…recommended dietary allowance: south african internet…

Upon reading a couple of articles and blogs during the past months and understanding the intricacies surrounding telecommunications in South Africa, I’ve come to the conclusion that the sector just needs a new diet.

Although the sector’s intake of fiber has seen a major boost in the past, it’s the presence of high volumes of lard and starch that has congested its arteries and digestive system and could soon result in minor cardiac arrest.

Let me explain…

…fiber…

In recent months, we’ve become quite accustomed to the words SEACOM, WACS and EASSy. These are all part of a vast network of fiber cables connecting South Africa (and most of Africa) to the World. The EASSy cable is the most recent one to have been switched on. Apart from seeing many new and willing companies with fresh thinkers and innovative strategies (read), Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban city centers are rife with fiber-laying workers and some smaller communities in their vicinity are beginning to benefit from fiber as well. Oh, but this part is the best, the national government has plans on building an open-access fiber network in a calm and focussed attempt to reduce broadband bottlenecks such as low penetration rates, exorbitant costs and lack of available bandwidth.

Fiber

We’ll see how the government deals with this type of project… they have everything to lose as well. Take for example South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometer Array, backed by the government in the form of the Department of Science and Technology. They use National Research Foundation funding for the project.

SKA is said to require a network several times larger than the entire internet combined. This .pdf of the SKA organisation details all the stats and indicates network requirements to process “as much as 1 petabyte of astronomical data every 20 seconds, so that exascale computing and exabyte data storage will be required.”. That’s a lot. Really a lot. Think of the technological possibilities and industry that would have to converge on South Africa. Actually, I think the Northern Cape would be a prime spot in desperate need of some form of infrastructural and economic boost.

Either way, we’re getting a lot of fiber very quickly.

But fiber alone does not a healthy body make.

…starch…

We often disagree with government decisions in South Africa. I sometimes wonder if they fully realize the implications a functional, open, accessible telecommunications sector would have on the growth of the economy. This could in turn provide massive government funding that could be used to alleviate taxation, poverty and peoples’ need for YouTube video’s.

In past months, several big shots have complained about lengthy application processes and confusion surrounding spectrum availability.

Starch

Things are so bad in South Africa that some African countries with far greater problems and far smaller economies than ours have started to pass us in the race for global broadband access.

Eastern Africa, for instance, has a new operator in the form of Wananchi. They currently offer a triple bundle under the Zuku brand consisting of uncapped internet over a 1Mbit/s line bundled with unlimited telephone and over 100 television channels via cable. Imagine what we would pay for that in South Africa… R1000? R1500 even? Well, in Kenya and Tanzania the pay the equivalent of R500 for these offerings.

The company (backed by Cisco) plans to lay fiber directly to the homes of hundreds of thousands of East Africans within the next couple of years to add to their already good penetration of both fiber and WiMax systems. They plan on servicing fiber to every home in the region! How amazing is that!

Wanachi has even stated that they would be very eager to enroll such systems, networks and bundles in South Africa, but current regulations and anti-competitive behaviour from the government, Icasa and other telecommunications companies in the country are dissuading them at the moment.

Clearly the South African government needs to wake up. Well, we already knew that ages ago.

…lard…

It would be wrong to accuse the government of all our broadband problems. There is another player in the sector that needs to pull up its socks before it is too late. Icasa. I almost needn’t say more. I will though…

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has one job. Only one. Regulating communications in South Africa. With all the fiber cables, corporate investments and public innovations you (and I) would expect a massive boom in available broadband services. These include things like broadband uncapped internet access, unlimited telephony, cable- and IPTV, WiMax and last-mile fiber.

One spanner still refuses to remove itself from the works.

Icasa has had more problems and infighting than Cope, the ANC and Cosatu combined. They are a lackluster excuse for an independent public regulator.

We would have (could have, should have) already been able to access digital TV signals by now. Icasa delayed the move because it wants to listen to the whims of Brazilian regulators with regard to digital broadcasting standards.

Lard

Brazil uses the ISDB-T system for digital terrestrial broadcasting and now urge the South African government to implement the same standard (as opposed to DVB-T) in order to reduce costs of producing peripherals (such as set-top-boxes and broadcasting equipment) and enhance cooperation between the two countries.

(Here is a map of international digital broadcasting standards adoption)

Naturally, Icasa threw away all its plans on using the stable and proven DVB-T system (used in Europe) to study this experimental one being used in South America and Japan (only). It might work or it might not work, but Icasa’s decision has caused a massive delay in the digital switchover which has seen African countries like Namibia, Ghana and Kenya overtake us in the area of digital broadcasting. Note that all African countries currently supplying digital TV signals have chosen to adopt DVB-T.

Another job for Icasa is to allocate available radio spectrum. This affects television operators (SABC, Multichoice, etv) as well as all wireless operators (Vodacom, MTN, cell©) providing wireless internet. Every now-and-then new spectrum allocations are made as spectrum is consolidated and recycled. But these processes have also been delayed as Icasa (the “I” standing for Independent) has bowed to governmental and political influence.

…conclusion…

South Africa has everything it needs to ensure world-class internet access and converged telecommunications systems. The problems lies in the fact that it also has too many things hampering this same goal.

South Africa could soon make use of all the newly acquired fiber cable systems and access to international bandwidth in a way most South Africans can’t even imagine, but we still have a great many stumbling blocks to overcome.

We can only hope some reform will occur within government and Icasa to allow for these possibilities to flourish.

South Africa is indeed “alive with possibility”, but possibility only means something if it is dealt with in an efficient, constructive manner and allowed to transform into productive products and services that would change the lives of all South Africans.

…please feel free to comment below…