Where fibre doesn’t reach – Wireless ISPs in South Africa need help

Wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) in South Africa have seen a massive increase in traffic on their networks following the declaration of a national state of disaster.

During “after work” hours from 17:00 to 22:00, WISPs have seen an average increase in traffic of 30%.

In normal daytime working hours, traffic on wireless connections around South Africa has doubled. They have also seen a doubling in Internet traffic during off-peak hours, between 22:00 and 05:00.

“There has been a huge increase in demand without an increase in revenue,” the Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA) told MyBroadband.

This is because, unlike South Africa’s cellular networks, wireless ISPs usually sell flat-rated uncapped services. Prices are calculated based on average usage patterns, which have been thrown off completely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and South Africa’s lockdown.

WAPA said that South Africa’s WISPs provide connectivity for around 450,000 homes and businesses.

Good support from the government

While wireless ISPs are under pressure, WAPA said the support they have received from the government so far has been good.

“Government wants to know anything that’s stopping the networks, or holding them back,” WAPA stated.

WAPA also expressed appreciation for the work that the FTTX Council Africa have done on behalf of Internet access providers.

“There is a daily meeting with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies,” said WAPA.

“The work that Andile Ngcaba and Juanita Clark has done there has been fantastic.” Ngcaba is the president and Clark the CEO of FTTX Council Africa.

Keeping technicians safe

In addition to engaging with the government, WAPA said its main focus has been ensuring the safety of staff members.

This includes a COVID-19 installation procedure guide, and a cybersecurity survival guide to allow technicians to continue to install and maintain links safely.

“We don’t want our technicians to be carriers of this disease, and we want them to be able to continue to do their work and connect people during this time,” WAPA said.

WAPA has also put out a standard essential services permit for its members to use.

“There has been the odd over-enthusiastic policeman out there, but generally it’s been good,” it said.

Indirect supply chain problems

While there is constructive dialogue between the industry and the government, there are still areas where network operators and technicians are experiencing challenges.

For example, technicians have reported that while they can get the ICT equipment they need, it’s a challenge to get vehicle spares and other hardware.

Rawl bolts, ladders, and fan belts for vehicles have become difficult to get following the lockdown.

“There is a sub-supply chain that no one thought about until the lockdown,” WAPA said.

Spectrum

Wireless ISPs provide Internet access by connecting homes or businesses to high sites via Wi-Fi antennas.

Wi-Fi uses bands of unlicensed spectrum, which is allocated for use by ICASA.

ICASA recently handed out radio frequency spectrum for cellular networks to use on a temporary basis, which included TV White Spaces spectrum for certain wireless ISPs.

However, ICASA has not provided WISPs that rely on Wi-Fi with spectrum relief so that they can increase the capacity of their networks.

WAPA explained that wireless ISPs can’t really use the spectrum ICASA was handing out, because it would create an expensive problem for them when they have to give the spectrum back.

WAPA has submitted a request to ICASA to open up spectrum in the 5.8GHz – 6.1GHz range.

“A lot of WISPs already have equipment that can operate in that range. Some go as high as 6.3GHz,” WAPA told MyBroadband.

“WISPs are hungry for this. It would be a quick software configuration change that we can turn on within an hour.”

Pay your ISP bill

When asked if there was anything subscribers can do to help their ISPs, WAPA said the most important thing at this stage for small businesses is cash flow.

“We are linked into a global community of service provider associations all over the world,” WAPA said.

Countries like Italy and Spain are about a month ahead of South Africa in terms of feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which gives WAPA a way to forecast what to expect.

“We’re waiting for feedback from Italy and Spain regarding potential revenue knocks to expect in SA.”

WAPA said the most important thing people can do is to pay their Internet subscriptions.

“Small businesses don’t have the reserves of cash that huge telcos do,” WAPA said. “It is really important that people pay their subscriptions on time.”

Now read: Increased sales and data traffic — How the coronavirus affected South Africa’s ISPs

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Where fibre doesn’t reach – Wireless ISPs in South Africa need help