Is Fibre Lighting-Up The Townships?
Grant Marais, the CEO of VAST Networks, isn’t just making another general observation when he says, “Across Africa, we used to say, ‘A person’s first voice experience will be with a mobile phone.’ I think today we could quite accurately say a person’s first internet or computing experience is going to happen with a mobile phone.”
Marais represents one of a growing pool of companies that are actively looking at how to bring connectivity into the country’s poorer suburbs. Even though they often stand a few kilometres away from the city’s most cosmopolitan areas, Johannesburg’s townships may as well be on the moon when it comes to affordable high-speed broadband.
Mobile has made inroads, but remains prohibitively expensive. Despite a ratio of more than one handset per person, not everyone is active online. ADSL and mobile broadband are either too costly upfront or to maintain consistently. According to We Are Social’s latest annual report, 60% of us own smartphones, but only 54% of us use the internet.
Now we are in the fibre age, which offers LTE-level speeds at ADSL data prices. Its immense capacity makes it cheap to connect many households. But the physical labour of trenching is expensive, so fibre companies have relied on affluent suburbs for their growth. Until now.
The new township market
Last year Vumatel, one of SA’s leading fibre providers, announced a pilot project in which residents of Alexandra township would be able to get up to 100Mbit/s speeds for less than R100 per month. This is cheaper than in other parts of the city, but viable if Vumatel can reach critical mass. At least, that’s the theory: despite the presence of high-density populations, few have ventured into the townships looking for new internet business. Even Vumatel has found the going to be harder than anticipated. “We have met with some challenges through the technical planning and engagement phase and have decided that it is more important for us to see to each phase of this project carefully than to meet the numbers,” says Niel Schoeman, Vumatel CEO. “We would like to get the community connected as quickly as possible, but not at the risk of missing any details. Just as Parkhurst, Vumatel’s first suburb, took far longer than anticipated, we believe this will be very similar.”
Nonetheless, the experience has been good: “The community engagement has been positive and based on our research in the suburb as well as our engagements, we believe that there will be significant demand for affordable abundant internet access in Alexandra.”
A similar project is under way in Diepsloot, to the north of Johannesburg. Two companies, Link Africa and VAST Networks, have joined forces to roll out a unique approach.
Link Africa has licensed a patent that lets it run fibre inside sewage lines, reducing the need to dig trenches. VAST then layers an advanced Wi-Fi network on top of this. The result: consumers in Diepsloot are enjoying faster internet speeds than those in neighbouring and substantially more affluent Steyn City. “If we are going to make a difference we have to get past Sandton and Rosebank and Durban North, and get into townships,” says Link Africa’s Craig Carthy. “It’s long-term thinking. Someone once said, if you plant a tree, it’s only 20 years later you are going to start to feel the shade or the fruit of that tree. This is what we are trying to do and create an opportunity for economic development in those areas.”
The partnership claims that around 1.5 million people use that network, all connecting through Wi-Fi. But this is distinctly different to Wi-Fi projects in Cape Town and Tshwane: there’s no government funding. Both companies believe the concept is entirely commercially viable and have already expanded to Katlehong and Alexandra. “This is our business,” says Marais. “This is what we believe is the right thing to do for our country.”
The people are ready
Grant Marais is cagey when it comes to the amount of data used on the Diepsloot Wi-Fi network, but anecdotally there is a lot of interest. People want these services. “My customers are thrilled to have access to the internet,” Collen Kekana, co-founder of VCafÄ, told iAfrikan last year. “[They] are using the platform for various purposes from job applications to news updates to staying in touch via social media. What always puts a smile on my face is when they realise that their internet speeds are actually higher than those available in some of the more affluent suburbs.”
While major networks are arguing over policy papers and claiming they are connecting the nation, a handful of fibre and Wi-Fi providers are actually walking the talk. It’s proving to be a bumpy road. But with untapped potential in townships and half a population still not experiencing the internet, it’s a no-brainer. The townships are being lit up by fibre.