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South Africa’s fibre market heads for further consolidation

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Amid the heighted activity in the South African fibre market in recent years, the next phase will likely result in further consolidation as fibre network operators (FNOs) plan to extend their reach.

This is the word from Juanita Clark, CEO of Digital Council Africa, which was recently rebranded from FTTx Council Africa, commenting on what’s next for the local fibre scene.

South Africa’s fibre market is billed as one of the highest-growth industries, with fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) or fibre-to-the-building Internet subscriptions increasing by 168.2% between 2015 and 2019, according to the 2020 State of the ICT Sector report.

The report, compiled by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA), shows the number of FTTH or fibre-to-the-building Internet subscriptions rose from 31 843 recorded in 2015, to more than 1.6 million in 2019.

The ICASA report states South Africa’s fibre network and data centre markets are expanding rapidly, with the former’s subscriptions having increased by 28.8% in 2019.

ICASA defines FTTH/building Internet subscriptions as the number of Internet subscriptions using fibre-to-the-home or fibre-to-the-building, at downstream speeds equal to, or greater than, 256 Kbit/s.

This, it says, includes subscriptions where fibre goes directly to the subscriber’s premises, or fibre-to-the-building subscriptions that terminate no more than two metres from an external wall of the building.

This year has also seen FNOs − namely Vumatel, Frogfoot Networks and HeroTel −intensify network connections outside major metropoles to areas such as Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and Polokwane, to name a few.

No hidden contenders

Instead of more fibre providers coming onto the scene, Clark suspects there will be more merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the near future.

The Digital Council Africa CEO says there seems to be a lot of interest from investors who are keen to take advantage of the enormous growth in the digital connectivity sector.

However, she doesn’t foresee a big challenger stepping out of the shadows. “This is simply because the market is quite complex to navigate if you don’t have experience, coupled with the fact that it has matured significantly over the last decade.

“Add to that the pace of change in the sector and therefore it is unlikely that we will see a significant new contender in this market.”

What’s more likely to happen is consolidation. “I suspect we may see further consolidation as operators set themselves up to participate in the increased demand for connectivity. The fibre industry is a capital-intensive sector and constant investment in network expansion is required. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult for smaller players to keep up as they continuously have to raise capital to keep pace with bigger players that have access to greater capex build budgets.

“This is not a South African issue; it is a global trend, and a simple case of business economics. However, the digital economy offers diverse opportunities for the SMME market, including civil construction, maintenance, build and transfer, solutions provisioning, Internet service providers, over-the-top services, to name a few.”

On whether the local fibre industry needs more players to encourage competition, she explains there are currently 30+ FNOs in the sector, making it a very competitive environment.

“In my opinion, it is not a question of how many players we need; it is a question of maintaining a high-quality build standard that is sustainable in a very competitive environment. Building networks that can withstand the increase in demand and perform is critical to consumers.

“As an association, we are equally concerned about competition, and the building of superior networks that can serve consumers well over the next 25 years. To do that, companies need to adhere to strict deployment standards, which in turn require financial commitment critical to the life-cycle of the network. If poor quality networks are constructed due to short-cuts taken, consumers will pay the ultimate price on unstable networks.”

[Picture] https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/G2ow4bs-C9_9J1C-x1y4zqPk76jSxlTqKo1odhmHgHn8mRw12OrujirArHhAMMaU5UpmHgwiMzWH5rUl064lspo=w816-h459

[Caption] Juanita Clark, CEO of Digital Council Africa.

Much in demand

As more employees worked from home during the height of the COVID-19-induced national lockdown, there was increased uptake of fibre services to meet their Internet needs.

Clark says the COVID19 pandemic has highlighted the need for digital connectivity and related services and has compressed digital transformation, which would have taken years, into days and weeks.

“During the early days of lockdown those with access to digital platforms could continue to do their jobs remotely. This was certainly true for learners and students as well. Conversely, during the level five lockdown, 6.4 million children did not have access to education.

“As we stand right now, it does not seem that the pandemic is about to ease up – and therefore adopting digital transformation is the only way in which you can future-proof your life, career and business.”

Despite the surge in demand for FTTH services, this did not translate into an increase in prices. “Some companies did increase their prices, but this was simply an annual increase and had nothing to do with the pandemic or demand. In fact, during the first few months of the pandemic, companies that were due to increase their prices kept it the same in an attempt to support consumers.

“Keep in mind that annual price increases are a normal business process, which is instituted as operating costs increase. FTTH services are still priced very favourably in comparison to other access technologies.”

Township economy

It’s been said FNOs usually deploy their infrastructure in more affluent areas, but that is slowly changing.

Last year, Telkom and Frogfoot Networks announced plans to rollout fibre in one of SA’s most advanced townships, Soweto.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams last year challenged the industry to work with government in the deployment of fibre infrastructure so that all South Africans, especially those in rural areas, have access to fibre.

According to Clark, fibre providers are already deploying in lower-income areas at exceptional price points aimed specifically at the affordable housing market.

“This is something we are very excited about as we develop the township economy and narrow the digital divide. What is equally exciting is that the early numbers show that adoption and uptake exceeds that of higher income areas.

“The sector is very committed to finding better, faster and less expensive ways to deploy infrastructure. Operators are consistently testing new deployment methodologies and many of it will include collaboration with government to ensure some blockages are removed. It has never been more critical for all to work together to make sure no one is left outside of the potential of the digital economy,” she concludes.

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