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Inevitability of Wireline Broadband Access in Africa: Focus on Zimbabwe

01 August, 2014

Source: ICT Africa

 
Jabulani Dhliwayo:

If you have been following ICT developments in Africa over the past decade, you are aware that Africans have been rolling out fiber optic networks at a rate never before imaginable. Until recently, operators and governments have focused their deployments on oceanic, terrestrial long distance and metropolitan fiber optic networks to connect Africa to the rest of the world and to connect African nations, cities and communities to one another. One of the leading players in connecting Africans to another is a subsidiary of Econet Wireless, Liquid Telecom. Liquid has a terrestrial long haul fiber optic network that connects South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. (See map at the bottom of this article)

Now that a lot has been done in building long haul and metropolitan networks, the focus has to be on access – the portion of the network that connects people to the rest of the global network. In Africa, the overwhelming broadband access is mobile wireless based. But it is becoming inevitable to many Africans that if Africa is to be serious about harnessing the power of ICT for sustainable economic development, mobile broadband access alone will not cut it. While mobile broadband goes a very long way to quickly connect the unconnected, most high bandwidth applications dictate the use of wireline broadband access.

By nature, the quality of any data that is transmitted over airwaves can easily be degraded resulting in unpredictable bandwidth. For example, speed tests on the Econet Wireless Zimbabwe network posted by users online show random network performance ranging from no signal at all to a wide range of values mostly in the Kbps level, below 1Mbps.

While the deployment of mobile networks is quick and less costly than the deployment of wireline broadband infrastructure, transmitting data over wireless networks is a costly proposition. The cost of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe data bundles, for example, ranges from $20/Gb to $100/Gb depending on the package. If your Internet applications include Whatsapp, occasional surfing of the Internet, emails and social media, then you may be able to get by with your smart phone or a dongle and a data bundle from your mobile service provider. On the other hand, if your applications include video streaming on a TV, image download, streaming music, gaming and other bandwidth hungry services, then you have a problem.

A Verizon Data Calculator shows that one can easily go through hundreds of gigabits of data per month using the most popular Internet applications. That translates to thousands of dollars per month if your only access to the Internet is mobile broadband. You could easily get very broke trying to do what the average kid does on the Internet in other parts of the world. According to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 83% of all smartphone owners in America have wireline broadband at home. They use smartphones for light bandwidth applications on the move and do the more bandwidth intensive activities at home, over wireline broadband.

Fortunately, the situation in Zimbabwe and many other parts of Africa is changing. If your only source of information about Zimbabwe is the BBC, CNN and other news media strongly opposed to the government of Zimbabwe you obviously know Zimbabwe only as a country of suffering where the rule of law is non-existent. But if you were to visit Zimbabwe and open your eyes, you will be mesmerized by the level of ICT broadband infrastructure development going on in that country.

With the realization that mobile broadband alone is not sustainable, Liquid Telecom is engaged in a widespread deployment of fiber to the home (FTTH) networks, using gigabit passive optical network (GPON) technology in the cities of Zimbabwe. Unlike South Africa and Kenya where operators have mostly cherry picked affluent gated communities for their FTTH deployment, the Liquid Telecom FTTH network is more widespread. The network is passing both low income “high density” suburbs and affluent “low density” suburbs.

Liquid Telecom is currently offering 10, 15 and 20Mbs “all you can eat” services for $149, $199 and $259. This means that those who can afford the service can download infinite amounts of data every month without incurring additional charges. While the cost of the service is currently beyond the reach for most Zimbabweans, experience has taught us that the cost of fiber optic services will drastically fall as initial investments are recouped. After all, fiber optic networks are designed to last for over twenty years and foresighted telecommunication business leaders, like those at Econet and Liquid Telecom, plan their networks for longer term returns and long term development of their communities.

Several other smaller operators in Zimbabwe, including Telco, are also deploying fiber to the home networks.

Meanwhile, Telone, the incumbent fixed line operator is taking advantage of their copper infrastructure to offer ADSL services to the home. Data rates are currently 256Kbps to 2Mbps for prices ranging from $25 for a 10Gb cap to $160 for “all you can eat” data. While digital subscriber line (DSL) technology can be a very viable alternative to FTTH where twisted pair copper already exists, it will take some upgrading to more advanced versions, such as VDSL, to boost the data rates. Unfortunately, according to the World Bank, Telone has only 2 fixed lines for every 100 Zimbabweans. They have to deploy more infrastructure in the local loop to serve more people. Since the cost of deploying new fiber and copper infrastructure is about the same (the main cost is in the civil works), it only makes sense for Telone to deploy fiber with almost endless capacity in green fields and squeeze whatever capacity is possible from the available copper network.

You can participate in more in-depth discussions on fiber optic technology at ICT Africa fiber optic training workshops.

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