Go broad or go home

  • Image credit: iStockphoto/ Hendrik Jonsson
  • Image credit: iStockphoto/ Hendrik Jonsson
  • Image credit: iStockphoto/ Hendrik Jonsson
  • Image credit: iStockphoto/ Hendrik Jonsson
Date:26 April 2012 Tags:, , ,

South Africans are still playing catch-up when it comes to broadband – but whether our flavour is ADSL or 4G, wired or wireless, we simply can’t get enough of the stuff.

It’s been a little over 20 years since the Internet officially arrived in South Africa. In November 1991, Rhodes University made the first IP (Internet Protocol) connection with the USA.

Two years would pass before the Net spread to the rest of the country. Since then, connectivity has grown by leaps and bounds – mainly mobile, as service providers capitalised on the inability of Telkom to speedily and cheaply expand its creaking landline network to the masses. Yet today, barely 1 in 10 South Africans have Internet access. Even so, more than 60 per cent of Africa’s Internet traffic originates right here in South Africa, and our total international bandwidth has passed 10 Gbps.

Regular “State of the Internet” reports such as those from global Net organisations Akamai, which handles tens of billions of daily Web interactions for bodies ranging from Audi and Fujitsu to the US Department of Defence and NASDAQ, show that South Korea leads the world in overall broadband speeds, with nearly three-quarters in the “high broadband” category above 5 Mbps. The country’s average connection speed is 14 Mbps. The baseline for TV-quality video is regarded as 2 Mbps.

South Africa falls well short of that, with an average connection speed below 1 Mbps until the introduction of Cell C’s fast 21 Mbps HSPA+ network.

It’s been forecast that South Africa’s Internet user base will reach 9 million by 2014. Out of our current total user base of about one-tenth of that, the proportion of those using wireless overtook fixed line broadband a few years ago, with iBurst and MyWireless taking up an increasing slice of the wireless action in addition to the cellphone networks.

Rand for rand the wireless options are more expensive than ADSL, but as competition stiffens and technologies improve in advance of the introduction of 4G (see “And then there was 4”), this becomes a more economic proposition. Cell C currently claims to lead the pack with its standard 21,1 Mbps service. However, in terms of overall coverage it does lag the likes of MTN and Vodacom whose 3G services range up to the 21,1 Mbps of HSDPA+. Telkom also offers a competitive service that’s currently limited in reach.

Speeds have been creeping up, with ADSL from Telkom now available at 10 Mbps. But, of course, you pay for that need for speed. Fortunately, improving connectivity with the rest of the world has helped keep prices stable, if not drive them down.

Until two years ago we were limited to Telkom’s SAT-3 cable; the arrival of the SEACOM cable and others has helped boost the uptake of broadband services. Today, four submarine communication cables connect South Africa to Europe and Asia: SAT-2, the SAT-3/WASC and SAFE combination, SEACOM and EASSy. Two more are in the pipeline, with one of them likely to route direct to the Americas.

Need for speed
By far the biggest barrier to improved broadband access and speed in South Africa is cost. That’s largely to do with our long distance from the world’s Internet hot spots, necessitating massive investments in undersea cable infrastructure.

At the same time, there is pressure to make progress in this area. “A huge driver is Internet-connected entertainment,” says Andrew Solomon, manager of the digital division of Popular Mecahnics’ publishers RamsayMedia. As the man who heads one of the most active and innovative divisions of its kind – and a man with more than a passing interest in online gaming – Solomon knows what he is talking about.

“I am not talking about a geeky user tucked away in a dark room. I mean somebody in a fairly conventional domestic set-up, with high-def YouTube playing on the TV, or somebody with an Xbox or connected media centre .”

The availability is not yet there, but the funding is being found. Up to now, South Africans have been trying to accomplish the things that the rest of the world takes for granted – on less bandwidth. In a sense that has made us more tech-savvy than many others because we have had to explore ways of making do with our limited bandwidth.

“In the US, it is accepted that you have Wi-Fi, etc. There’s no drawn-out thinking and tinkering. It is just a kind of magic, like electricity. You find your mother-in-law or your aunt will be wanting to know passwords to connect to services.”

