The exponential growth of fibre companies, and the speed with which fibre services are being rolled out, is impressive – and yet it tends to obscure the fact that the vast majority of households in South Africa don’t have an FTTH connection.
Internet connectivity remains a pipe dream for millions
The most recent ICASA report into the industry – The State of the ICT Sector Report in South Africa, 2021 – indicates that in September 2020, the country had some 660 441 fixed broadband subscriptions. That represents just 4% of South Africa’s estimated 17.6 million households.
Interestingly, this represents a significant drop from the figure of 1 647 419 for September 2019. However, this marked decline is neither explored nor explained in the report.
Even allowing for the almost inevitable inaccuracies that crop up in any nationwide survey in South Africa, it is sobering to reflect that all the sound and fury of fibre expansion signifies at best, a very low level of penetration.
So why only 4%?
Fibre has become the preferred option for telecommunications service delivery, from mega- capacity undersea cables, national and regional routes, all the way down to street-level broadband services.
This technology provides high-quality services that can be scaled to meet growing demand and enable digitisation of every aspect of life.
As a physical medium, however, fibre faces certain limitations.
Installations follow very specific routes – and then only after a tediously bureaucratic process of obtaining various approvals.
Fibre can only ever be of use to subscribers it can ‘touch’ and its spread is limited by geographical and financial considerations. This can lead to huge discrepancies in connectivity experiences within the same suburb or estate.
Just like all communications technologies, fibre has both strengths and weaknesses. These permit it to address some needs perfectly, but make it poorly suited to other situations. In other words, it is not a connectivity panacea.
Accepting that there is a need for alternative technologies and providers if universal connectivity is to be achieved, is an important first step.
Two such technologies are LTE and fixed wireless networks; the same ICASA ICT report details a total fixed broadband audience of 1 126 590 subscribers, meaning that in addition to the FTTH subscribers discussed earlier, another 446 480 subscribers are using LTE or fixed wireless alternatives.
This is still not enough. At just over 1 million total subscribers, we are still only looking at around 6% of South African households having a modern internet connection.
Furthermore, neither of these technologies can scale rapidly. Fibre is bound by physical constraints and a limited market footprint, while LTE is inherently limited by spectrum availability and the pace and cost of infrastructure rollouts.
These limitations suggest that there is a real need for more innovative connectivity solutions that offer larger market footprints and far quicker network rollout methodologies.
One such alternative is the TV whitespace network. In development now for some time, this technology has recently been endorsed by an ICASA regulation that mandates and controls frequency access and provides network deployments control models.
Pioneering projects driven by organisations such as WAPA are demonstrating the feasibility of this technology, and in particular, its rapid deployment advantages and large potential market footprint.
TV whitespace networks repurpose available television broadcast frequencies to broadcast broadband services in much the same way that conventional TV channels signals are broadcast.
This is a very promising field and could lead to large-scale connectivity projects being completed at a rapid pace.
Smart Satellite networks
Large-scale and the ability to rapidly achieve market footprint – these are the fundamental advantages of satellite networks.
With ongoing massive investment in new LEO and MEO satellite constellations, emerging Smart Satellite services offer an attractive solution for a specific sector of the household connectivity market.
New services planned by the likes of Amazon’s Kuiper, OneWeb, Starlink and SES mPower are set to transform satellite services as we currently know them, and bring an expected 200Tbps satellite capacity into the region.
That represents 16 times the 12Tbps design capacity of the Seacom cable and 400 times the current 500Gbps Seacom provisioned capacity.
Even at this level of capacity, satellite services are expected to remain a niche solution best suited to providing connectivity to more remote areas, applications that require very high availability, and professional home-office users.
Fibre alone cannot close the connectivity gap. In fact, there is no single solution that will meet the connectivity needs of all South African households – a combined, multi-solution approach will be required.
Fortunately, various alternative technologies are in development, or already being deployed. These can make a valuable contribution to closing the digital divide.
Network architects and end-users would do well to stay informed about these alternative technologies, and also more niche, specialised service providers, as these offer the best way to connect the market sectors that fibre cannot reach.
By Dr Dawie de Wet (Pr. Eng. M.Sc. Eng.) – Group CEO of Q-KON and Chief Engineer for Twoobii, a locally supported satellite broadband service. With over 30 years’ experience in designing, engineering, developing and implementing wireless, microwave and satellite communication systems in Africa, Dawie is focused on developing telco solutions that integrate user requirements, emerging markets and leading technology. Learn how Q-KON can help you enabled cloud services through satellite: https://www.qkon.com