Why fixed broadband should be a priority for South Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed holes in South Africa’s connectivity infrastructure – particularly high-quality fixed broadband Internet.

This has severely hampered the ability of many businesses and employees to keep working during the lockdown.

The need to improve fixed Internet connectivity in South Africa has thus become clear as South Africans are missing out on great opportunities due to insufficient Internet connectivity.

It is also clear that it is not enough to provide South Africans with any connection – it needs to be one that is equipped to deal with the vast range of technologies required by the modern tech citizen.

The benchmark for Internet speed deemed to be “fast” is a download speed of 30Mbps, according to the European Commission.

“In 2015, 71% of European households – but only 28% of those in rural areas – had access to a fast fixed Internet connection, “it noted.

“This is not enough to address the growing need for speed, quality, and reliability of the infrastructure necessary for the Digital Single Market.”

The US FCC defines a connection with 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds as having advanced telecommunications capability.

25-30Mbps is, therefore, the speed required to accommodate most daily Internet services and ensure that no one is left out of the full Internet experience.

By 2025, and as technology evolves, the European Commission envisions its 30Mbps benchmark rising to 100Mbps.

“All European households, rural or urban, should have access to connectivity offering a download speed of at least 100Mbps, which can be upgraded to Gbps,” said the European Commission.

Former chairman of the FCC Tom Wheeler has contested, however, that 100Mbps should already be the baseline when rolling out fixed broadband to new customers.

“We should try to build the optimal fibre solution first before funding alternatives,” said Wheeler.

“And, regardless of technology, a condition of federal money should be delivery of at least 100MBps in the new construction of Internet infrastructure.”

If South Africa does not keep up with the rest of the world in terms of high-speed fixed Internet, particularly in reference to the metrics provided above, it will be left behind in the modern Internet revolution.

Fixed Internet penetration is currently insufficient

Research has shown that only 55% of South Africans are Internet users, of which 95% use mobile Internet to stay connected.

While mobile Internet products have their place, they are not as reliable as a fixed Internet alternative.

“Mobile broadband service is not a full substitute for fixed service. Instead… there are differences between the two technologies, including clear variations in consumer preferences
and demands,” confirmed FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

Unfortunately, the expansion of fixed Internet in South Africa has been slow – particularly when compared to the adoption of mobile Internet solutions.

The SA Connect government project has been marred by regular delays and missed targets.

In October 2019, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) said it would be working with the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) to determine a feasibility study and explore cost-effective and sustainable models.

Independent analyst and researcher Dr Charley Lewis said it is important that the DCDT does not see itself as the entity that needs to implement these models.

“That’s the job of the private sector, with the appropriate regulatory incentives for market-led rollout, coupled with support from the USAF [Universal Service and Access Fund].”

Lewis noted that this should take place “either in the form of once-off smart initiation subsidies or through long-term support programmes for those areas and individuals the market is unable to reach.”

Fixing the lack of fixed Internet access in South Africa will require every stakeholder to play their part.

This includes the government, which needs to work with the country’s major telecommunication operators to figure out the best strategy to accelerate the rollout of fixed broadband.

The benefits of fixed broadband

High-speed broadband – particularly fibre – offers major advantages both to South Africa as a whole and to each of its citizens.

By providing access to this technology, South Africa will ensure more of its citizens have opportunities to acquire ICT skills and knowledge, empowering these people to break the cycle of poverty.

Not only is this a life-changing experience to these people; it also accelerates growth in key areas such as job creation, entrepreneurship, and IT infrastructure.

The coronavirus pandemic has also changed the mindset of businesses with regards to remote working, as they have realised that this offers some major benefits to their productivity and financial status.

It is therefore the perfect time to invest in the infrastructure that will enable this new way of working.

Now read: New court ruling is great news for fibre rollout in South Africa

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Why fixed broadband should be a priority for South Africa