Shane Chorley, head of sales and marketing at Frogfoot
With 95% of all internet connections in South Africa being driven through mobile networks, the opportunity for fixed broadband connectivity, such as that provided by fibre, is immense. In fact, fibre will help to position the country strongly for future growth despite the uncertainties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The local telecom sector boasts one of the most advanced infrastructure in Africa thanks to extensive investments from both mobile and fixed-line providers. And with many operators now focused on 5G technology, the role of fibre will become even more critical to stimulate the economy of South Africa.
According to the FTTX Council, there is approximately eight times the current amount of fibre required to achieve 5G. So, contrary to popular belief, businesses and consumers do not have to choose between one or the other. Fibre is an integral component to ensure 5G covers as much of South Africa as possible given how mobile service providers need to backhaul their data on fibre links between base stations.
Such has the exponential growth in demand for connectivity been, that the rollout of fibre has become one of the highest-growth industries in South Africa today. On both the home and business fronts, fibre is expected to bring a radical improvement to markets across Africa. From the introduction of converged products combining fixed and mobile services to a geographic expansion of the fibre footprint, this access will become the foundation for the journey to a completely digital environment.
As recently as 2015, South African broadband costs were up to ten times higher than in the UK with local speeds five times slower. By 2018, year-on-year growth in the fibre market was 112% in terms of access.
Fibre-optic systems now form an integral component of the work undertaken by the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Council (PICC). In the 2018/2019 period, the PICC spent approximately R255 billion on infrastructure enhancements in South Africa as it seeks to harmonise build expenditure and development across national, provincial, and local government.
With those organisations who were still undecided about the merits of going the cloud route being ‘forced’ to make the transition over the past few months to remain operational, the business environment following the COVID-19 crisis could see the normalisation of a decentralised workforce.
Even though physical office space might never completely disappear, more people will likely continue to work remotely than ever before. This will result in companies being able to reduce the size of their fibre links in the office and refocus on providing remote employees with reliable and fast connectivity. Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) installations will therefore become a critical part in enabling the country’s economy as it heads into a new normal.
An example of the economic empowerment created by fibre installations, Frogfoot has more than 7 000 contract workers rolling out connectivity throughout the country. Furthermore, Amazon.com recently announced that it will hire 3 000 people in South Africa in virtual roles ranging from customer service to technical experts that will provide support to customers in North America and Europe. Without a foundation built on reliable connectivity, this would not have been possible.
Beyond the economic transformation enabled by connectivity, there is also an environmental one to consider. With DSL being decommissioned, copper cables are being ripped out significantly impacting the environment. However, fibre is future proof and scalable. This means that once the cables have been trenched, there is no reason to dig again. These FTTH installations also represent a relatively low impact to the environment. With fibre mainly deployed in built-up areas, these networks are not typically associated with destroying animal and plant life. Additionally, fibre is a cost-effective technology that does not require high energy usage.
With more people working from home, traffic on the roads decreased resulting in less pollution and a reduced carbon footprint. Even organisations who had to remain operational did so on skeleton staff further reducing the electricity and water burden on what has traditionally been an incredibly strained grid.
Such is the potential of deploying connectivity not only in South Africa but the rest of the continent, that technology giants like Google and Facebook have started to invest in internet infrastructure in Africa. They join several existing initiatives such as the e-Africa programme, the Leland project, and investments made by the World Bank.
While it is still uncertain what the new normal will entail post-lockdown, access to fast and reliable connectivity will be the cornerstone for businesses and individuals to reinvent themselves for a digital way of life.