Rethinking connectivity

Internet access has traditionally been the domain of the better off, but there are ways around the challenge of affording access to all.

Read time 6min 30sec
Mich Atagana, Google SA
Mich Atagana, Google SA

As access to broadband remains out of the reach of SA's poor, many of whom are located in rural areas, companies are stepping into the breach, proving there are alternative ways of making a buck out of connectivity.

Internet access has traditionally been the purview of those with much, while those who are poor have continued to be marginalised, resulting in the so-called digital divide growing.

Project Isizwe COO Zahir Khan notes that SA is ranked around 137th out of 150 countries in terms of affordable services. "We are over-priced to unlock connectivity as a catalyst for change in economic development, education, health and social cohesion."

Khan adds this is because operators are profit-driven and every additional drop-off point on their fibre networks has a cost implication. However, says Ruckus Wireless sales director Michael Fletcher, there are solutions to what seems to be a commercial impasse. Currently, companies like Project Isizwe, Facebook, Microsoft and Google are seeking to connect more people to the internet: the so-called next billion.

Benefits for all

Economically, there are many benefits to getting people online. Apart from the World Bank's oft-quoted figure of a ten percent increase in penetration leading to the economy gaining an additional percentage point, there are other paybacks. Kahn notes that internet access is an enabler, allowing 'everything from increased entrepreneurship, to higher rates of employment, to a better educated nation, to improved health (to) positively impact economic growth'.

Mich Atagana, Google SA's communications manager, says she's never heard anyone saying they haven't benefited from internet access, even if it just provides an avenue to information. She notes Google is busy with several projects in East and West Africa, aimed at getting more people internet access. "We want everybody online."

Locally, although the costs are coming down, there are still stumbling blocks in the way of getting more people online.

..., data traffic is growing faster in the townships than it is across SA as a whole, so it makes sense to bring fibre to these sites wherever possible.

Richard Boorman, Vodacom

South Africa's largest mobile operator figures show there is a steady shift from voice to data use, with the amount of data being consumed growing period-on-period.

Graham de Vries, speaking on behalf of MTN SA, says its effective data rates have come down by about 83 percent over the past five years, and the operator will spend R10 billion on increasing local capacity this year.

What's on the go?

Google's Project Loon has balloons that float in the stratosphere and are able to share cellular spectrum with operators. This enables people to connect to the balloon network from their phones and other LTEenabled devices. The signal is then passed across the balloon network and back down to the internet. It began in June 2013 with an experimental pilot in New Zealand.
Facebook has its Internet.org offering, which allows people in selected countries to access a limited number of services at no charge. This is done via a partnership with a local operator. It is also working on drones to expand connectivity to the two-thirds of the global population that cannot get online.
Microsoft has run several small projects in African countries to determine whether the spare spectrum not used by TV channels - TV White Spaces - can be used for connectivity. It successfully demonstrated a local pilot in Limpopo last year.

Vodacom spokesperson Richard Boorman adds that the average price per MB of data came down 24 percent in the last financial year, on top of a 25-percent reduction in the prior year. Vodacom is investing in its networks at similar levels to MTN. "In fact, data traffic is growing faster in the townships than it is across SA as a whole, so it makes sense to bring fibre to these sites wherever possible."

Unpredictability

Khan concurs that connectivity is definitely cheaper today than it was five years ago because of the increased levels of investment from telcos.

However, to get more people online, there are challenges that must be overcome before SA can get above 40 percent broadband access, says Khan. He points to issues such as the delays operators experience in getting fibre deployments approved by government as one example.

The Democratic Alliance's shadow minister of telecommunications and postal services, Marian Shinn, agrees that a major stumbling block is securing way leaves from local governments. She notes a rapid deployment policy, which should have been in place by May, has yet to be developed, despite the amended Electronic Communications Act making provision for this.

De Vries adds operators are challenged by the unpredictable nature of electricity availability, coupled with rising costs in electricity and diesel prices. Because MTN has needed to take steps to counter this, its costs have gone up, he adds.

Alison Gillwald, director of Research ICT Africa, adds another issue is that the regulatory environment has ignored data because there has been no regulatory intervention in the wholesale space, which would ultimately lead to cheaper prices for end-users. In addition, scarce spectrum has yet to be freed up, which, she says, is costing the economy dearly because the low-range frequency is more cost-effective when it comes to rural rollouts.

Says Khan: "The role of the regulator and government must be streamlined to avoid duplication of infrastructure and allow for facility sharing where a single provider has laid fibre and the other applicants must use the existing fibre on an open access basis with regulated pricing to create a competitive environment where the end-users win."

Cell C's Jose dos Santos concurs, calling for a partnership between government and the private sector. "Cell C still believes that an open access national broadband network is one of the best solutions to bringing wider connectivity to South Africans."

We are overpriced to unlock connectivity as a catalyst for change in economic development, education, health and social cohesion.

Zahir Khan, Project Isizwe

Locally, SA Connect is government's answer to ubiquitous broadband, but the project has been mired in controversy and doesn't have sufficient funding at the moment to meet its goals. The driving force behind this project, the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, indicated it would respond to a request for comment, but did not do so.

Thecla Mbongue, a senior research analyst at Ovum, notes there is also a lack of coordination of various small projects, and projects are not constantly monitored to ensure they are implemented.

Partnerships

Despite the challenges, Fletcher says there are ways of cheaply expanding access, even if only in small pockets at a time. For example, he says, hotspots could be sponsored at government buildings, such as police stations, where there is already connectivity. This would cover the minimal outlay of additional equipment and bandwidth and - because people would congregate at such places to get internet - result in an ecosystem developing.

Fletcher says having a community hotspot could lead to small businesses springing up around it, entities that supply food, haircuts, etc. It gets people to go towards certain areas."

Neil Schoeman, CEO of Vumatel, argues that government should be leveraging the experience and skills of companies like Vumatel to roll out infrastructure to under-serviced areas. Vumatel is currently rolling out fibre in several Johannesburg suburbs in response to requests from residents. "Initiatives where private and public collaboration occurs, such as Project Isizwe, have shown what is achievable when government funds are combined with private sector expertise."

Other solutions that can be considered include WiFi sponsored through adverts, which people won't mind watching, says Fletcher. He also notes operators can use aerial solutions to expand fibre, such as in Craighall, Craighall Park, Winston Ridge, Atholl, Inanda, Illovo and Elton Hill, where fibre is being run along power lines.

Atagana and Fletcher concur that all stakeholders have to figure out a new business model that can overcome the hurdle of operators needing to please shareholders. Says Atagana: "If you give human beings the opportunity, most of the time they will take it. Tech can change our world."

This article was first published in Brainstorm magazine. Click here to read the complete article at the Brainstorm website.

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