Build it and they will come
It’s a great pity a conference on fibre-optic telecommunications in Cape Town this week wasn’t attended by senior politicians. They would have learnt how to help the private sector to lead the construction of next-generation broadband infrastructure in South Africa. By Duncan McLeod.
Build it and they will come. That was the overwhelming message emanating from the first FTTH Council Africa conference in Cape Town this week. Speaker after speaker made the case — often cogently — for why any capacity that gets built will be used, even if consumers aren’t able to articulate why they might need broadband connections that are hundreds or even thousands of times faster than what they have today.
It’s all about fibre optics, replacing the legacy copper-based fixed-line network still prevalent in South Africa today with glass and photonics and offering speeds of up to 1Gbit/s or faster. That’s fast enough to download a compressed movie in less than five seconds!
The problem is, building fibre access networks is expensive. That’s the reason that, until now, private capital has flowed instead into building metropolitan and national long-haul infrastructure, providing an alternative to the often exorbitant rents charged by Telkom for access to its 143 000km of national fibre. Soon, though, the focus will turn to the “last mile” into homes and businesses.
Work on national infrastructure is ongoing, as is investment in fibre networks in the cities. Get ready for pavements across South Africa’s urban areas to be dug up again as the mobile operators build fibre links to their base stations as they get ready to offer fourth-generation (4G) mobile broadband services.
4G networks will go some way in improving broadband speeds for consumers in the years ahead, but a key takeaway message from this week’s FTTH Council Africa conference was that wireless technology will not be sufficient to cater for the bandwidth-intensive applications of the future, many of which are yet to be invented. It’s easy to imagine a future, for example, where people routinely fling user-generated high-definition video to each other using peer-to-peer Internet connections.
The other important message from the conference was that the private sector is itching to build these networks but companies urgently need structures in all spheres of government that don’t impede infrastructure roll-out. Today, it can take months to get the necessary approvals to lay fibre through a suburb or even to cross a bridge. And the rules change between municipalities and between provinces. There is little by way of consistency, making planning difficult.
Convergence Partners chairman Andile Ngcaba was spot on when he told the conference on Monday that the role of government in the broadband ecosystem had to be defined carefully and that state-led initiatives in the broadband space must not be allowed to crowd out investments by the private sector.
Ngcaba, who served as director-general of the department of communications between 1994 and 2003, warned that government must be careful not to compete with private-sector players in ways that result in them finding their investments in infrastructure in trouble.
His remarks came a week after department of communications chief director Norman Munzhelele outlined government’s plans to increase broadband penetration in the country, which, among other things, will see more muscular intervention in the sector by the state. Given the ineffectiveness of state-owned enterprises, I doubt this intervention will ever amount to much.
The real irony, of course, is that the private sector has stepped up to the plate already. Private capital wants to build the next-generation fibre networks that South Africa so desperately needs. But bureaucracy is impeding them. All they want is an efficient bureaucracy, light-touch regulations and certainty that the state won’t threaten their investments. Is that really asking too much?