Cable service provider Seacom has pointed out that music sharing programs such as Apple’s iTunes account for 60 per cent of all Internet traffic. For some, that has resulted in unheard of (by local standards) performance: Japanese homes get 160 Mbps connections to the home, and New York enjoys 50 Mbps, 1 000 TV channels (including 350 HD) and free national calling for $150 a month. South Africans are still getting to that point. In the meantime, as more broadband options become available, Solomon says, users “get promiscuous” with bandwidth acquisition.

“Most people view paying for bandwidth like paying for insurance. They just keep on paying the same service provider, never changing.” Yet there are others, like a colleague, he says, “who does a lot of online gaming. He is constantly looking for the most economical option. Sometimes these people have more than one provider: these games chew up a massive amount of bandwidth.” And this is certainly not a minority interest, either. Typical bandwidth requirements involve a minimum of 3 gigabytes a month.

“Generally speaking, we humans are like kids in a candy store: if there is more speed, we will use more. And we will find more ways of using it – some of them ways that may not have been thought of at first.”

Rising speeds resulting in increasing use prompted service providers to impose a limit – a cap – on use to keep bandwidth hogs in check. As broadband availability increased, some offered it uncapped. But, as Seacom notes, file sharing such as iTunes continues 24/7, collapsing the concept of bandwidth management control. At any rate, check the fine print of your contract to see if it mentions “reasonable use”. “There’s an invisible line that, once you cross it, they are quick to let you know that you are exceeding the bounds of reasonable use. They will soon clamp down if they reckon you are downloading movies to on-sell to the neighbours,” says Solomon.

The thing is, some service providers have, in a way, encouraged enormous downloads. “For instance, 8a offers a contract whereby it’s better for people to make big downloads in off-peak times, at night. Basically they can download while they sleep. So it’s hard to say that people shouldn’t take full advantage of this.”

Bandwidth in South Africa is still expensive, but how do we compare? In regions such as the US and the UK, broadband is usually sold bundled with other services such as cable TV. The extra cost for broadband is then relatively low. But even if you separate it out, and sell it without those extra services, it still works out cheaper than South Africa. You’ll also find that broadband costs are cheaper where most Web sites are located, which just so happens to be North America and Europe.

So where are we headed with broadband?

Our Electronic Communications Act points the way to a converged future, with providers of new-generation value-added network services operating downstream from the Big 6 Internet access providers – SAIX (Telkom), Neotel, Verizon Business, The Internet Solution, MTN Network Solutions, DataPro and Posix Systems) increasingly being accepted.

“Well, to repeat my insurance analogy, we really should be shopping around more,” Solomon says. “And the thing is, nowadays we can. Besides that, the Consumer Protection Act is on our side, too. It’s possible to get out of contracts where before you couldn’t.”

Broadband for all = boom times?
Cheap, fast broadband for all will turbocharge growth and investment, says Western Cape premier Helen Zille.

The province has announced plans to create the world’s biggest mesh network in greater Cape Town. “By 2020, we aim to have connected every citizen in the metropolitan area to affordable broadband infrastructure at network speeds in excess of 100 Mbps, and all citizens in towns and villages to a broadband network. The project will involve a range of partners from business to telecommunications and government,” she said in her 2012 State of the Province address.

Zille had noted previously that the World Bank estimated that every 10 per cent increase in high-speed Internet connections in developing countries resulted in a 1,3 per cent increase in economic growth.” Cape Town’s municipal fibre network programme involves 500 km of cabling. Linking dozens of municipal buildings to each other and the Internet at 16 Gbps, the network incorporates cutting-edge switching tech to facilitate virtually cost-free communications using voice over Internet protocol (VOIP).

And then there was 4
4G, also known as LTE (long-term evolution), is based on all-IP Internet telephony. The International Telecommunication Union has laid down requirements of 100 Mbps for high mobility communication (for example, trains and cars) and 1 Gbps for low mobility such as stationary users. The goal of LTE is to increase the capacity and speed of wireless data networks using new digital signal processing techniques. This is expected to further boost streamed multimedia, gaming, IP telephony and ultrabroadband Internet access. The fastest current 3G speed, HSPA+, provides 28 Mbps downstream and 22 Mbps upstream. Although it is only looking like 2014 for 4G in the mainstream, the new iPad will have 4G capabilities.

The costs of linking South Africa to the rest of the world are the big stumbling block in the way of broadband adoption, but with more connections on the way – Seacom’s cable is shown here in various stages of being laid – and driven by increasing need for high-speed connections at home and in the classroom, there’s every reason to be upbeat about the prospects of improved connectivity.