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Broadband goes universal

When you hear people complaining about insufferably slow bandwidth and the high prices they pay for it, you expect them to be in Parys, not Paris.

BY  Jain Grey , 1 November 20110 comments

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South Africans can take heart, because we’re not the only ones getting a bum deal on broadband, according to comments made during the Broadband World Forum (BBWF), held in Paris, France, in September. As delegates spoke of the need for higher capacity, better services and lower costs, any African delegates would have felt right at home.

The bad news is that Africa risks falling even further behind, because technology developers, including Alcatel-Lucent, are focussing on innovations designed to deliver more broadband down the last mile of copper cables that are ubiquitous in the developed world. It’s a very sensible step, since technologies such as vectoring can eliminate ‘noise’ in the copper and deliver speeds of up to 100Mbps to each home over infrastructure that already exists.


We need to develop new deployment technologies that cut costs and make [broadband] affordable for all.
Kevin Lo, Google
Sadly, the number of South African homes with fixed lines is decreasing as Telkom cuts off consumers who fail to pay their bills. So with only 4.27 million fixed lines in use, the country is more in need of mobile broadband technologies than anything to boost the fixed line throughput.

Although BBWF is very Eurocentric, technology developers again acknowledged that Africa is the last great untapped market. The problem is players have realised that laying fibre to the home is expensive, time-consuming and a regulatory headache. So the best available solution cited for supplying fast broadband as quickly as possible is to lay fibre to street junction boxes, then clean up the copper wires to deliver that capacity to homes and offices. This means countries with little or no installed copper are not the centre of attention. Operators and IT vendors would rather chase the quick wins from boosting the existing infrastructure, given the problems and expense of reaching individual users by any other means.

Africans would also recognise the universal complaint aired at BBWF that government interference slows down progress and pushes up costs. Australia’s shadow minister for communications, Malcolm Turnbull, slammed the Australian government’s plan to build a National Broadband Network (NBN) and force other players to stop offering broadband services. It will probably spend up to Aus $80 billion in doing so.

Kevin Lo, Google, pointed out that Africa and the Middle East only account for three percent of the world’s broadband users.Kevin Lo, Google, pointed out that Africa and the Middle East only account for three percent of the world’s broadband users.

Yet once the NBN is running as a monopoly, it will have the power to charge high prices, Turnbull fears.

“It would be absurd if after a massive investment like this, consumers end up paying more for broadband,” he said.

Google’s GM of Access, Kevin Lo, agreed that governments were best confined to creating policies that let competitive operators provide the required services. Google itself is getting into the game with a pilot project to roll out a broadband network in Kansas.

Lo pointed out that Africa and the Middle East contain a meagre three percent of the world’s broadband users, and their biggest challenge is affordability.

Technology developers at the Broadband World Forum agreed that Africa is the last great untapped market.Technology developers at the Broadband World Forum agreed that Africa is the last great untapped market.

“We need to develop new deployment technologies that cut costs and make it affordable for all, which is one of the reasons for our Kansas experiment. We fully intend to share this experience across the world to help inform and support deployments everywhere,” Lo said.

That was about the only mention Africa garnered.

In these tough economic times, multinational vendors and operators are not focussing on underdeveloped nations as much as they were a few years ago. There are still vast opportunities here, but there are also huge problems of isolation, poverty and illiteracy, with regulatory hurdles and government meddling making progress more complex than necessary.

The old adage that Africa is not for sissies wasn’t even raised at BBWF, because the world didn’t seem to be looking here anymore.