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By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, South Africa, 20 June, 2012

The abundant international, national and metropolitan fibre capacity that will be available in the next couple of years in South Africa will be of limited value without a high-speed last mile connection, and right now this is the weakest link in the chain. In cities, and even some smaller towns, office buildings are often just a few metres away from the fibre that is buried under the surface of the road or next to the road.

But the final link to businesses and homes is still generally being serviced by Telkom’s traditional copper wire ADSL and Diginet services, or through wireless, or mobile connections. Copper wire offers theoretical speeds up to 24 Megabits per second (Mbps), microwave wireless up to 54 Mbps, and mobile currently offers up to 7.2 Mbps, compared to speeds of up to thousands of gigabits per second that can be achieved with an end-to-end fibre connection.

“Customers are already asking for 100 Mbps fibre connections, and some even more than that,” says Gustav Smit, CEO of Dark Fibre Africa. The South African market is not used to this kind of capacity, but once users have it they will want more.

He says the bigger municipalities are all building fibre networks, but 75% of this proposed infrastructure is a duplication of the metropolitan fibre infrastructure that is already in the ground. “Neotel, Telkom, and Dark Fibre Africa have all laid fibre in metropolitan areas, in some cases on both sides of the road.”

The money the municipalities are spending on duplicating infrastructure would be better spent on providing the final fibre links to business premises, households, schools and clinics. Government would get a return on investment in terms of increased GDP and the thousands of jobs it would create, says Smit.

He says the Department of Communications has a target to provide connectivity to all businesses, schools, and clinics, and 10% of households across the country by 2014. This will involve connecting a total of 1.5 million buildings, which in each case will involve digging trenches.

“We estimate that the cost of installing connections across the last few metres to all these buildings would be R28-billion over three years,” says Smit. He says an estimated 18,000 jobs would be created just for the digging of the trenches for the fibre cable.

“The Department of Communications has a budget of about R89-million to promote broadband communication, so the money is available.” He says this makes more sense than duplicating fibre infrastructure that already exists.

Martin Ferreira, executive head of technical operations at Jasco ICT Solutions says when providing connectivity to an office building or office park with GPON technology one pair of fibre strands will provide connectivity for up to 64 customers sharing, at speeds of 2.5 Gbps per second downstream.

But this involves getting permission from the landlords to lay the cable. The alternative is to connect customers to the fibre with a Wi-Fi wireless connection, which provides a maximum speed of 300 Mbps shared.
“This is OK for small and medium businesses, but not for large companies,” says Ferreira. He says there may be a case to start with a mix of wireless and fibre and eventually migrate the building to fibre.

An alternative is to use microwave, which provides speeds up to one gigabit per second and, once about 60% of the capacity is being used, to migrate to fibre all the way. “We are doing this with customers, and other service providers are doing it too,” says Ferreira.

He says in the future another option in built-up areas will be the next generation Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile technology, which will be introduced by the mobile operators if they get the spectrum allocation to support it. Wireless alternatives in rural areas are WiMAX, Wi-Fi, Microwave, and LTE once it is available.

Smaller service providers can cover an entire area with a Wi-Fi network using the unlicensed spectrum frequencies. Ferreira says with Wi-Fi it is possible for the service provider to increase capacity to a customer at short notice when it is needed, which is referred to as burstable data.

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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