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Telkom’s annual R6.7bn broadband project expands fibre footprint

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Dr Siyabonga Mahlangu, Telkom group executive of regulatory affairs and government relations.
Dr Siyabonga Mahlangu, Telkom group executive of regulatory affairs and government relations.

Telkom says it invests up to R6.7 billion annually on broadband infrastructure across SA, as part of the Telkom Infrastructure Investment Programme.

Speaking in a panel discussion at the SA Investment Conference 2020 this week, Telkom group executive of regulatory affairs and government relations Dr Siyabonga Mahlangu discussed growth opportunities for businesses operating in the ICT sector, in the wake of COVID-19.

As the shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic still reverberates through the global economy, most South African companies have experienced devastating financial losses, influenced by supply chain disruptions, a drop in consumption and SA’s already fragile economy.

However, Mahlangu said the ICT sector is likely to be better off than others, as demand for tech products and services increased during the lockdown period.

Mahlangu pointed out Telkom’s Infrastructure Investment Programme has played a crucial role in meeting the increased demand for essential technologies and connectivity solutions since the onset of the national lockdown, as businesses rapidly accelerated initiatives such as remote work, e-commerce and digitisation.

Telkom has been on a mission to transition its customers from copper-based Internet, to new-generation fibre technology in all fibre-ready regions across SA.

“COVID-19 presents an opportunity for the ICT sector to reset. What we’ve experienced is a high level of innovation in the ICT sector; we’ve seen the capabilities of both the private and public sectors being brought to bear and disrupt the pandemic,” commented Mahlangu.

“For instance, we’ve had the Telkom data scientists available to assist the Department of Health to develop solutions to track the disease and we’ve seen a high level of collaboration between our company and the public sector.”

In a video clip played during the discussion, Telkom provided an update of the Infrastructure Investment Programme. The nationwide broadband infrastructure deployment enabled Telkom to work with 519 sub-contractors in the past year. Through this investment, Telkom has also managed to produce approximately 1 400 direct fulltime jobs through sub-contracting services.

The Telkom Foundation, which supports 3 200 learners and provides multiple digital skills development programmes, has made strides in supplying qualified data scientists, many of whom have been utilised in the innovation projects aimed at combating the speed of the deadly COVID-19 virus.

The well-timed deployment of the infrastructure has expanded the telco’s fibre footprint to deliver emerging technologies and affordable communication solutions for both individuals and the business sector, continued Mahlangu.

“We’ve also seen how agile and resilient the private sector has been – instead of the economy shutting down completely [during the early stages of the lockdown], we’ve seen it moving from the central business districts into our neighbourhoods – where corporates were run from the comfort of people’s homes. This is where Telkom and its counterparts in the ICT sector have had to provide the connectivity and the necessary backbone.”

Telkom has been strengthening its broadband infrastructure strategy in the past two years, as the company has been witnessing a sharp decline in its traditional fixed voice revenue. In its financial results in June, Telkom said group revenue grew 3% to R43 billion despite a 22.2% decline in fixed voice revenue.

SA’s 5G challenges

Mahlangu highlighted the infinite opportunities that would present themselves when high-demand spectrum has been made fully available by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, and the use of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and 5G for the mining, financial services, telecoms and manufacturing industries.

“5G is a very important development and we should not look at it as ‘4G plus one’, because it will bring lower levels of latency and higher speeds which will enable businesses to move from social Internet to industrial Internet use cases.”

While 5G will enable new business cases − including in the autonomous vehicles industry, smart city applications and healthcare sector innovations − he noted the key challenges for SA’s 5G future lie mainly in the government not having a structured 5G strategy, which provides a consensus on what 5G will mean for both the private and public sectors.

“As a country, we don’t have a 5G policy, we don’t have 5G strategy. How can we license spectrum over a 20-year period when we don’t have a clear indication of the structure of the market and costs of universal access and services?

“Competition around spectrum currently only revolves around the three companies that have deployed high-demand spectrum − Vodacom, MTN and Telkom. What happened to the other companies?”

Another concern, he noted, was that the GSM Association stipulates that in order to run a 5G application and derive maximum value to power the digital economy, it would require an operator to have 80MHz to 100MHz of contiguous spectrum in the mid band.

“But in SA, that mid band required is not sufficient for spectrum assignment – so how are we going to enjoy the full benefits of 5G?”

Spectrum by itself will not resolve SA’s 5G problems, and a clear-cut implementation guideline that meets global standards is what SA should be focusing on, concluded Mahlangu.

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