2012 – the year of true broadband?

For the past five or so years we have been promised better broadband, but up to now have had only promises – with excuses galore as to why we still do not have true broadband.

According to Wikipedia, a 2006 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report defined broadband as having download data transfer rates equal to or faster than 256 kbps, while the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as of 2010, defined “Basic Broadband” as data transmission speeds of at least 4 Mbps, downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.

The South African government in its broadband policy document published in September 2009 stated: “Broadband is a very broadly used term and the speed at which a network connection is deemed to be a broadband connection has different view points both locally and internationally. The ITU Standardisation sector defines Broadband as a speed of 1,5 to 2 Mbps while the ITU development sector defines Broadband to be 256 kbps.”

It ultimately comes down to the reality that broadband in South Africa is defined as 256 kbps. At the time of the release of the Broadband Policy, the Department of Communication and the minister were heavily criticised for a document that purports to say a lot but actually says very little.

The real problem is that both industry and government have been justifying the state of local broadband by initially blaming the lack of international connectivity, and then after several new submarine cables landed on our shores, the lack of local backbone infrastructure.

With another submarine cable (WACS) coming into service in the next few months, various players have been building fibre networks to connect the landing station on the Cape West Coast with the hinterland. When that is completed there should be no more excuses as to why we cannot get at least 10 Mbps. But will we?

Telkom has for several years been promising to upgrade their 4 Mbps offering to 10 Mbps and have done so in a few selected areas. The rest of us are waiting for their Metro Ethernet to be expanded which seems to be progressing very slowly, although recently several mobile providers increased their broadband offerings in selected areas.

There is also the price issue. In South Africa broadband is expensive and, although the prices have dropped over the past few years, we are far from competitive compared to most of the world. Recently it was rumoured that by mid-2012 broadband will be provided free – however the rumour did not include at what speed and who would be providing it.

But is 10 Mbps fast enough to watch movies in real time? Not really. In many countries speeds up to ten times or more are routinely offered. The technology is available, but of course we have another good excuse: “frequency allocation”. But there is hope! On 14 December 2011 the Minister of Communications issued a request for comment on two draft policies:

  • A directive to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) to fast-track the finalisation of the methodology for spectrum and eligibility criteria in the
    2500 – 2690 MHz (2,6 GHz) bands.
  • To consider the scope of the action to be taken at a national level to promote the efficient use of the digital dividend spectrum in the frequency bands 174 – 230 MHz and
    470 – 790 MHz.

Despite the long road to broadband, I am hopeful that 2012 will be the year of true broadband for South Africans. The cost? Your guess is as good as mine. I believe that we are looking at somewhere between 25 and 50% of current levels.

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2012 – the year of true broadband?