Fibre-to-the-home in South Africa – what is open access?

When the Parkhurst home owners’ association put out a tender to get fibre-to-the-home services for the suburb, it opened the floodgates for others to do the same.

More home owners’ associations and body corporates put out requests for fibre, and a number of fibre infrastructure players appeared on the scene.

Each set of bids included promises from companies to provide open-access networks, but there seem to be as many definitions for open access as there are carriers.

To answer the questions of what fibre providers mean when they say open access, and what open access is, we asked industry players to weigh in on the topic.

Steve Song

Steve Song – Village Telco

Steve Song said there is no widely-accepted definition of open access, making the term easy to abuse.

The definition he prefers comes from the World Bank’s Infodev report:

Open Access is about creating competition in all layers of the [Internet] IP network allowing a wide variety of physical networks and applications to interact in an open architecture. Put plainly, anyone can connect to anyone in a technology-neutral framework that encourages innovative, low-cost delivery to users.

Song’s definition of open access also includes the following:

  1. You can’t sell wholesale and retail services on the same network.
  2. Service offerings must be cheap enough to allow smaller players to participate.
  3. Pricing transparency, with at least entry-level prices publicly available.

“Seacom may once have been open access, but they are not any longer since their decision to offer direct services to businesses. Telkom was never open access, but they may achieve that with Openserve.”

Suveer Ramdhani

Suveer Ramdhani – Seacom

Seacom disagreed with Song, saying it operates an open-access network, and was first to pitch this concept in 2007.

He said to them open access means fair access to infrastructure based on equitable commercial terms.

“In practice, that means we embrace the unbundling of the different components of our service and infrastructure when we sell services to other networks. As an example, an ISP wanting to buy last mile should not be obliged to buy metro backhaul from the same operator.”

Offering retail services on its network also doesn’t mean smaller operators will be squeezed out.

“We believe that they have an important role to play in bringing innovation and competition to the market.”

Niel Schoeman

Niel Schoeman – Vumatel

Vumatel agreed with Song’s requirement that for a network to be considered open access it can’t offer end-user services on its own infrastructure.

Speaking at the 2015 MyBroadband conference, Vumatel’s Niel Schoeman said they offer a true, transparent, open-access service.

There are other networks who offer more of a wholesale service, he said, and then compete with ISPs in providing layer-3 services on top of their own wholesale offering.

Joe Botha

Joe Botha – Octotel

Octotel’s Joe Botha believes that in an open-access model, the infrastructure provider must not compete with the service providers on the network.

“An open-access network refers to a specialised and focused business model, in which a network infrastructure provider limits its activities to a fixed set of value layers in order to avoid conflicts of interest,” said Botha.

He said open-access networks must have the following characteristics:

  • The provider sticks to infrastructure services.
  • The provider never competes with ISPs.
  • Neutral, independent, no conflicts of interest.
  • Standard and transparent pricing to ISPs.

Laurie Fialkov

Laurie Fialkov – Cybersmart

Cybersmart’s Laurie Fialkov said open access is simply a form of exclusivity that is branded differently.

Selling a network as open access gives an operator exclusivity on the infrastructure layer.

Fialkov defined the term as follows:

“An open-access network makes network components available to an Internet service provider so that it can build a potentially unique network service that can be sold to its customers.”

Should a network be built on the above principle, Fialkov said it becomes less of a problem if the infrastructure provider offers retail services on its own network.

Although the company renting out the infrastructure has a cost advantage when selling retail services, ISPs still have the ability to create a unique service.

Shane Chorley

Shane Chorley – Vox Telecom

Vox Telecom believes a network can be classified as open access even if the infrastructure provider offers end-user services.

However, the network operator and end-user service provider functions must operate as separate entities.

“Vox Telecom’s acquisition of Frogfoot Networks is a good example of this,” said Vox’s Shane Chorley.

“Frogfoot Networks operates as a separate entity within the Carrier and Connectivity division at Vox Telecom, providing services to the group’s customers, as well as wholesale services to the market, at the same price.”

He said the most important requirement for a network to be considered open access should be about creating equal opportunities for service providers to apply for access to the network, against which their viability will be evaluated.

“From a commercial perspective, this also ensures that smaller players can compete alongside the bigger players.”

Juanita Clark

Juanita Clark – FTTH Council Africa

Fibre-to-the-home Council Africa defined open access as “the situation where multiple retail service providers may use the network on an equitable basis, and compete to offer their services to end users”.

Service providers connect to the network at a packet-layer interface which may be implemented on layer 2 (data link, Ethernet), or layer 3 (network, IP).

The Council’s definitions document also lists several layers at which a network can be open access.

In South Africa, open access mainly occurs on two levels: the dark fibre level, or a bitstream level. This is referred to as Multilayer Open Access.

There are other layers on which open access can be realised, such as open access wavelength, and open access duct.

Conversely, “Exclusive Access” or “vertically integrated” refers to the situation where a single service provider offers both retail and wholesale services, which may or may not be the network operator, or have exclusive use of the network.

A network where the operator also offers retail services may be considered open access, assuming it does not stop other providers from gaining access to the network, and allows them to offer services at a competitive price.

The Council said there is no point in calling it open access, but pricing access in such a way that no one else can afford to deliver services over the network.

Original forum thread: What is Open Access?

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Fibre-to-the-home in South Africa – what is open access?