Two things that made uncapped broadband possible in South Africa

The launch of Seacom and the late former Mweb CEO Rudi Jansen’s refusal to pay for peering began a chain reaction that changed the South African broadband market forever.

Seacom launched in 2009, bringing the first real competition to Telkom-controlled undersea fibre cables to South Africa.

Fixed-line broadband services essentially had three major cost components: international data, local data, and the wholesale prices charged by the infrastructure provider for access to their network.

Before 2009, some Internet providers used satellite connectivity as an alternative to Telkom’s SAT–3/SAFE cable to reduce the international data cost component. However, this came with a performance hit.

When Seacom came online, it upended the international bandwidth market.

It slashed the cost of international bandwidth, allowing a company like Afrihost to launch ADSL services for R29 per gigabyte — half the going rate back then.

While Afrihost saw an opportunity to drastically undercut the price of capped ADSL in South Africa, then-Mweb CEO Rudi Jansen saw a chance to change the game completely.

However, it would require that he attack another of the three major cost components — local data.

Seacom cable map
Seacom cable map

Before free and open peering became the norm in South Africa, telecoms operators were extremely protective of their networks.

Peering is when two operators configure their network to exchange data traffic between one another.

To evaluate a peering arrangement, operators would use arcane metrics to determine who had the biggest network.

If the two players were roughly the same size, or there was equivalent commercial benefit, they would peer. Otherwise, the bigger network would charge the smaller one for the privilege.

If a peering arrangement could not be reached, the smaller player had to pay transit fees when sending or receiving data from the larger one.

“Nobody wanted to open up as they thought their own growth will stop, and they charged a fortune for transit between networks,” Jansen once explained.

“It was easier to get peering in Europe than in South Africa.”

This gave Jansen an idea. He would go nuclear.

Any local ISP that wanted to exchange traffic with Mweb had to peer, otherwise they would route the traffic internationally — which was much more expensive for them, but not for Mweb.

Armed with enough affordable international bandwidth through Seacom, Mweb routed traffic to any local ISP who refused to peer via Europe as its peering links there were almost free.

With everything in place, on 22 March 2010, Mweb achieved what many thought was impossible. It launched uncapped ADSL products starting at R219 per month, rocking the South African ISP market.

MWEB peering free the web
Mweb’s “free the web” guerilla marketing campaign for free peering and uncapped ADSL

The talk in the industry was that Mweb had lost the plot.

Jansen was told that uncapped ADSL was not sustainable and would never work. A few competing ISPs even thought it was just a marketing stunt.

However, they all eventually followed in Mweb’s footsteps.

Jansen proved all the naysayers wrong and forever changed the South African broadband landscape.

His hardline stance on peering paved the way for Teraco’s NAPAfrica Internet exchange point, which offers free peering to local and international network operators alike.

This has made it possible for Internet service providers in South Africa to offer cut-rate uncapped, unshaped broadband despite video streaming driving bandwidth usage sky high.

Major international content owners like Netflix, Facebook, and Google, which owns YouTube, all peer at NAPAfrica. This has reduced the cost of bandwidth in South Africa to near zero.

This leaves only the third and final major cost component of a fixed broadband connection — wholesale and infrastructure.

The advent of a vibrant and competitive fibre broadband industry has had a significant impact on this, but that is the subject for another article.

Thanks to the teams at Seacom and Mweb, and particularly Rudi Jansen, uncapped broadband is now the standard for fixed-line connections in South Africa.

It has helped ignite several online industries in the country, including online gaming, streaming, and e-commerce.

Sadly, Jansen passed away after suffering a heart attack on Friday, 3 September 2021.

His achievements were recognised in Parliament on Tuesday, 7 September 2021, in a motion brought by Al Jama-ah party leader Ganief Hendricks.

According to his LinkedIn, he worked with Jansen as human resources director at Mweb until 2008 or 2009.

Hendricks’ email address listed on the Parliamentary website ends in to this day.

Jansen’s achievements and significant impact on the industry were also recognised with the MyBroadband Maverick of the Year Award in 2010, and the MyBroadband Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

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Two things that made uncapped broadband possible in South Africa