When you go to a website or hit send on a WhatsApp message, your request has to travel on many different kinds of network infrastructure.
In South Africa, this infrastructure is owned by a number of companies, but perhaps not as many as you think.
While there is a vibrant, competitive market among wireless and ADSL Internet service providers (ISPs), in reality there are but a few gatekeepers to the average South African’s Internet access.
For the sake of simplicity, the various places where companies offer networking services have been abstracted to four broad categories.
International connectivity, undersea cables
Working our way from the outside in, South Africa is connected to the rest of the world by four undersea fibre optic cable systems.
You can also connect to the Internet using satellite technology, which may circumvent these cables, but for the type of low-cost, low-latency connectivity many people have come to depend on, subsea fibre is critical.
For that reason we’ll only consider the aforementioned undersea cables.
Each of the cable systems that land in South Africa are owned by a consortium of companies, ranging from a relatively small number of stakeholders (Seacom, 5 shareholders), to the 29 shareholders in the EASSy cable.
SAT–3, WACS, and EASSy are owned by consortiums of mainly telecommunications companies, while Seacom is independent as its ownership does not include any specific network operator.
When Seacom launched in South Africa during July 2009, it brought some much-needed competition to South Africa’s international fibre connectivity market and its effects were felt almost immediately.
However, there was another significant development in South Africa’s telecommunications sector that has also been credited with helping to bring the cost of communication services down.
In 2008, Altech (and others) took the Minister of Communications to court, arguing that they should be allowed to “self-provision”.
Altech won the case in the end, breaking government’s hold on deciding who may and who may not build networks in South Africa. So long as you had the relevant licences from Icasa, you could build your own network.
Despite this freedom, however, there is still little competition in the national backhaul space in South Africa.
Many operators have run short fibre links and even have networks spanning a significant distance, but there are really two big players when it comes to national backhaul in South Africa: Telkom, and Neotel.
FibreCo is a smaller contender worth watching, which launched their 2,000km link connecting Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, East London, and Cape Town towards the end of 2013. Internet Solutions, Cell C, and Convergence Partners have a stake in the cable system.
Another national backhaul development to watch is the partnership of MTN, Vodacom, and Neotel on the long-awaited National Long Distance (NLD) network. A portion of the network was lit up in February 2013 after 700km of trenching was completed, with the companies aiming to roll out a 5,000km network across South Africa.
It is understood that FibreCo and the NLD consortium have partnered, and together offer a route from Johannesburg to Durban, as well as a Johannesburg-Bloemfontein-Cape Town route.
MTN also has fibre links to connect the NLD network to the undersea cable landing stations at Mtunzini near Durban, and Yzerfontein near Cape Town, offering routes to the WACS, Seacom, and EASSy undersea cables.
Another important link in the networking chain is the Internet exchange.
You can have the biggest network in the country, but if it’s not exchanging traffic with others it’s not part of the Internet.
There are two major Internet exchanges in South Africa, operated by two major players, and hosted by two different companies, as summarised in the table below:
|Internet Exchanges||Points of Presence||Operated by||Hosted by|
|INX||Johanneburg (JINX)||ISPA||Internet Solutions|
|Cape Town (CINX)||ISPA||Internet Solutions|
|ISPA is an acronym for the Internet Service Providers’ Association (of South Africa)|
Finally, we get to the last stretch of networking, without which we would be unable to connect to the Internet: the so-called “last mile”.
This consists of a digital subscriber line (DSL) – that’s the bit of copper running from your house to the exchange, or, if you’re lucky, the multi-service access node (MSAN).
Telkom is the only operator in South Africa with last mile copper infrastructure and does not allow any other company to directly access its network.
Wireless and mobile broadband subscribers connect to base stations using radio frequency waves rather than cables.
Mobile operators such as Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Telkom Mobile are well known for operating such networks.
They are not the only companies with wireless network infrastructure in South Africa, however, and not all wireless networks are built for mobile use.
Neotel operates a CDMA and LTE networks, both of which are designed for “fixed wirelesss” use. iBurst also operates a fixed wireless network, while Telkom Mobile has an LTE network which it has built as an ADSL substitute.
There are also a number of smaller companies that operate last-mile wireless networks in what is called “unregulated spectrum” — the same kind of frequency spectrum used by technologies like Wi-Fi.
A lucky few may have the option to use fibre optic cable for their last mile access technology.
Neotel has made a major push to offer last-mile fibre services to businesses in South Africa, as has Telkom.
MTN, Vodacom, and other companies have also started offering such fibre services, and a number of players have launched fibre-to-the-home trials in South Africa.
There are also some companies that offer residential fibre services in gated communities, such as Naspers’ SmartVillage.