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

Africa accounts for 20% of the world population, but the fibre infrastructure being deployed on the continent accounts for only 2% of the world market. “The message here is that whatever is being deployed in Africa the rest of the world is doing it faster,” says Arif Hussain, CEO of FibreCo.

He says even though there is much more fibre already in the ground in other countries, everyone will be building fibre infrastructure for years to come to keep up with bandwidth demand. In the local market there is a need for more collaboration between infrastructure builders to achieve economic efficiency and minimise environmental impact, says Hussain. This includes sharing and swapping infrastructure capacity.

He says it is interesting to note that with the hundreds of service providers that became eligible for electronic communications network service (ECNS) licenses to build their own infrastructure, when the regulations changed a few years ago, only a limited number have pursued this. “Once they had the opportunity, many of them stopped to think whether they really wanted to do it.”

Ian Isenberg, business development manager at Internet Solutions, says terrestrial fibre is the way to go for Africa because it offers almost unlimited capacity and unlike copper wire infrastructure it is not vulnerable to lightening, rain, or theft.

He says even the smallest businesses need speeds of two megabits per second or more and fibre provides this. “Large organisations like the banks are looking to install one gigabit per second fibre links,” says Isenberg.

Gustav Smit, CEO of Dark Fibre Africa, says linking business premises to the metropolitan fibre rings that are in place in the cities is a slow process, although it is starting to happen. For example, an access ring with fibre to every building has been built in Fricker Road in Rosebank, Johannesburg by a company called Conduct. He says another company, Photon Fibre, is installing connection points inside buildings to link businesses to Dark Fibre Africa’s metropolitan fibre network.

“The involvement of companies like these will stimulate the take-up of fibre connectivity,” says Smit. However, he says, ISP’s should be more proactive in rolling out their own fibre over the last short distance to connect businesses to the plentiful metropolitan fibre infrastructure that now exists in the cities.

“We are trying to get government to give incentives to help fund fibre connections for the last 50 metres to every building.” Rufus Andrew, MD of Nokia Siemens Networks SA, says fibre will increasingly be used to connect businesses and clusters of homes like gated communities, and fibre to the home will continue to be a consideration for the future.

However, building fibre infrastructure involves a lengthy process of getting approvals for rights of way for laying the ducting for the fibre. Local government should take more control and get more involved in the building of the infrastructure, says Andrew. Operators and service providers should then be able to lease space in the ducting and lay their own fibre or lease it from those that do. Otherwise the municipalities will be inundated with applications for rights of way and projects will be delayed.

“They need to be proactive and operate as a utility.” As it stands there are a lot of uncoordinated projects going on among the municipalities and at provincial government level that need to be brought under some kind of control and leadership.

Howard Earley, chief operating officer at Plessey, says point-to-point wireless links are a less costly alternative to fibre for the final link between the metropolitan fibre backbone and the business premises, and for linking buildings together. For example, Wireless IP Access System (WIPAS) provides high-speed connectivity over short distances of up to three kilometres.

Earley says WIPAS costs less than 3G and provides marginally higher speeds, depending on the distance between the two points. “We see WIPAS as a viable solution for Africa for last mile connectivity,” he says.

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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