Broadband: SA prepares for network of networks

2013-12-08 14:00

Imagine that all the telecommunications networks in South Africa were connected to create a supernetwork, a “network of networks”.

This “network of networks” is a priority item in South Africa’s new broadband policy which was approved by Cabinet this week.

The policy has not been gazetted yet, but City Press has seen a six-page document summarily titled South Africa Connect.

The document talks about a “seamless broadband network of networks” which, by 2030, will be universally accessible at a cost and quality that meets the needs of citizens, business and the public sector.

What this means is that all the fibre laid underground and all the Wi-Fi networks, public and private, could be combined into one network. Access to this network would be sold openly to all who want to play on the service level of the broadband industry.

The argument is that this would stimulate competition and innovation in the Information Communication and Technology sector.

This is known as an “open-access” model.

A source close to the policy process says the policy states that the communications minister has to look at the viability and competitive effect of an open access network.

The source says that government and the private sector will be unable to have universal broadband access in the country by 2030 if they work separately.

But companies such as Telkom, Vodacom and MTN have spent serious money rolling out these networks and naturally want to use it for their own competitive advantage.

Dominic Cull, who works for the Internet Services Providers’ Association as a lawyer, says these companies are likely to want their existing assets to not be subject to open access, describing it as a “hands-off” position.

This is evident in the ongoing debate around local loop unbundling. This in effect means allowing all service providers access to Telkom’s last mile, which is the link to the customer’s homes and businesses.

At Telkom’s recent AGM, CEO Sipho Maseko, said he would fight local loop unbundling as it would “unfairly prejudice” the company and give its competitors a free ride.

Cull insists that the new policy is “light years” ahead of anything the communications department has delivered previously.

However, he says the implications of the implementation need to be considered.

His key questions are: Who will run the open-access network? What will Telkom’s role be? Who will pay for network roll-out to underserviced areas? How much will this cost? Will the telecommunications companies take part in an open access network?

Telkom’s head of strategy, Miriam Altman, says if government wants to roll out services to underserviced areas, it must pay for this and get it done.

Maseko has said Telkom was interested in being involved in government’s roll-out of a national broadband network into underserviced areas, but also stressed that government should pay for this.

Altman says Telkom has invested an average R5.2?billion every year in the past decade on its network and spends an additional R250?million a year to replace old copper networks.

She adds that MTN and Vodacom also invest billions. It is clear that Telkom is not going to give up its network without a fight.

Other cellphone executives say they did not understand the need for a network of networks.

One says: “If I already have my own infrastructure, then I will use it to my own competitive advantage.

“Government doesn’t understand the financial resources needed to build this network,” says the executive, adding that the industry spent roughly R20?billion a year in combined investing in networks.

Vodacom’s legal and regulatory executive, Nkateko “Snakes” Nyoka, says there is definitely an argument to be made that infrastructure competition is an essential ingredient in stimulating development and innovation.

He says: “It’s unlikely South Africa would have seen the roll-out of LTE services as rapidly as it did were it not for the competition between networks to provide the best service.

“Network quality is a key differentiator and the consumer is the ultimate beneficiary as each operator ramps up investment to remain competitive.”

Broadband Infraco, the state-owned broadband infrastructure company has welcomed the new policy.

CEO Puleng Kwele describes the policy as “a major milestone in the history of ICT in the country”.

“Our strategy has always been premised on the collaboration with various public and private sector companies?–?both on the supply and the demand side?–?in an effort to meet the country’s broadband ambitions and challenges.”

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