No flattening of the fibre demand curve

rsz_vino_govender_executive_for_strategy_mergers_and_acquisition_and_innovation_for_dfa_ Tech Metro Africa
Vino Govender, Executive for strategy mergers and acquisition and innovation for Dark Fibre Africa

One lasting effect of Covid-19 is sure to be increased demand for reliable connectivity. The scale at which this novel pandemic has altered the world was unfathomable just a few months ago: something in the region of a quarter of the world’s population is under lockdown or shelter-at-home orders; air travel is virtually shut down; countries have closed borders; and global supply chains have been interrupted or collapsed. One of the most evident effects is the huge surge in demand on our connectivity infrastructure and internet, streaming and cloud services.

Some of the major winners in this have been Microsoft Teams, Netflix, Zoom, Houseparty and Showmax locally. In the UK mobile provider BT has reported a 60% increase in traffic, with Vodafone reporting a 50% surge in mobile data traffic. Italy reportedly reached their annual traffic forecast in a single week, while other countries are reporting annual growth rates within a month. The consumption pattern will most likely not go back to normal in a post-Covid-19 world, if there is such a thing.

High-speed, reliable connectivity is a central and key priority for enabling access to these digital applications and services. Traditionally, companies operating connectivity businesses in South Africa have had to navigate the fine line between demand and supply to remain sustainable and profitable. Rolling out fibre networks is capital intensive, and one of the greatest inhibitors to the rapid deployment of fibre is the challenge of getting permission and rights of way that allow an operator to connect end users and start recouping their investment costs — a large proportion of which is reinvested into network expansion. This hindrance is a disadvantage to end users and to the fibre infrastructure provider.

Dark Fibre Africa (DFA) has seen how working from home has actually boosted productivity. Also noticed was a distinct shift in the market to video calling over voice calling, meaning rich content is being demanded and consumed — all of which requires a fibre backbone to enable it. In addition to workforce productivity, the Covid-19 pandemic has also driven significant growth in vertical services built on top of the internet, such as telemedicine or e-health applications and online learning and education.

With fewer people on the road, we are all exploring the application of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as sensors, for monitoring equipment and plants off-site. These, as well as e-health and e-schooling, were nascent technology trends in South Africa that are shifting to mainstream as you read this. We have also seen how connectivity infrastructure, including towers and data centres, have come together to deliver these types of cloud-based services.

This has been supported by the swift and capable response of authorities in both the public and private sector. Quick and definitive actions have been taken, including gazetting new regulations about essential facilities and spectrum, and expediting moving ICT equipment through customs.

As an example, South African telecom regulator IICASA announced in early April an emergency release of broadband spectrum to cope with the demand for mobile data capacity. This spectrum was expected to be made available for limited auction only towards the end of the year.

I suspect and hope this is our new normal when we emerge from this pandemic. We will need to accelerate the deployment and development of this critical infrastructure — a matter that is informed as much by policy as it is investment — and we will all need to do our part to meet these connectivity needs by providing this enabler and, frankly, modern human right.

We should also remain focused on ensuring that infrastructure is delivered in an efficient manner and that artificial constraints are not introduced that impede the deployment of infrastructure and access to connectivity to end users.

The real value of wholesale, open-access infrastructure providers are that they are able to achieve economies of scale across their layers of infrastructure investments and pass these benefits on to end users via their wholesale customers. Infrastructure companies at scale promote services-based competition, which provide end users with a range of innovative digital solutions, services and applications at competitive prices.

This article was authored by Vino Govender, Dark Fibre Africa