The rollout of fibre in South Africa could soon be faster and more effective, according to major fibre network operators.
This is if the regulations contained in the Proposed Policy and Policy Direction on the Rapid Deployment of Electronic Communications Networks and Facilities come into effect.
This policy was gazetted by Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams back in July.
The purpose of the proposed policy direction is to direct ICASA to prescribe regulations on procedures and processes for resolving disputes that may arise between an electronic communications network service licensee and private or public landowners with regards to infrastructure rollout.
This includes the construction of mobile network towers for LTE and 5G connectivity, as well as fixed-broadband infrastructure, which are intended to improve broadband connectivity for South Africans.
Under current legislation, fibre network operators must acquire permission from private property owners or public authorities before they can build infrastructure.
According to major network operators – including Link Africa, Liquid Telecom, MetroFibre Networx, and Vumatel – the current processes lack the necessary standards to allow for effective fibre rollouts and result in big delays which can stretch from months to over a year.
Wayleaves are a problem
Link Africa and MetroFibre Networx told MyBroadband that building on public land presented the biggest likelihood of delays, due to the requirement to get permission in the form of a wayleave.
This official form of approval is issued by the relevant public authorities – normally the roads and stormwater department in the case of local municipalities.
It could also be the relevant road agencies or provincial roads authority in cases where fibre is rolled out next to national or provincial roads.
Head of Network Planning and Project Management at MetroFibre Networx Eugene Slabbert explained that getting this permission could become complicated.
“The process to obtain a wayleave is not standardised and it varies from a simple request for permission to an elaborate process entailing notifying multiple stakeholders,” Slabbert said.
These stakeholders could include other municipal departments, utilities and network operators whose infrastructure may be affected by the proposed new fibre cable infrastructure.
In addition, some municipalities demand that the applicant must make use of professional engineers to apply for wayleaves, Slabbert said.
“The response time normally takes four weeks before the actual wayleave application is considered for approval by the responsible issuing authority,” he said.
The delays meant that the total time to obtain a wayleave can vary from six weeks to more than 18 months.
Driving up costs
According to Slabbert, the respective government authorities often lack fibre cable infrastructure planning and design experience, and would apply obsolete technical conditions on proposed infrastructure that has the potential to increase costs drastically.
In addition, the tariffs for wayleave applications also vary. Link Africa said that while most municipalities charge reasonable or no tariffs, two or three cities charge very expensive tariffs.
Furthermore, some municipalities have their own fibre roll-out plans, and they end up frustrating and delaying telecommunications companies while advancing their own plans, Link Africa said.
Liquid Telecom Acting CEO Craig van Rooyen explained that there were other financial municipal requirements which proved to be an obstacle.
“Other key challenges are municipal requirements such as costly reinstatement fees, road penalties fees, refundable security deposits and application fees,” Van Rooyen said.
Private property disputes
Although this is not as often the case as with public land, private landowners can also cause delays.
Link Africa said that this has been a significant problem during the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, with property owners looking at telecommunications companies to generate revenue due to diminishing gross leasable area revenues.
“This is causing delays as the legislation is vague, and the regime governing payment by telecommunications companies to property owners is unstructured,” Link Africa said.
“Property owners deny access and push for revenue-sharing agreements to be signed. This is happening at the expense of connecting tenants to a telecommunications network of their choice,” it added.
Slabbert said that body corporate annual general meetings to agree to build in complexes could also delay the process.
Impact of policy
Link Africa, MetroFibre Networx and Vuma said the proposed policy would improve the speed of fibre deployment.
Link Africa noted it would also accelerate the reach to tier 2 towns and rural areas, in particular.
However, Slabbert said the policy would need to address the standardisation of wayleave processes and applicable technical standards for the implementation of fibre cable infrastructure along public roads to truly make fibre rollouts faster and more efficient.
Van Rooyen added that while the proposed policy is a “welcome step towards the much-needed facilitation of the rapid deployment of networks”, it falls short in terms of addressing key issues such as:
- The processes and cost of access to property owned by government organisations,
- Addressing co-operation between the relevant government departments and various municipalities
- The combating of crime, primarily theft and vandalism of network equipment,
- The impact of infrastructure-sharing arrangements.
Vuma said it is critical to continue to identify tactics aimed at reducing the cost of fibre build projects, without compromising on quality.
“Relaxing of certain bylaws, without compromising other services, will ensure the continued roll-out of fibre,” the company said.