Tag Archives: south africa

Mobile operators are short term cure, long term cause of broadband divide

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Wireline upgrades get low priority on the wrong side of the divide.

Mobile broadband networks are increasingly ubiquitous throughout the world, and are the most widely used way of accessing the Internet in developing countries. But that’s despite high costs and stingy caps on data transfer. As a solution for increasing primary household access to broadband and encouraging people to use it, mobile networks have limited potential, according to a South African broadband policy study

Of the access mechanisms, mobile coverage is the most extensive, but mobile broadband access is limited to lucrative urban areas and data costs are relatively high. Extending broadband access is dependent on allocation of high demand spectrum. It is also dependant on higher tower density, which requires additional investments by mobile operators.

The problem isn’t limited to the developing world. The California Public Utilities Commission has put itself in a similar box by, on the one hand, recognising that it’s economically difficult, if not impossible, to rely on mobile operators for household or business Internet access but, on the other, giving mobile coverage claims equal standing with wireline networks in determining which communities lack minimum service and are eligible for infrastructure subsidies.

One company – Comcast – is tightening its grip on Californian cable customers and the two biggest telephone companies – AT&T and Verizon – are cutting off wireline support for less affluent communities and pushing subscribers toward more costly mobile data. All three are spending big money lobbying California legislators and policy makers in largely successful efforts to protect their turf. If you allow incumbents to write the rules for subsidising competitive infrastructure construction – rules that relegate low income areas to high cost mobile service – you will only increase the digital divide. Whether you’re in California or South Africa.

Monopoly broadband network problems are common, solutions are not

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Better markets attract better supply. Everywhere.

It’s not just best practices for broadband development policy that’s common to countries and communities, regardless of location or circumstance. Lack of competition at the network level is as big a barrier in South Africa as it is in California.

In South Africa the biggest gap in the national broadband infrastructure is currently in the access network illustrated by the fact that 86% of the population is within 10km from a fibre access point. Broadband access is provided via mobile, fixed wireless, ADSL and, to a very limited scale, by fibre to the premises (FTTP).

The difficulty and high cost of building broadband infrastructure – whether it’s for last mile connections to homes or middle mile backhaul to core Internet exchanges – is a natural barrier to competition. Without competitive pressure, incumbents can keep prices high and focus investment on lucrative, high income areas while effectively cutting off less affluent communities.

The South African government’s solution, according to it’s national broadband policy roadmap, is requiring network owners to allow access to competitors at wholesale rates…

The intent of this policy is to provide a clear framework for the implementation of an open access regime for the wireless and fibre networks planned for the country. Bearing in mind that there is no single definition of “open access”, for the purposes of this policy open access refers to mandatory wholesale access to network infrastructure or services that is provided on fair and reasonable terms, for which there is some degree of transparency and non-discrimination. It is considered as applying to fixed and mobile access networks, backhaul and backbone networks, undersea cables and Internet exchange points.

The mechanism for achieving this goal could be problematic, however. Large scale public sector broadband spending isn’t an option. So the recommended fix is to try to entice or coerce private sector investors to participate in a government-coordinated national broadband network. In effect, replace market forces with central planning.

That’s hard enough – arguably, impossible – when governments invest their own money. It’s even less attractive to private capital, which has other options, internationally and in South Africa. Long term, the result will be even less competition.

South Africa endorses best practices for broadband development policy

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South Africa’s goal is to bring a minimum of 5Mbps Internet access to half its population by 2016 and 90% by 2020, with 100% of school, medical and government sites getting at least 10 Mbps by then. To do it, the government is adopting essentially the same policy playbook as the European Union, Google, and Californian communities such as Santa Cruz, San Leandro and Loma Linda

  • Efficient permit granting: Responsible authorities will provide network operators with a clear, simple, transparent and efficient mechanism for granting permits for civil works.
  • Access to and use of existing physical networking infrastructure: [the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa] will enforce regulations requiring network operators’ obligations to meet all reasonable requests for access to infrastructure on a non-discriminatory basis to their physical infrastructure (such as ducts, conduits, manholes, cabinets, poles, masts, antennae, towers and other supporting constructions).
  • Coordination and exploiting synergies with other civil works: Transparency of information on and mechanisms for accessing on a reasonable basis existing and planned public infrastructure suitable for hosting high-speed internet such as electricity, water and sewage, transport infrastructures and high sites. Such sharing across different civil domains will also facilitate future smart cities and regions.
  • Transparency will assist in preventing accidental damage to water pipes or electricity and cables during construction of broadband infrastructure.
  • Coordination of civil works: Frameworks will be put in place facilitating coordination and cooperation of civil works amongst network operators.
  • In-building equipment:
    • All newly-constructed buildings and buildings undergoing major renovation will be equipped with facilities, such as ducting for fibre optic cabling, for high-speed-ready in-building physical infrastructure, up to the network termination points from 2015.
    • Every internet provider will have the right to terminate its network at a concentration point located inside or outside a building and will have the right to access any existing high-speed-ready in-building physical infrastructure on reasonable terms.

The full report – South Africa Connect: Creating Opportunities, Ensuring Inclusion; South Africa’s Broadband Policy – is interesting reading. The policy prescriptions for addressing the broadband needs of sprawling, densely packed townships and distant undeveloped rural communities are all but identical to those independently developed for European cities and Californian suburbs. Regardless of circumstance, there’s a growing international consensus that the basics of broadband development policy are universal.