Let them eat fibre

It's time to open the ADSL network and subsidise Internet for everyone, writes James Francis.

Read time 5min 00sec
Guest columnist James Francis.
Guest columnist James Francis.

ADSL is dying ? and it is killing me to see it happen.

In the past two weeks, we've seen stories surface around the ailing state of a once-great technology. Afrihost revealed it wants to cull low data packages, because there just isn't any profit in them anymore. Vox, meanwhile, doesn't expect ADSL to be around in five years' time, saying Telkom appears to have stopped even maintaining the network.

Fibre is effectively cannibalising ADSL, while the bottom is not rising for the latter. The poor are still not getting data landlines, not the least because Telkom's line rental fees remain obstructive. The failure to unbundle the local loop has also kept others away from exploiting the ADSL copper network. Those have since moved to fibre business models, as has Telkom.

The business cases have dried up and ADSL has been left to rot ? and it is one of the worst technology decisions we have made in this country.

Let's agree on a common point: the digital capacity of any given nation will determine its place at the table of the future. Just as industrialism allowed many countries to reinvent themselves ? Japan shifting from feudalism to modernism is a good example ? today digital technologies are beginning to decide the haves from the have-nots. We will either supply or consume services ? and whomever does more of the former than the latter wins.

If you think I'm being dramatic, go look at what is happening in India and China. Go look at Rwanda and Estonia. Then, if you still feel like disregarding my prediction, identify a trend that shows things will not and aren't already changing.

The business cases have dried up and ADSL has been left to rot ? and it is one of the worst technology decisions we have made in this country.

Connectivity is absolutely key to this. Just like driving a vehicle has been a passport to a greater life, digital literacy and access are the keys to the new kingdoms. And in SA we have one hell of a connectivity problem.

The proliferation of mobile phones ? the so-called leapfrogging over first world nations ? has been hamstrung in SA by high data prices. I don't care what the big networks tell us: data is too damn expensive to singlehandedly sustain digital lifestyles. Landlines no longer have this problem. An effective campaign, led by Afrihost, has driven down prices on ADSL and consequently fibre. You pay R5 per gigabyte on those platforms, but R99 per gigabyte on mobile.

Explain to me how that is digital liberation, that the poor of our nation have to pay the high data prices, while the rich can afford the lines that charge next to nothing? Now explain to me how that isn't a very, very bad situation in the making, given my earlier statement on digital sovereignty?

ADSL has never appealed to the poor, because Telkom strangles it with rental fees and a refusal to share. Now it is orphaning that same infrastructure, leaping to fibre with everyone else. Fibre is not cheap. Yes, it's cheaper than ADSL, but not what the average South African can afford. It's also far away from the penetration needed to make a big difference in a short window.

One day we will all be on fibre, but not for another 5 to 10 years. By that time, we will have lost the digital race and essentially be a neo-colony to the digital suppliers of tomorrow. Our money will go to Google or Baidu, not locally, and we will be much poorer too as skills and affluence leave for the greener grasses of the technology empires.

I have a radical proposal. Let's subsidise the copper network. Everyone who can afford R200 a month gets a 1Mbps uncapped line. Our taxes make up the shortfall through subsidies. We divvy up maintenance to small contractors, whose job it is to keep things running. This is basically what Telkom has been doing anyway.

Okay, 1Mbps is hardly anything. But it is a staple and cheap. Remember when we used night-time downloads? Many people starved of true data access will love that. They can also put those annoying software updates to languish overnight on the 1Mbps line. Yes, they won't be streaming or gaming on those lines, but that's where they use the much faster mobile data and, when they can afford and access it, step up to fibre. The coins they scrounge for current mobile data will go much, much further.

The alternative is a network that rots and a country that has yet to elevate the majority of its people into the digital era. Sure, those lines will probably be wasted on piracy and frivolous nonsense. But so what? Isn't that what the rest of us did in the past? Those activities helped give meaning to our technology lifestyles. It's a bit rich to take a moral high ground now when we need to replicate that experiment en masse.

Open up the copper network, subsidise it with taxes, give everyone a trickle of unlimited data, and keep your fingers crossed. Because there aren't alternatives. Not unless you want to proclaim that they should all eat fibre.

Just remember, the last person who said something similar lost their head in a revolution...

* James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.

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