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The FTTH revolution

Fibre is coming soon, to a suburb near you...

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Fibre catching up with copper

Point Topic's global broadband subscriber research - released in July - shows that there are some 690m fixed broadband lines globally at end March 2014. The same report revealed that end-to-end copper only accounted for half of those connections. FTTH accounted for some 50m connections while the other fibre variants (collectively known as FTTx) and cable comprised the rest.

A shift is underway in the access market. Good old copper, which has provided last mile circuits for years and years, is being replaced by fibre. For business and consumers, this is good news. Not only is fibre less prone to theft than copper cable (but it's not immune), it also offers unlimited bandwidths (although the maximum available currently is 100Mbps).

Fibre to the Home (FTTH) refers to the provision of an end-to-end fibre connection from provider to home user. FTTB is fibre to the business, provided on the same basis. Both offer South Africans that elusive ideal - high-speed broadband. FTTH and FTTB aren't cheap or even affordable for many people, but as rollouts increase, prices should go down.

DIY FTTH

Fibre is costly to roll out (think R3 000 per month and that's an old figure), and SA covers some 1.1 million square kilometres, meaning covering the country with fibre isn't going to be a cheap (or quick) exercise. Operators will likely focus on metro areas and use more affordable wireless technologies to cover rural areas with high-speed broadband connections.

The high cost of fibre caused many commentators to dismiss the idea of FTTH ever being viable in South Africa. The rollout of fibre both to gated communities and homes this year and last serve as a reminder that what the market demands, providers will attempt to deliver.

The rush to capture consumer hearts started earlier this year when MTN announced it was rolling out fibre with a maximum speed of 100Mbps to residents of Monaghan Farm, an upmarket residential estate in Johannesburg.

MTN's launch prompted an announcement by Vodacom that it is rolling out fibre into business parks and preparing to roll out to gated communities. Telkom has since announced that it will be launching FTTH in 20 suburbs by year-end. Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko says it will launch basic voice and broadband fibre-to-the-home and business FTTH/B services to enable speeds of up to 100Mbps.

However, some local residents have tired of waiting on providers to meet their needs, with the community of Parkhurst issuing a tender in early May for the provision of FTTH in the suburb.

The tender was awarded to Vumatel in June (over more established operators like Vodacom, Dark Fibre Africa, Telkom and MTN), partly because it is offering free line rental, demonstrated a financially viable business plan and proposed an open access network (which means residents can use an ISP of their choice), according to the Parkhurst Residents and Business Owners Association. The network, in addition to being used to provide Internet connectivity, will also be used to connect a CCTV network to help reduce crime in the suburb.

While the extent of local fibre networks hasn't been determined, Telkom's copper network is in decline, and shrinking, with the number of fixed-line subscribers down to 3.6m, from 3.8m last year, off an all-time high of 5.4m in 2000. FTTH is a very new industry in SA but if global trends are anything to go by, growth should be fast.

First published in the September 2014 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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