Meet Parkhurst’s fibre pioneer

The lack of response from a telecommunications industry slow to roll out fibre to the home led the residents of the Johannesburg suburb of Parkhurst to take matters into their own hands. Driving the initiative is Ryan Hawthorne, the unlikely hero leading a project that is likely to attract intense interest. By Regardt van der Berg.

Parkhurst's fibre-to-the-home pioneer Ryan Hawthorne

Parkhurst’s fibre-to-the-home pioneer, Ryan Hawthorne

The quaint “village” of Parkhurst is one of my favourite weekend spots and I often visit its pubs and eateries with the missus. So, as the resident of a neighbouring suburb, news that Parkhurst is planning to roll out fibre broadband to all homes and businesses piqued my interest.

What was of particular interest was that the roll-out of fibre to the home (FTTH) — something that barely exists in South Africa — was not being driven by one of the big telecommunications operators but rather by a community fed up with poor broadband connections.

The man leading the project is Ryan Hawthorne, a 34-year-old economist who specialises in competition and economic regulation at his consulting firm Acacia Economics. Hawthorne, who previously worked at the Competition Commission and in the telecoms industry at Neotel, is also an associate of the Centre for Competition, Regulation and Economic Development at the University of Johannesburg, working there as a part-time researcher.

I meet him at his upmarket Parkhurst home to get a better insight into the suburb’s plans, and what they could mean for the deployment of high-speed fibre infrastructure elsewhere in the city and in South Africa.

The early adopter
As he opens the door to greet me, I notice that he’s wearing a Pebble, the smart watch that was developed with money raised through the crowd-sourced funding platform Kickstarter in 2013 — a sure sign he’s an early tech adopter. His home has the telltale signs of him being a cord cutter — there’s no satellite decoder, just a PC connected to a large-screen television. He tells me he is a big fan of Netflix, the US video-on-demand provider that hasn’t actually launched in South Africa yet but which is viewed by a growing number of consumers willing to jump through a few technical hoops.

As we settle in at his dining room table for the interview, I ask Hawthorne about his background and how exactly he came to be driving a high-profile project to wire up an entire suburb to the kind of broadband most South Africans can only salivate about.

While working at Neotel, Hawthorne became involved in the fibre broadband project in the Maboneng district in downtown Johannesburg, a project led by entrepeneur and former telecoms industry executive Mark Seftel. The Maboneng project was the inspiration that ultimately led to Parkhurst idea. “Parkhurst seemed like a natural place to do it,” he says.

It was not until February this year that things really got going for the Parkhurst initiative. Hawthorne describes the day he saw somebody posting a comment on the “I Love Parkhurst” Facebook page about a plan to roll out of closed-circuit television cameras in the suburb, which required fibre to be deployed. That sparked the idea: he immediately thought about deploying fibre to the entire neighbourhood to serve the CCTV cameras and using the same infrastructure as a broadband network.

Hawthorne started “harassing” the Parkhurst Residents and Business Owners Association (Praboa), but admits he did not have to do much convincing. The association met a day after he e-mailed them and they started to meet potential suppliers soon thereafter.

Following Google Fiber’s lead
Hawthorne says that the original plan was to use the City of Johannesburg’s street poles to deploy the fibre. This is a technique used by Google Fiber, a division of the Internet giant that is building fibre access networks in selected US cities. Google is installing fibre on existing above-ground infrastructure, eliminating the need to dig trenches and reducing costs.

But the residents’ association’s letters to the city seeking permission to use their their poles went unanswered.

They proceeded to contact vendors and soon after starting receiving “some really cool proposals”.

One proposal, from a new venture called Vumatel, seemed particularly interesting.

Vumatel’s proposal offers open-access fibre to the home with no infrastructure costs to the neighbourhood — just a monthly access fee. It is offering a 1Gbit/s fibre connection for R1 300/month.

“That’s the same amount I pay for my 4Mbit/s Neotel WiMax connection,” Hawthorne says.

Vumatel will create a system that allows residents to pull fibre into their homes from special distribution cabinets located outside each property. This system is enabled by consumers, who simply buy a kit from a local shop to access the fibre node.

The costs
Rolling out fibre is not a cheap exercise. Hawthorne estimates that the cost for a self-funded roll-out runs into the millions. The backbone infrastructure alone could cost north of R5m, while the fibre drop to each property could run to an average of R4 000. “Based on the number of stands in our suburb, each resident would have to lay out just over R6 000 for a complete FTTH solution — and that’s if every resident signs up. This is not really feasible in any neighbourhood.

“The truth is that telecoms executives don’t get excited about a few hundred residents spending upwards of R1 000/month. For us, it is more about getting them interested in the suburb,” Hawthorne says.

Praboa wants potential suppliers to respond to a request for proposals it has issued by 30 May. He hopes to get the ball rolling as soon as possible thereafter.

Feedback from Parkhurst residents has been “very positive”, says Hawthorne.  In the two months since a survey was issued to canvass input from residents, there has been a positive response of about 10%. He says at least 30% positive feedback is needed to to make it viable.

The suburb suffers from ageing infrastructure and residents have long complained about poor ADSL speeds in the area, thanks in part to the fact that the area is far from a Telkom telephone exchange.

He’s hoping to get enough people on board to make it feasible. Apart from the security and enhanced broadband infrastructure benefits, FTTH will enhance property values. He adds that content providers, including MultiChoice, could leverage the fibre infrastructure to deliver full 1080p or even higher resolution services.  — © 2014 NewsCentral Media

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  • YSCDes Thomas

    Well done Parkhurst, fast connectivity should be added to Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy.

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