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By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 29 July, 2011

There is a lot of activity going on across the country to build high-speed metropolitan and national broadband infrastructure to join up with the undersea cables that are landing along the coast.

The latest long distance link to be completed is Dark Fibre Africa’ terrestrial fibre link that runs between Johannesburg, Pretoria and Vereniging in Gauteng to Durban in Kwazulu-Natal and links up with the undersea cables landing in Mtunzini. It also connects to the Teraco internet hubs in Isando and Durban, which Seacom and all the first tier ISPs are connected to.

“Vodacom is already using the link and Seacom is installing equipment to enable it to do so,” says CEO Gustav Smit. Dark Fibre Africa is also building a fibre link between Cape Town and Yzerfontein, where the West African Cable System (WACS) undersea cable recently landed, and this is expected to be completed by October.

The company already has a fibre link between Cape Town and nearby Melkbosstrand, which is the landing point for the South Africa-Far East cable systems (Sat-2 and Sat-3). However, its plans to build a link between Cape Town and Johannesburg have been put on hold, because the Neotel, MTN, Vodacom consortium has already commenced building along this route and newcomer FibreCo has also announced plans to do so.

“We would rather build somewhere else than duplicate.” He says depending on what other players are doing, the next possibility is a link between Durban and Cape Town, which would involve 2000 kilometres of cable infrastructure and would take two to three years to build.

But the company’s main focus is on building metropolitan networks. “We have laid a total of 2,798 kilometres of metropolitan fibre infrastructure within Gauteng, western Cape and Durban.”

In Gauteng, this has brought fibre to within 1.5 kilometres of all businesses in the area. “We will build fibre connections on request for specific companies or service providers over the last 1.5 kilometres to the customer’s premises,” says Smit.

Udesh Ramkhelawan, executive for wholesale marketing at Telkom says Telkom has laid a total of 143,000 kilometres of fibre cable across the country to date and is continuing to roll out more as part of its normal network expansion. “All the metropolitan centres are linked into our national fibre ring network.”

He says the focus of this rollout is mainly in urban areas where there is the greatest demand for high-speed data services. One of the major challenges with any type of wired connection is that the cable is vulnerable to theft, and the thieves do not differentiate between copper wire, which has a resale value and fibre, which does not.

For consumers and businesses that cannot justify a fibre link, most Telkom exchanges across the country support ADSL. But the availability of the service to consumers and businesses depends on how far they are located from the nearest exchange and the quality of the copper cable between them and the exchange, says Ramkhelawan.

Rowen Chetty, director of local government and industry for vertical markets for Sub-Saharan Africa at Ericsson says there is not enough broadband infrastructure to support the numerous ISPs that are in the market, especially over the so called last mile connection between them and their customers. “Those holding ECNS licenses can build their own infrastructure, but few ISPs can afford to do it.”

This is where the municipalities can play a role, by building fibre infrastructure for their own needs and using their excess capacity to offer low cost bandwidth to ISPs, says Chetty. He says most of the metropolitan municipalities have embarked on or are planning projects to do this, and even the smaller ones are looking at it.

Apart from supporting their own connectivity needs, this will help them to stimulate business in their communities by selling excess capacity to ISPs. Locally, Ericsson is helping Johannesburg City Council to create a metropolitan fibre ring network that covers 900 kilometres, including under-serviced areas, and connects to the Seacom cable in Midrand.

“This is a three year project and we have already laid 350 kilometres of cabling for the core network,” says Chetty. He says the network will connect municipal offices, clinics and hospitals and allow the municipality to communicate with citizens through internet-enabled devices and communication centres.

“It will be the ISPs that will provide the final connectivity to the users.” The R1.4-billion network will be funded by Ericsson, which will operate it for 15 years through a company it has set up called Bwired and then hand it over to the municipality at no cost as a going concern.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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