesthetically pleasing alternative to overhead fibre. It also means these communities now have access to cost-effective high speed broadband internet needed to enable their increasingly digital lifestyles.

Fibre Network Operators (FNOs) such as Frogfoot had adopted a strategy of taking high speed fibre connectivity beyond South Africa’s urban areas and into secondary towns and cities, which has seen a growing number of communities noticing network deployment activity in their suburbs or home towns. While many residents are excited at the prospect of the availability of fibre in their neighbourhoods, far fewer understand the process behind where and how operators can lay fibre, and then tidy up behind themselves.

FNOs work with the relevant departments within municipalities to secure the necessary permissions through signed wayleaves to lay fibre, as well as gain access to the available information regarding existing underground infrastructure, such as electricity cables, water and gas pipes or even fibre from another operator. These wayleaves not only give operators permission to trench on roads, but also on pavements (or the area between a house’s wall and the road), which have been set aside as a servitude lane.

Understanding trenching

Frogfoot and other FNOs primarily use two methods for trenching: microtrenching and conventional trenching. In microtrenching, a machine is used to cut a neat route along the road, meaning that your sidewalk remains untouched. With conventional trenching, contractors and their workers are used to perform shallow excavations – barricaded for safety – along the sidewalk verge. Here, your garden or driveway may be lifted, but accessibility to your driveways and walkways are given priority during the construction process.

Microtrenching is only allowed by a few municipalities due to a variety of reasons, including subsurface road conditions not being suitable for microtrenching or if there are no curb (kerb) stones, due to planned maintenance or expansion of the roads, and sometimes even due to a lack of understanding of this technology (methodology).

Fibre lines are run on either side of the street so that homes on both sides can be easily connected and then wrap around the block to form ‘boxes’. At some point you have to connect all these boxes, and you need to create road crossings. These are done either by a horizontal directional drilling (HDD) machine (which drills underneath the road’s surface, and can be directed to connect drill pits on either side of the road) or cutting slits in the road into which the fibre is laid, before it is filled with ground. Government road building standards mandate that a certain period of time is set aside to allow for the compacting of the soil before the slits can be retarred, and this can cause considerable inconvenience – albeit temporarily – for local motorists.

Underground infrastructure

While a ground penetrating scanner is used to survey areas to be worked on, scanners cannot pick up everything while infrastructure maps may not be accurate. In addition, house feeds are not shown on infrastructure maps. In these instances, municipal officials often visit the site to assist contractors to their best ability, but this doesn’t guarantee the exact location or depth. In some instances where other utilities have been impacted, the municipality has to be brought in to fix the damage, and this is beyond the control of contractors.

This is not a common occurrence, but can unfortunately be highly disruptive for the affected community while it is being fixed – which can even take a day or two. FNOs such as Frogfoot are fully aware of this, and take extra precautions – including digging pilot holes ahead of trenching – to avoid such accidents.

The clean up

Reinstatement is carried out in accordance with all the requirements set by the municipality, in order to be issued with wayleaves, as well as to ensure minimal impact for local communities. This includes cleaning up of work areas, and reinstatement of pavements and lawns or gardens to the best possible effort. Frogfoot uses before and after photos for comparison, while there is also a council inspection upon completion of the project.

Once the process is completed, suburbs tend to recover quickly, and before long you don’t even see visible signs that fibre has been installed. This provides a noticeable benefit over overhead fibre, where disadvantages include damage to the cables from being open exposed to the elements, or even from interfering tree branches.

While the introduction of fibre causes much disruption to a neighbourhood, this is no different to the laying or replacement of other infrastructure such as water and gas pipes, or electricity cables (or analogue telephone lines of the old days). The growing requirement for stable, cost-effect high speed broadband connectivity means that fibre is becoming a utility just like the others above – and people will increasingly give preference to properties that are connected when looking to buy or rent homes or apartments.

Enjoying the benefits of fibre

A growing number of South Africans are leading digital lives, from using video calls to keep in touch with family and friends, to streaming music and movies, playing online games, adding more smart devices to their houses and even working or running their businesses from home. While alternatives such as mobile and fixed wireless are popular options in South Africa, they are not as cost-effective, and lack the stability needed to enable this high bandwidth, always connected environment.

And, this is just the start, as experience shows that the faster their internet connection is, the more data they consume. The arrival of open access fibre networks in their neighbourhood not only brings them the ideal type of connectivity to enable this digital lifestyle and open up a host of other opportunities, but also provides people with the ability to choose their own internet service provider (ISP), as well as the right package to suit their needs and budget.

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