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

The current status of the South African broadband infrastructure is that there are now multiple high-speed undersea fibre cables linking the country to the rest of the world, and an abundance of national and metropolitan fibre infrastructure is expected to be completed by the end of 2013.

Arthur Goldstuck, founder and MD of World Wide Worx says a total of R15-billion was spent on broadband infrastructure in South Africa in 2011 and a similar amount is likely to be spent in 2012. He says much of the current fibre infrastructure building activity is being driven by the mobile operators and others laying their own fibre to ensure they have control over the quality of service of the infrastructure they are using.

For example the long distance network being built by FibreCo, a joint venture between Internet Solutions, Cell C, and Convergence is important for these players so they can ensure they are not held to ransom by a third part infrastructure provider. “The market in general is not in desperate need for this additional capacity, although it is good for competition.” says Goldstuck.

Other major players that are currently building long distance terrestrial infrastructure are the Neotel, Vodacom, MTN consortium and Dark Fibre Africa, and Telkom has been expanding its fibre infrastructure for some time. Telkom has a long distance and local network infrastructure that includes 143,000 kilometres of fibre and 16,500 fibre distribution points, and an access network, which connects consumers and businesses to its local exchanges.

The access network, commonly referred to as the local loop, or last mile, traditionally provided connectivity to customers over copper wire infrastructure. But Telkom is working on extending its fibre infrastructure to within a couple of hundred metres of business customers’ premises, where there is a business case to do so, says Alphonzo Samuels, executive for network infrastructure provisioning.

The current average distance of the local loop, which connects consumers and businesses to the local exchange, is 1.8 kilometres. “The shorter the distance of the copper to the customer the better the broadband experience,” says Samuels.

He says plans are also afoot to install 3,700 multi service access node (MSAN) boxes in exchanges and on street corners to support the latest VDSL technology, an advanced generation of ADSL. Telkom’s VDSL offering will provide initial speeds of 10 megabits per second (Mbps), and potential speeds of 20 to 40 Mbps over copper lines.

Samuels says the difference between the cost of ADSL2+ and VDSL is minimal. He says the MSAN boxes are fully upgradable to accommodate a fibre connection over the final distance to the customer premises, where the business case justifies it.

Telkom started upgrading the local loop to a fully IP (Internet Protocol) network 18 months ago, which will enable it eventually to deliver all services over the same infrastructure. “We are looking at a three to four year period to rollout of the IP network to targeted arrears where it makes business sense,” says Samuels.

In the future, this will enable mobile users to roam between different services, across fixed line and mobile infrastructure, and will pave the way to consolidated billing. He says Telkom is also running trials for Long Term Evolution (LTE), the next generation mobile technology.

State-owned Broadband Infraco also has an extensive long distance fibre backbone network that stretches across the country, along railway lines and power lines. It has points of presence (PoPs) in most major centres and in under-serviced areas, that operators and service providers that have the appropriate licence can connect to.

It also has PoPs on the borders between SA and neighbouring countries, including Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Mozambique. Broadband Infraco’s network was opened up for commercial use in November 2010, although Neotel has been using the network since it entered the market in 2006 as the second network operator.

The company now sells capacity on a wholesale basis to licensed operators and service providers, but not directly to consumers and businesses. Broadband Infraco is also a tier one investor in the West African Cable System, which came into operation in May.

Vishen Maharaj, executive for special projects says 70% of the company’s WACS capacity will be dedicated to supporting projects of national importance, including the much publicised SKA satellite project, the SA Large Telescope (SALT), and the South African Research Network (SANReN). The balance will be made available to licensed operators and service providers on a wholesale basis.

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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