“When are we going to get decent broadband?” is the connectivity question our tech guru, Arthur Goldstuck, hears most often. He has a few answers…

It’s a mantra repeated so often, most of us assume it is a natural truth: “We don’t have real broadband in South Africa.” And with it goes the question: When are we getting decent broadband in South Africa? The answer, usually, is one that the questioner doesn’t want to hear: we already have decent broadband. Of course, everything depends on where you live and what you can afford. But my response is usually a further question: what speed ADSL is offered on your local exchange? And typically, the answer is: “I don’t know.” That immediately brings up an obvious word of advice: “Find out.” That’s usually accomplished by visiting a Telkom customer centre. And there, many people with fixed lines discover that they do in fact have decent broadband; no one bothered to tell them. The truth is, Telkom are quietly upgrading all their exchanges. Many can already offer up to 4Mbps speeds. Those at the front of the upgrade queue, however, are running at 10Mbps. Bearing in mind that the most widely accepted definitions of broadband put it at 1 or 2Mbps, fixed line users have joined the broadband revolution – even when they don’t know about it.

Typically, Telkom offers the humorously named “Fast ADSL” at 384Kbps, “Faster ADSL” at 1Mbps, and “Fastest ADSL” at 4 or 10Mbps. If you’re on 4Mbps, and the exchange is upgraded to 10Mbps, you’re automatically upgraded without a rental increase. The ADSL rental component rises through the three tiers from R152 to R289 to R413. There are a few major flaws in this seeming broadband cornucopia. Price is one. The ADSL rental charge comes on top of phone line rental, which is now around R140 a line. World Wide Worx research into mobile consumers has shown that lower-income South African cellphone users spend an average of R100 a month on their phones – in total. The mere rental component of a line is beyond the reach of most South Africans, let alone using it for calls or adding ADSL on top.

For those who can afford ADSL, there is another little problem. The further you are from your exchange, the less likely you are to get the full benefit of available speeds. There is no scientific formula for it, but typically you can start counting yourself out of the ADSL fight if you are more than 4km from the nearest exchange. Past 2km, expect a discount – not on price, but on speed. The question about “decent broadband,” then, really becomes the question of “affordable broadband within a decent distance.”

And no, we don’t have that yet.

For that reason, the market is watching closely what happens next. It is called LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution, but is just a technical name to describe the next generation of mobile broadband. We will come to know it as 4G. Right now in South Africa, you are not formally allowed to call it 4G unless it is a specific version of LTE known as LTE Advanced. The International Telecommunications Union has formally defined the standard, but in many countries, like the United States, technologies that are older and a little slower are marketed as 4G without the sky falling in on the providers. Those are the boring aspects of 4G. The exciting part is what the user will experience. MTN is giving the market a taste of the future with the launch of a small pilot LTE network, available in the vicinity of 100 base stations erected around the Johannesburg area.

The network is accessed through a 4G USB dongle, which is just a little bulkier than one of the typical 3G modems sticking out of laptops everywhere. The version in use for the MTN LTE network is the Huawei E398, which offers a theoretical maximum download speed of 100Mbps, and an upload of 50Mbps. It is also designed to fall back on 2G and 3G networks when 4G is not available. However, during the pilot, it will only connect to LTE towers. MTN says its network will currently support up to 70Mbps, but users will more typically experience up to 40Mbps.

Does it live up to those expectations? Does it just. My average download speed on the modem, across a variety of venues, has been 28Mbps. Uploads average 18Mbps. My best speed, achieved at Melrose Arch, saw the downloaded data screaming in at 40Mbps, and the upload rising to 28Mbps. It was almost frightening, it was so unreal. What can you do with such speeds? High-definition movies come to mind instantly. More practically, it means downloading software or updates can be near-instant. The 105MB file size of the latest version of iTunes was crunched down the airwaves in less than 30 seconds. The massive 800MB update for the iPhone and iPad operating system, iOS 5, took all of three minutes.

The sad 4G news is that it is unlikely to go commercial for at least another year. In the meantime, many are pinning their hopes on the arrival of Fibre To The Home (FTTH), which is regarded as the natural consequence of Fibre To The Building (FTTB) going mainstream in the business environment. The beauty of fibre is that there is almost no limit to the capacity of a fibre strand: speed and bandwidth is constrained by the equipment on either end of the fibre line, and what the customer is willing to pay. The typical FTTB offering to corporates is a 100Mbps connection, and that is becoming a standard expectation for FTTH as well.

But there are a few small obstacles.

The first is that, in most cases, you are not really seeing FTTB, but FTToP, or fibre to the office park. And no, that’s not an official definition. All other forms of FTTx are concoctions of sales and marketing departments, or snide journalists. If you are not in an office park that is already wired for fibre, chances are you would have to pay such a hefty premium for your own dedicated fibre line that you may as well stick to ADSL. The figure bandied about is R20,000 for installation – if you are near an existing fibre line.

For now, real fibre access is the reward of good planning: the kind of planning where you choose to move into an office park or gated complex built by developers with the foresight to include fibre access in the building plans. In fact, gated communities are already benefiting from FTTG, or Fibre to the Gated Community (also not official terminology). In the environs of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, where there is still space left for secure “community-living” residential developments, and where those are close enough to the fibre rings running round and between cities, the future has arrived. Some South Africans are enjoying 100Mbps connections to their homes, but in such small numbers, they can barely be counted. One reason this access isn’t spreading to a broader market – not even to the traditional early adopters of new tech products and services – is the lack of infrastructure to support it.

When the Seacom cable was connected to the KwaZulu-Natal north coast in July 2009, many thought that the war for more broadband and bandwidth was over. However, that was merely the end of the beginning of the war. Once the cable was connected, the heavy labour began. Next, that international bandwidth had to be connected to its users. And last time they conducted a census, the majority of likely users were not clustered around Mtunzini on the North Coast. Nor around Yzerfontein on the West Coast, where the new West Africa Cable System (WACS) recently landed and is being switched on round about now. Indeed, with every new undersea cable connected to the South African coastline, another round of land-based construction has been heralded.

Today there are three major national fibre construction projects underway. Neotel, MTN and Vodacom have teamed up to construct trenches connecting Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. They will share the ducts that run through these trenches, but each will lay down their own fibre cables running through these ducts. Meanwhile, Cell C and Convergence Partners, along with Internet Solutions, have formed a consortium called FibreCo, and are laying down their own national fibre grid, starting with the Johannesburg to Cape Town stretch.

Within the cities themselves, these players are joined by an independent fibre company, Dark Fibre Africa, which has been digging up the cities to lay down massive fibre capacity. They, in turn, rent that capacity to the rest of the operators, who use it to connect up their own various bits and pieces of fibre. While it appears there is no end in sight, almost all these projects are scheduled for completion in the next 18 months. They will also feed the LTE towers that will leap up at around the same time, and provide the backbone for FTTB, FTTH and every other form of FTT the salesmen dream up. Until then, connectivity will get worse before it gets better. But, come 2013, our data dreams will start coming true.

By Arthur Goldstuck
Published by Playboy South Africa January/February 2012