By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day – 17, May, 2012

World Telecommunications and Information Society Day marks the anniversary of the creation of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1865. The ITU is responsible for many of the electronic communication technology standards in use today, and for countless high-level global initiatives that are aimed at ensuring every individual in the world has access to connectivity.

While celebrating this anniversary, it is a good opportunity to take a look at the progress South Africa is making towards becoming an information society, and the milestones that have been reached over the past few years that illustrate this. Arif Hussain, CEO of FibreCo, says ten years ago the focus was on the monopolistic nature of the local telecommunications market.

But changes in licensing regulations have opened up the market and new players have emerged that build, own and operate fibre infrastructure and lease capacity on an open access basis to anyone that has the appropriate licence to use it. “For example, operators and ISPs lease fibre strands from Dark Fibre Africa,” says Hussain.

Other new players are building cellular base stations, or towers, and acquiring existing towers from operators, and then leasing space to multiple operators and infrastructure providers to mount their equipment on them. Similarly, undersea cable operators like Seacom now lease capacity to anyone, whereas these cables were traditionally built by consortia of operators for their own use, says Hussain.

“Seacom was the first non-monopoly, open access cable to come to Africa, and this was a critical milestone in the market.”  Dramatic changes have also happened in the mobile communication market where users now talk about the mobile device brand, operating system and applications they are using, as opposed to what network they are connected to.

“In just a few years, the power has shifted away from the operators.” With the advent of the tablet and more powerful mobile handsets, there has also been a massive increase in mobile bandwidth usage, says Hussain.

Lex van Wyk, managing director of Teraco, says the landmark Altech court ruling in 2008 that made hundreds of ISPs and other service providers eligible to obtain licenses to set up their own network infrastructure, was a major milestone. “Enough of them have actually built their own networks to make the market more competitive.”

He says looking to the future, the unbundling of the local loop that is on the cards will allow other market players to provide services to their customers over Telkom’s last mile copper wire infrastructure through its exchanges.  Mark Simpson, CEO of Seacom, says major milestones in the telecommunication market over the past few years include the growing importance of terrestrial fibre infrastructure, and the explosion in the number of undersea cable systems being laid.

Others include the proliferation of social media, accessibility to an increasing amount of rich content, the empowerment of users to choose between different communication mediums and different service providers, the emergence of African originated content, and the ability to communicate from anywhere. He says today an individual located in Hong Kong can choose to do a course offered by a training provider based anywhere in the world through distance education, and the same opportunities are increasingly becoming available in Africa.

“All these influencing factors have changed the nature of personal and business communication,” says Simpson. Jacques Visser, YahClick product manager at Vox Telecom, says achieving widespread mobile network coverage, the rollout of fibre in most metropolitan areas, and the increasing number of satellites covering Africa are all significant achievements.

Rob Lith, MD of Connection Telecom, says the recent network interconnect cost reductions and the fact that there is a commitment to decrease them more every March is another significant milestone in the local market.

This is enabling service providers that offer Voice over IP (VoIP) services to customers, as an alternative to the conventional telephone service, to offer even more competitive rates. In addition the cloud computing trend, which includes the hosting of PBXs and email, and document sharing services, is changing the way technology is used, he says.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist with 25 years experience, 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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