South Africa’s township fibre revolution

South Africa’s fibre network operators are increasingly expanding their infrastructure to densely-populated lower-income communities.

The beginning of this new fibre land rush was first signalled in 2017, when Vumatel founder and then-CEO Niel Schoeman announced plans to launch in Alexandra.

Alex is a Johannesburg township just East of Sandton and is considered one of the more challenging areas to operate in — unless you’re a local.

Schoeman’s dream was to offer 100Mbps uncapped fibre for R89 per month.

“Abundance. At the price of two Big Macs,” he said at the time.

They also had to make a profit.

Schoeman was adamant that it couldn’t be charity or cross-subsidised by other Vumatel customers, or it wouldn’t be sustainable.

On paper, the plan was relatively simple: Reduce the cost of deployment by running fibre along poles rather than trenching, and maximise economies of scale thanks to how densely populated the area is.

Reality soon overtook Schoeman’s dream, and Vumatel’s Alexandra project got stuck in limbo for years.

Struggling to obtain the necessary wayleaves from the City of Johannesburg and confronted with construction mafias, they put Alex on ice.

However, even after Schoeman left Vumatel in 2018, the company continued working on a plan to roll out in South Africa’s townships.

In 2019, Vumatel launched a prepaid fibre-to-the-home service in Mitchell’s Plain that would eventually become Vuma Reach.

At R400 per month for a 20Mbps service, it’s much more expensive than Vumatel had initially targeted — but it was a start.

Soon, other network operators were rolling out similar products.

Telkom has launched Openserve Web Connect, Metrofibre launched MetroConnect, and Frogfoot has Frogfoot Air and Frogfoot Rise.

This was followed by various smaller players entering the market, focusing entirely on townships.

eKasi Fibre launched prepaid fibre in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, and industry veterans behind Isizwe launched “fibre-to-the-shack” for R5 per day in Kyamandi

Former Vodacom Enterprise head and SAA CEO Vuyani Jarana also launched Illitha Telecommunications, with a fibre rollout in Mdantsane near East London.

Finally, in 2023, Vumatel returned to Alexandra to follow through on what it started in 2017.

It launched a trial for a new prepaid service it calls Vuma Key, with entry-level prices between R100 and R150 per month.

Although not the 100Mbps they had hoped for back in 2017, it’s fast enough, it’s cheap, and most importantly — uncapped.

MyBroadband and several other journalists were recently invited to visit Alexandra with Vumatel and see the rollout for ourselves.

We interviewed several residents, and executives from Remgro and Vumatel on camera, and produced a video summarising it. The video is embedded below.

Now read: Vodacom, Vumatel deal heads for big fight at Competition Tribunal

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South Africa’s township fibre revolution