• Up to speed

    Dark Fibre Africa CEO Thinus Mulder on providing access to fast network infrastructure and the potential of new technologies

    Up to speed

    The world is looking to 5G, as demand for fast, low-latency connectivity grows and fibre is the only known medium that will support the bandwidth that it will need.

    The deployment of fibre-rich networks to ensure mass connectivity requires hefty investment. ‘Route planning, obtaining permissions and compliance with a number of regulations are pre-considerations,’ according to Thinus Mulder, CEO of Dark Fibre Africa (DFA). ‘Installation of fibre ducting and other supporting infrastructure, followed by continuous post-installation monitoring, managing and maintenance of networks, are all aspects that operators have to future-proof for 5G, AI and Fourth Industrial Revolution [4IR] technologies,’ he says.

    Even if an operator has the ability to meet funding requirements, there is a limit to the fibre that can be realistically deployed. ‘With various operators constructing their own networks, often along the same routes or in the same locations, multiple disruptions and escalating costs have to be factored in,’ says Mulder. This is why DFA, as a wholesale provider of open-access fibre infrastructure and connectivity, presents an ideal solution.

    With approximately 13 000 km of fibre trenches in South Africa – representing an investment of more than R10 billion – the company provides access to ‘dark’ fibre. This dark fibre is lit only when a private- or public-sector customer connects to it with their own equipment.

    DFA was the first company in the country to provide this type of infrastructure and, in advancing its fibre-leadership role, has subsequently extended its portfolio of offerings to include ‘managed’ services. These provide customers with already-lit connectivity using equipment provided by DFA. It has also introduced SqwidNet, the licensed Sigfox operator in South Africa, which offers low-cost access to long-range, low-power IoT solutions.

    ‘By using DFA services, customers have access to a scalable network that enables them to supply quality connectivity to their own customers at a fraction of what it would cost for them to build and maintain their own network,’ says Mulder.

    This is particularly pertinent as fibre extends beyond the relatively well-covered metros into the more sparsely populated and rural areas. ‘The cost of deploying networks to those areas can be prohibitively expensive, and the return on investment can be very low,’ he says. ‘Although there are other technologies that can solve some of these problems, the fibre backhaul is needed to support even those.’

    Mulder points out that according to an Africa Analysis report, as of June this year 280 000 homes were connected to fibre, while 933 000 were on a fibre route. ‘We’re starting to see penetration in traditionally lower-income areas, including townships and rural areas but there is still a great deal of fibre deployment that can happen. We have only reached in the region of 20% of what could potentially be covered,’ says Mulder. ‘This presents huge opportunities for DFA and has intensified our efforts to ensure affordable internet connectivity for all.

    ‘We build our case by championing shared infrastructure and collaboration among telecommunications players – not only because it minimises infrastructure duplication but it keeps costs down.’

    This is a trend that Mulder endorses for Africa. Taking into consideration the number of developing nations seeking to close ICT gaps in infrastructure – and thereby tap into international markets – the continent has a huge demand for bandwidth, not least because it supports and links crucial services across vast distances.

    That the gaps exist is, ironically, a good thing because Africa can avail of the latest technologies. ‘The digital economy is fast-emerging and we play a role in helping to bridge this divide and imbalance,’ says Mulder. ‘5G will become a key enabler of 4IR and will have a far-reaching impact across the continent. ‘It will make the potential of new and emerging technologies such as AI a reality. For our business, 5G presents great growth opportunities for fibre because of the huge amounts of bandwidth needed. There will have to be a dramatic increase in network density to support the large-volume, short-range communication that 5G requires.’

    This, however, comes with its own set of problems – specifically ICT skills shortages. DFA has tasked itself to address this. ‘We are involved in initiatives that provide opportunities to local communities and previously disadvantaged SMEs to help alleviate this problem,’ he says. ‘These include various skills development and job creation initiatives that support the country’s national transformation agenda.’

    This situation is reminiscent of the early days of DFA and its pioneering spirit. When it entered the South African market in 2007, there was no fibre microduct technology being used in the country. Ducting is the protective piping that encases fibre in a trench, and deploying it with as little as possible disruption or damage to existing infrastructure is a highly specialised process.

    ‘We travelled to Slovenia to look at how ducting was being done in more advanced fibre markets. We found microducting technology that enables the installation of fibre-optic cabling quickly and safely, and brought that technology to South Africa,’ says Mulder. ‘Further, we have been able to protect fibre connections and limit tampering with Gridlock Access Management locks. These are high-tech lock mechanisms for the handholes that can be remotely managed to provide only authorised access to the underground cable system.’

    Having entrenched a culture of innovation means DFA has played a significant role in setting fibre infrastructure standards in South Africa, many of which have been adopted industry-wide. Part of the overall experience of tying into DFA’s collaborative system is the customer experience because, as Mulder emphasises, it is the value proposition and ease of doing business that allow customers to control their costs, and ultimately pass those on to their consumers. This is stressed particularly because fibre roll-out for last-mile connectivity is accelerating, resulting in vibrant competition.

    ‘Now, more than ever, providers need to differentiate themselves by their own unique value propositions. Self-service portals are a crucial component of this, as they enable our customers to order, track progress, manage their services, log issues, and pay seamlessly,’ according to Mulder. He adds that there is also a move towards providing a broader range of offerings, such as packages that include combinations of voice, data, security and entertainment.

    DFA’s differentiator includes running a network with an industry-leading uptime of 99.8%, and its connectivity services extend beyond supply to telecoms operators and internet service providers, with customers that include media conglomerates, tertiary education institutions, municipalities, government organisations and general business. ‘The approach in the market that we endorse encourages telecommunications providers to leverage synergies and thereby extend their reach,’ he says. ‘We are already seeing some of those providers sharing passive infrastructure – such as towers and ducts – and even telecoms giants that have the financial capacity to build their own networks are opting for a leasing model.’

    Mulder fully expects the industry to continue consolidating, particularly because of 5G. ‘The cells for 5G connectivity are smaller than previous generations, meaning that networks need to be densified,’ he says. ‘More base stations equate to more fibre connections, which is going to transform not just the way we work and do business, but the way we live.’

    By Kerry Dimmer
    Image: Marc Shoul