Rural telecoms

It is often said that people in rural areas are getting a raw deal when it comes to telecommunication. Hopefully this is about to change.

South Africa’s incumbent telecommunications provider, Telkom, and its monopoly is often blamed for this situation. In all honesty, the company tried very hard by introducing DECT, but this did not do much to relieve the situation. The service was too expensive and most of the time people could not afford it and after several months many phones were dismantled due to non payment.

There were also technical problems. The system could not handle the volume of calls which tended to be high in the late afternoon and early evening. And than there was lightning. The equipment simply did not stand up to some of the harsh lightning conditions prevalent in many of the areas.

Clearly a new model was needed if South Africa was serious about connecting people in remote areas. Of all the requirements, cost of the service is the most problematic. It is a well researched fact that access to telecommunications will lead to greater economic development in an area. It is however the chicken and egg situation.

Most people regard the following story as an urban legend, but it is true. In what was once known as the Transkei, a goat farmer turned his business around when Telkom installed the first public phone near his village. The small-scale farmer, with a dozen or so goats, seized the opportunity to check weekly what the market prices were and soon realised that he could sell his goats at a much higher price. When voicemail on public phones became available he could receive messages and orders. To cut a long, but interesting, story short, he grew his business and later expanded into the catering field, employing many of the villagers who had up to then been unemployed.

It also became clear that for a long time to come, the second network operator, Neotel, would be in a similar position as the incumbent, and would not be able to provide an economical rural service. While government intervention is often disliked it was  clearly needed.

When the Telecommunications Act was promulgated the Universal Service Agency was established, funded by levies on communication provider licensees. It was off to a rocky start. Twenty seven underserved areas were identified but the issuing of licences was very slow. The USA was later transformed into the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA). The USAASA is established under the Electronic Communications Act No. 36 of 2005, to promote the goals of universal access and universal service in the under-serviced areas of South Africa.

Under serviced areas licensees are offered a R15-million contribution from the USAASA. R5-million is provided upfront and based on performance with a further R10-million contributed over the next two years. The funding may only be applied to operational capital requirements. The licensee has to generate operational funds from inception. A tall order!

This is where Sean van der Walt, MD of Redlinx comes in. EngineerIT caught up with him at the recent VoIP conference in Johannesburg. Redlinx has been involved in several under-serviced area projects as a contractor for Bokone Telecoms in Polokwane and Amathole Telecoms in the Eastern Cape.

"The most important requirement for an under- serviced area licensee is a cost-effective core network to deliver affordable voice and data communication that can be leveraged off any IP-enabled access network, be it WiFi, WiMAX, diginet or even an ADSL link," said Van der Walt.

According to Bevan Booy, the technical officer of Amathole Telecommunications Services, the company will be the first to roll out a commercial service utilising WiMAX to provide customer access to their network. Booy was instrumental in the establishment of the company, the under-serviced area licence holder for the Amathole municipal district. Speaking at WiMAX World 2008 recently held in Cape Town, he said that his company was one of the first to be allocated spectrum by in the 3,5 GHz WiMAX band and will soon be connecting customers.

The main contract was awarded to Tellumat who awarded the core network portion to Redlinx. "We were responsible for configuring the core network and chose two of the world’s best providers of VoIP solutions hardware for the gateway solution", Van der Walt said.

VocalTec Communications is a global provider of carrier-class multimedia and voice-over-IP solutions for communication service providers. The company pioneered VoIP technology in 1994. Designed for easy integration in multi-vendor environments, VocalTec’s best-of-breed solutions handle call control, routing, media processing, signalling and security within state-of-the-art NGN networks. AudioCodes’ voice compression technology was chosen for its high quality transmission of voice over packet networks using substantially less network capacity than is used in traditional telephone networks. Interconnection to the Telkom network is via 16 E1 links which each provide 2 MB, providing 30 concurrent voice calls for a targeted 5000 subscribers. This translates to traffic capability of 0,1 Erlang. Billing is handled by the Tellumat billing bureau service.

"Rolling out a cost-effective telecommunications network in rural areas is challenging at the best of times," said Van der Walt, "but very rewarding as one get an opportunity to empower people who have never worked in the telecommunications field. It is also rewarding to see the positive effect on the local economy. A project like Amathole ultimately achieves more than just providing communications. We have already seen the establishment of local contracting companies and once the network is switched on more businesses are likely to be emerging, leveraging off the new network," Van der Walt concluded.

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Rural telecoms