SA's first open access WiFi network arrives
South Africa's first truly open access WiFi network, VAST Networks, was officially launched this week.
According to VAST Networks, not only is it the first open access WiFi network provider in the country, but also across the rest of the African continent.
"We are the only platform that offers Internet service providers and mobile operators a platform that creates a virtual representation of their network," says Grant Marais, CEO of VAST Networks.
Formerly known by its interim name Wireless Co, VAST Networks was officially established by bringing together the WiFi assets of two key market players: MultiChoice-owned Internet service provider (ISP) MWeb, and Internet Solutions.
VAST Networks' open access allows multiple parties to use WiFi if they have been able to reach a technical and commercial agreement with the owner of the infrastructure.
According to BMI-TechKnowledge telecoms sector specialist, Tim Parle, although there have been proprietary offerings from MWeb, AlwaysOn, Telkom, Wireless G, SkyRove and others, VAST Networks is officially the first fully open access WiFi network in the country.
"VAST will take responsibility for the WiFi network, allowing others to run their services over the top," says Parle.
Marais explains the launch of an open access network means a variety of data service providers can operate on one platform. Anyone wanting to provide a service to end-users can use VAST Networks' infrastructure on the same commercial and technical terms as any other ISP, he says.
"VAST Networks is motivated by the goal of strengthening the social fabric of South Africa by democratising Internet connectivity in support of gross domestic product growth and the attainment of citizen-level economic empowerment through information and technology."
Open access defined
One of the recommendations made by the Wireless Access Providers' Association (WAPA) earlier this year, is that wireless networks on public property should be operated on an open access basis, to promote competition for delivery of consumer and citizen services.
According to WAPA, networks regardless of whether they are owned by private industry or the municipality should be open access wherever practical, to reduce unnecessary duplication of infrastructure.
WAPA chairperson Ellie Hagopian says the launch of VAST Networks marks a good opportunity to define open access.
"The City of Cape Town has been operating an open access WiFi network for a year now (granted it's not entirely open since only limited players were able to offer services). Liquid Telecom offers wholesale access to its network in Africa (but not South Africa). However, VAST represents by far the biggest, boldest, and most extensive company dedicated to wholesale of a WiFi network," she says.
"I think it is the first step in the separation of network infrastructure building and managing, and service delivery... So now any fixed-line provider, mobile provider, or even an entirely other sort of entity like a bank, can offer its customers access to WiFi via VAST. This will enable more innovation on what is done with WiFi."
Bringing it together
Parle says the launch of VAST Network's open access network in South Africa is a step towards consolidation in the WiFi industry.
"VAST is looking to provide a single, professional, carrier-grade service with a wide footprint. This will allow users to get a consistent quality experience in many parts of the country," he says.
"Open access networks allow many different service providers to offer their services over a common network owned and maintained by others. This allows the operators to focus on marketing, branding, product design, pricing and customer care, and hence may present the consumer or end-user with many differentiated services and higher competition in the market," Parle says.
VAST Networks says it aims to manage, deploy and develop the largest WiFi network in premium locations across South Africa, to ensure people enjoy Internet connectivity at a much cheaper rate than through other forms of connectivity.
The open access WiFi provider already offers an integrated "on-the-go" WiFi experience in over 2 000 public spaces. These locations include premium malls, flagship hotels, hospitals and restaurants, leisure and entertainment venues across the country.
According to Hagopian, with open access there is more of a chance that a given consumer will have a commercial relationship with a company that has access to the network. "Open access will therefore enable more total use of the network."