By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day – 12 November 2009

In the 1980s all networks in South Africa ran on analogue technology, which was designed to carry voice traffic, and the bandwidth was limited to 64 kilobits per second (Kbps), which was the size of the voice channel. Even leased ISDN lines, which were used to carry corporate data, were made up of two 64 Kbps voice channels, says Robert Wuestenenk, director of broadband networks at Ericsson.

Then in the early 1990s 2 megabit per second (Mbps) leased lines were introduced that used 30 voice channels. The first 2 Mbps dedicated router-based digital Diginet leased data lines started appearing in the mid 1990s.

“If companies needed more capacity, they had to buy multiple 2 Mbps lines,” says Wuestenenk. At that time, consumers had to be content with a dial-up modem that provided a maximum speed of 56 Kbps.

In 2001, ADSL lines started becoming available in a few areas, at that time providing a maximum speed of 512 Kbps. From there, speeds increased and broadband services started emerging that provided on-demand bandwidth based on what customers were prepared to pay, but it was expensive.

“The SA regulator Icasa’s definition of broadband is anything over 128 kilobits per second, while the rest of the world rates anything over 2 megabits per second (Mbps) as broadband,” says Wuestenenk. He says today, the fixed line telecommunication networks in South Africa can deliver speeds up to 10 megabit per second over leased lines, and ADSL provides maximum speeds of 4 Mbps.

But in Asia Pacific users can get 50 Mbps connectivity speeds to the home and in Europe they can get 100 Mbps. “In smaller countries that have dense populations the bandwidth is cheaper due to economies of scale,” he says.

For example, in France users pay R300 for 20 Mbps downlink speed, 10 Mbps uplink speed, unlimited data throughput capacity, and free local telephone calls. “With this amount of bandwidth they can watch up to 73 high-definition TV channels,” he says.

In Sweden, users can get 100 Mbps uplink and downlink speeds with unlimited throughput capacity for R380 a month, which would enable them to download 5 gigabytes of data in 10 minutes. Australia has the highest broadband penetration, reaching 90% of the population.

But, as in SA, the Australian population is geographically scattered, resulting in a higher cost of bandwidth than markets like Europe and Asia, at R540 for a 2 Mbps connection with throughput capacity limited to 12 gigabytes. “Only three undersea cables have landing points in Australia, which limits international bandwidth,” says Wuestenenk.

South Africa has landing points for the SAT-3 and Seacom undersea cables, with several others coming online, but it will take time before the benefits of increased international bandwidth have a significant impact on users. “However, we are already seeing some service providers offering more capacity for the same price,” he says.

It will require fibre infrastructure that reaches to the curb and the implementation of next generation technologies like Long Term Evolution (LTE) on the mobile networks to really drive down the cost of broadband in SA.  In the interim, inhibitors to progress include the high cost of bringing data from the undersea cables inland.

The national infrastructure is still owned by the incumbent telecommunications operators and it is taking time for others to lay their own fibre. It costs about R100,000 per kilometre to lay fibre, and it is 600 kilometres from the nearest Seacom landing point in Richards bay to Johannesburg, says Wuestenenk.

“This makes it R60 million just for one leg of the network, and at a rate of two kilometres a day it will take 150 to 200 days to complete, depending on the resources deployed.”  One of the issues with laying fibre is that rights of way have to be obtained, and this causes delays.

Then there is the last mile infrastructure that links the customer to the backbone network, most of the fixed line component of which is owned by Telkom, although others are now laying fibre in metropolitan areas.  In the wireless space there is more competition, but a limited amount of spectrum has been allocated by the regulator Icasa to roll out services.

With the recently introduced “use it or lose it” policy, Icasa is working hard to free-up additional spectrum, but until this happens, wireless broadband capacity will remain limited, says Wuestenenk.

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