• Foundation points

    Vino Govender, executive: strategy, mergers and acquisitions and innovation at Dark Fibre Africa, on building the digital highways to service the continent.

    Foundation points

    A number of recent studies prove there is a strong correlation between broadband penetration, enabled by fibre, and labour productivity and economic growth in a country. Governments know this and are thus turning to digital technologies to unlock the benefits and mitigate the risks that these trends present.

    Digital services, such as e-commerce, telemedicine, e-health, e-education, smartcity services, the internet of things, and smart manufacturing will be, and in some cases are being, consumed through a variety of fixed- and wireless-access technologies. The backhaul networks behind these have to be resilient and scalable to support the resulting exponential growth in traffic. This is where fibre comes into play: it provides reliable high-speed broadband connectivity to meet these demands.

    However, building the digital highways to deliver these technologies and services is no small task, bearing in mind that fibre installation is also capital intensive.

    Two years ago, the continent’s fibre network totalled 559 000 km, according to the Future of African Backbone & Metro Fibre Networks, a research report by Xalam Analytics. This is anticipated to grow to 700 000 km by the end of 2019. That is some 640 000 km more than the yet-to-be-completed Trans-African Highway network that aims to promote trade and alleviate poverty through road-based corridors.

    The viability of fibre-infrastructure roll-outs depends not only on demand but also on density of demand. While this is easily achieved in the metro environs, it is far more challenging in peri-urban and rural areas. ‘This challenge is, however, not restricted to South Africa,’ says Vino Govender, executive: strategy, mergers and acquisitions and innovation at Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), the pioneer of wholesale open-access fibre infrastructure in South Africa. ‘It is pervasive around the globe, even in developed markets.’

    To address the challenge of extending fibre connectivity to peri-urban and rural areas, what needs to be considered are alternative avenues, says Govender, not least of which includes the introduction of policies that promote and support the extension of high-speed fibre access to these areas and the subsidising of capital and equipment expenses. Other incentives, such as tax breaks and ready access to rights of way, will also be enablers for building fibre networks, which in turn bring about social upliftment.

    ‘The purpose of such policies, subsidies and incentives is to reduce and optimise the input costs for delivering broadband to underserved communities. As nations invest further into digital literacy, SMME development, e-government services and local-language content development, the demand and uptake of digital services and fibre connectivity is stimulated.’

    However, telecoms providers, such as internet services providers (ISPs), need to be able to deliver these services affordably. Govender explains that one of the best ways for them to manage costs is by using an open-access infrastructure provider rather than building their own costly infrastructure. ‘It gives telecoms providers cost-effective access to existing fibre. The open-access infrastructure provider aggregates demand from numerous service providers on common infrastructure and passes on the benefits of economies of scale. Service providers can then focus on bringing innovative and efficient services to the market, to the benefit of consumers.’

    Fibre infrastructure needs to be delivered at scale and in a hyper-efficient way. Since its inception in 2007, DFA has rolled out close to 13 000 km of ducting infrastructure in and between metros, secondary cities and smaller towns in South Africa. Those leasing DFA’s open-access infrastructure include ISPs, mobile-network operators, municipalities and other public and private institutions.

    Collaborating with other infrastructure players is another way of speeding up infrastructure delivery while eliminating duplication of costs and minimising the impact of fibre trenching and cabling. ‘For example, instead of two or three infrastructure providers digging up the same street, they would strike up a sharing agreement with the provider that already has fibre installed. In turn, the other provider would enter into a reciprocal agreement in areas where it already has a fibre network,’ says Govender.

    This often extends to co-operation on maintenance where providers agree to maintain parts of one another’s networks in areas where they both have infrastructure. DFA has a number of sharing and swapping agreements in place and believes that this approach carries benefits for all.

    ‘This extension of the open-access philosophy not only means better-quality networks all around; providers compete on services rather than infrastructure, which further advances the industry,’ according to Govender. ‘Before DFA entered the market, open-access connectivity did not exist in South Africa. With open access it became possible for smaller ISPs to compete on a level playing field with other market players. In turn, the proliferation of these providers has helped accelerate the delivery of connectivity to end users.’

    These end-user connections are what is often referred to as ‘the last mile’ – the physical connection from the fibre infrastructure to the home, business, premises or other connection end point, known as the ‘X’; so ‘fibre to the X’ or ‘FTTX’.

    The bottom line and most crucial needs that FTTX must satisfy are stability, reliability, speed and efficient access to infrastructure and services. Govender says that the needs of DFA customers are strongly determined by end-user technology adoption, as well as consumption patterns and demands.

    Currently these are being driven by growth in applications and services that require stable, high-speed, low-latency connectivity, and this includes growth in cloud computing, video-on-demand, e-commerce services, and rich communication and collaboration services, particularly as businesses more widely adopt digital applications and services as part of their digital transformation journey.

    The advent of 5G is part of that transformation with its promise of massively increased data speeds with incredibly low latencies. ‘Fibre is the critical foundation that will help 5G to achieve stability, latency and speed,’ says Govender. ‘We will see up to 10 times the current density of mobile base stations that will need additional fibre backhaul to transport the increasing volumes of data.’

    This also means that 5G is stimulating an already increasing demand for ICT skills in the deployment of fibre infrastructure. ‘In fact critically so, which is why, in addition to providing jobs that require a low level of skill, DFA aims to develop individuals and enterprises so they can play a bigger role in the fibre market,’ he says.

    DFA’s aim is to equip individuals (especially youth) and businesses with the skills they need to participate in the opportunities presented by the telecoms industry, including emerging technologies such as 5G. Other DFA job-creation initiatives include direct and indirect contract work for individuals and companies from previously disadvantaged communities, most particularly local SMEs, where DFA has regional projects.

    ‘In the same way that fibre empowers businesses and economies, we are driven to create an empowering environment that fosters open communication and collaboration,’ says Govender. ‘Our vision [of] enabling a high-speed digital world where innovation and meaningful connections prosper, doesn’t apply only to our external business operations; it applies equally to all stakeholders and those using our services.’

    It is also relevant to all DFA employees, who are encouraged to be innovative so that they too can have a meaningful impact on driving not just their own development but that of the broader stakeholder environment. ‘Broadband connectivity has become a utility and is no longer a luxury,’ says Govender. ‘We have to ensure, therefore, that it works efficiently and cost-effectively to bring about positive change on the continent for the benefit of all, be that in delivering education and medical services to rural areas, or the effective management of city resources.’

    By Kerry Dimmer
    Image: Marc Shoul