How fibre is driving the future forward

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There can be no doubt that the past year has seen massive changes and huge improvements in the way we leverage technology to help us work. Although mostly driven by the necessity to overcome the strictures of lockdown, the move to collaborative tools and a work from home environment has gone off relatively smoothly, considering the speed with which it was implemented.

A major contributing factor to this has been the significant improvements in connectivity in South Africa over the past decade, most notably the growing reliance on fibre. Even before the pandemic, in fact, the digital transformation of industries was creating increased demand for stable, high-speed connectivity.

After all, suggests Jacques du Toit, CEO of Vox Telecom, this is the foundation on which a whole host of critical business functions run, from customer engagement strategies to redundancy, backup and storage. Naturally, the current distributed working environment also requires much higher levels of bandwidth.

“Fibre is the ideal technology to enable the delivery of high-capacity connectivity speeds at a low cost – something that is next to impossible over wireless or similar options. You could say fibre is the key to unlocking a range of additional benefits for the country and its people,” he notes.

“One only has to think of the benefits such high-speed connectivity might have for delivering quality education to the more remote parts of the nation to see how this might benefit SA. After all, educated people inevitably contribute more to the economy.”

Speaking of how it helps stimulate the economy, he adds, one need look no further than the increased efficiencies derived from hosting meetings online instead of face to face. Furthermore, the financial crunch created by Covid-19 has also led to many people using the internet as a platform to launch small businesses, since they have a potentially global market to sell to. Clearly, connectivity has never been more crucial.

The need for fibre

But what about the challenge of moving fibre beyond the major metropolitan areas? When it comes to this, he says a technology that requires the kind of investment fibre does inevitably builds from the centre out.

“Although the metros are mostly covered now, the next step is to connect the many smaller towns and municipalities. However, this can only be done once a national backbone is in place, and this is a space dominated by a few players like ourselves. For example, we currently have around 9 000km of national long-distance network implemented.

“With a long-distance network in place, it becomes much easier to create links off this network to join the smaller towns to the national fibre network. However, we must bear in mind that there are different connectivity players that will play different roles in this bigger picture. While we provide the national network, these organisations will take the next layer of connectivity into specific towns and regions.”

Du Toit points out that the government is also playing a crucial part in the drive to get connectivity to everyone. Government’s role is to enable the free internet services such as those available at community centres and libraries, to ensure that even the most underprivileged of citizens is afforded proper access to opportunities.

Asked about the role of a company like Vox Telecom once the initial fibre rollouts have been completed, Du Toit suggests that the company has given careful thought to this matter.

“We expect there to be another two or three years left in respect of the kind of large-scale rollouts we, and our main competitors, have been undertaking. Once fibre has largely been brought to the key residential areas – and we expect around another one million homes will be passed within the next 18 months – we will need to adapt our strategy significantly,” he states.

“Moving forward, our strategy will be based on positioning ourselves as a vertically-integrated telco, meaning our foundation is the fibre, and on top of this we will layer relevant, fit-for-purpose services, such as voice, data, security, applications, hosting or even cloud, digital store fronts.

“If you consider just the average house connected to fibre, their demand for security services, applications and myriad similar requirements means we are well positioned to sell them such additional services. Of course, the aim is not merely to sell solutions, but to work closely with customers in upgrading and swapping out older technologies in order to keep them relevant. This requires us to keep a close eye on the products and their lifecycles so that we can, for example, educate them around when the best time might be to switch from an onsite PBX to a cloud-based one.”

Fibre vs 5G

Du Toit suggests that although mobile operators have been riding the 5G wave and touting the benefits of the technology, he suspects mobile 5G will not have the impact predicted. For one thing, he points out that no one knows the impact using it will have on the device – on its battery life, for example – and that things like network congestion or backhaul will also determine its effectiveness.

“With regard to fixed 5G connectivity, I see there being a level of benefit, but I feel the market as a whole needs greater education around this technology, so they can leverage the vast amounts of data delivered at high speed in order to make better decisions in a safer, healthier living environment.”

He adds that since the 5G spectrum has not officially been released yet, and if it is ultimately auctioned to the highest bidder when it is, this may have an impact on its affordability. Until this auction takes place, 5G may hold potential, but we cannot yet determine what its true cost to the consumer will be.

“Regardless of 5G’s challenge, the fact is that it is a narrow spectrum technology, requiring a number of base stations sited close together. Since each of these requires a fibre backhaul, wherever anyone is installing 5G, they will still need fibre to make it work,” indicates Du Toit.

Once fibre has largely been brought to the key residential areas – and we expect around another one million homes will be passed within the next 18 months – we will need to adapt our strategy significantly.

Jacques du Toit, Vox Telecom

Although it’ s early days to be predicting a victor in the race to deliver high-speed connectivity, Du Toit suggests that the one thing that has stood out since the lockdown began is how much easier it has been for employees who had access to fibre to continue working.

“Fibre has been the key to successful remote work strategies, to the point where we are probably having more meetings than ever before, but the duration of each has been reduced. In addition, it has boosted productivity significantly as time is no longer wasted travelling between meetings,” he says.

“The other bonus here is that more people attend these online meetings, which reduces the ‘lost in translation’ effect that occurs when decisions are taken in a meeting and then disseminated on a second- and third-hand fashion to employees lower down the chain.”

It’s also worth noting that lockdown drove a massive increase in connectivity demand across the board. The challenge was that because of the sheer weight of numbers of people using them, many of the networks became congested.

“I genuinely feel that fibre was what held the economy together. Those using mobile connectivity found it mostly highly contended and congested, with an erratic experience, whereas fibre delivered high-speed, uncontended connections. This proved critical for whatever it was being used for, whether this was working from home, remote learning or even streaming entertainment.

“This already demonstrates the fibre business case better than we could, and I believe that the productivity and efficiency it offers will be what drives its success going forward. If I can do business faster and cheaper than my competition, and I can gain access to information they don’t have, I will be in a better position than them. Fibre is the technology that will put you in this position,” he says.

* This feature was first published in the June edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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