By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day,  17 May, 2011

Several major terrestrial fibre infrastructure initiatives are on the go throughout SA, including the one being built by the Neotel, MTN, Vodacom consortium. But until these are completed the only two national networks are those of Telkom and Broadband Infraco.

Infraco’s network, which is used by Neotel, extends across railway lines and power lines and is linked to all the undersea cables that have landed on the western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal coasts. “We are in the process of building alternative links to Seacom and EASSy from Pietermaritzburg,” says CEO Andrew Shaw.

He says Infraco has also established links to the borders of Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which provide access to multiple undersea cables. It also gives South African based companies fast online access to business contacts in these countries through service providers that use the network.

He says the combination of Infraco’s terrestrial network and its links to multiple undersea cables also gives it the ability to cross-link data traffic from east coast to west coast. For example data traffic originating from a country on the west coast of Africa can be routed from an undersea cable on that side, across SA and onto an undersea cable on the east coast on its way to south east Asia.

Infraco is government owned and its business model is to sell bandwidth capacity to operators and service providers on a wholesale basis at affordable prices to facilitate broader penetration of broadband connectivity. A key part of its mandate is to roll out more fibre cables to under serviced rural areas.

“We already have some fibre cable going through rural areas along the railway lines and power lines,” says Shaw. He says Infraco is currently partnering with commercial cellular operators to roll out voice and internet services in rural areas across the country within the next few months.

Plans are also afoot to work with Sentech, which has a similar mandate, to provide long distance infrastructure to support connectivity in schools and healthcare using a combination of technologies. “We also intend partnering with the provinces and service providers to establish infrastructure in under serviced areas.”

One of the latest players planning to build a national backbone fibre network is FibreCo Telecommunications, a joint venture between Internet Solutions, Cell C, and Convergence. FibreCo CEO Arif Hussain says the vision and scope of the planned fibre rollout is extensive, initially starting at 4,500 kilometres and extending to 12 to 14,000 kilometres over the next four to five years.

He says the initial rollout will be from Johannesburg to Cape Town to Durban, linking up with the undersea cable landing points within two years. “The linkup with the undersea cables on the west coast is crucial.”

The company plans to sell fibre strands to customers on an open access basis linked to a managed service. Fibre strands will be sold on an unfettered rights basis, whereby customers pay upfront for the right to use them for the life of the fibre.

“The estimated lifespan of optic fibre is 20 years,” says Hussain. He says Fibreco’s development strategy is to build much of the infrastructure itself, including digging up roads and laying the ducting and fibre, but it will also form alliances to share infrastructure where it makes sense to do so.

“Another option is to swap the use of infrastructure with other players,” says Hussain. He says the company has completed the planning and environmental studies and is expecting to award the tender for the first phase of the project within the next few months. “We believe out network will make a major contribution to the national broadband capacity, which is way behind the rest of the world.”

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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