Comsol's new national network: all the details - TechCentral

Comsol’s new national network: all the details

Comsol CEO Iain Stevenson

Comsol CEO Iain Stevenson

The new, national broadband network to be built by telecommunications specialists Comsol will extend to more than 200 towns and cities across South Africa and will use the latest high-frequency wireless technologies to provide speeds of up to multiple gigabits per second, according to the man behind it.

Iain Stevenson, the CEO and founder of Comsol, revealed this week that Nedbank Corporate and Investment Banking is buying a 25% stake in the company, joining shareholder Convergence Partners. It will spend more than R500m in the next 12 months expanding the network across the country. The Industrial Development Corp has also committed funding.

The new business, called Comsol Fibre Connect, intends using a combination of fibre (mainly for backhaul) and high-frequency wireless spectrum (mainly for the last mile) to connect businesses across South Africa, replacing the need for leased lines and other solutions that Stevenson believes have become antiquated. He describes the planned network as the “first and only nationwide, open-access, high-speed, carrier-grade data network”. Though the focus is on businesses to start, residential homes could follow, he told TechCentral.

But how is the company going to do it, especially since other networks of national scope, built by companies such as Vodacom and MTN, have cost tens of billions of rand to deploy?

Stevenson said there are two factors that allow Comsol to keep its costs down while still building expansive coverage.

The first is that it will take advantage of existing infrastructure, including the many thousands of kilometres of fibre that have been deployed countrywide by the private sector in recent years. It will “backhaul” its traffic over these fibre lines – and use high-capacity microwave where fibre doesn’t exist – into the three regional data centres operated by Teraco. It’s leasing capacity from Neotel, Telkom and FibreCo.

Existing infrastructure

It also intends installing capacity on existing high sites owned by the mobile operators and others, and will also utilise its own towers already built. “We are overlaying our infrastructure on top of infrastructure that already exists. If you had to build this network from scratch, you’d need tens of billions of rand.”

Stevenson said Comsol, which has almost 20 years of experience in helping other companies build wireless infrastructure, already has the teams on the ground – even in remoter parts of South Africa – to allow it to expand the new network countrywide at a rapid pace.

Unlike most wireless broadband providers, which use relatively low frequencies (longer wavelengths) to provide services to end users, Comsol will use a vast chunk of contiguous spectrum – 280MHz in all – that it has licensed access to around the 28GHz band. Interestingly, it’s a band looks set to be popular for next-generation 5G technologies, which are expected to be rolled out in the coming years. Icasa licensed the spectrum to Comsol long before it became a focus point for the 5G community.

We are going to Kuruman, to Nelspruit, Ladysmith, Bloemfontein, Kimberley… We’re going up the coast of KwaZulu-Natal

Because of the high frequencies used, customers must have equipment installed at their premises with line of the sight to the nearest tower, Stevenson said. “Multi-tenanting” options are available, so a shopping centre, for example, could install one piece of equipment on the roof, and then distribute a 1Gbit/s pipe over fibre to all the shops interested in access.

Stevenson is promising to extend coverage to areas where none exists today, or where there are few options to choose from. Comsol has worked closely with specialist telecoms consultancy BMI-TechKnowledge to develop heat maps to see where businesses are located, where fibre can be used to connect high sites nearby and what the opportunities are.

“We are going to Kuruman, to Nelspruit, Ladysmith, Bloemfontein, Kimberley… We’re going up the coast of KwaZulu-Natal,” he said. “Of course, there’ll also be blanket coverage in Gauteng and the major metros.”

The company intends offering a full service-level agreement for businesses within 6km of one of its high sites, providing a symmetrical 1Gbit/s service (less speedy, less pricey options will also be on offer, with pricing for an uncapped and uncontended service starting at about R3 000/month).

Each high site will be backed up with redundant power to ensure Comsol can continue offering uninterrupted services for up to two days without a supply from the electricity grid.

He said a broadband option for consumers is also under consideration. “We’re not ruling it out, on the back end of this type of service. But the home market requires a service for under R1 000, and the backhaul costs are hampering that at the moment.”  — © 2016 NewsCentral Media


  1. Greg Mahlknecht on

    OK, so just a big-ass wireless internet provider for businesses. I was rather hoping for something more. The Fiber guys are targetting this segment aggressively, I hope Comsol can make return on investment before their clients get access to cheaper and superior fiber solutions.

  2. So much fan fare in all the writing and articles about Comsol, but they’re just another small Telco trying to make it big. Good luck nevertheless, but I don’t see anything unique or interesting compared to the dozens of other telcos out there. Do us a Vumatel though, and we’ll sing your praise from the hill tops. Of course, please choose “new” suburbs to roll into.

  3. Actually, it’s about the same as Vumatel in that its also open access, except it’s a lot bigger and extends into a lot more areas, and the combination of fibre and fibre-quality wireless technology means businesses will have a service of up to 1Gbit/s (dedicated) fully installed within 6 days, a delivery time that fibre only providers cannot hope to achieve.

  4. They’re not a wireless internet provider. In fact, not an ISP at all. They’re an open access enabler of ISP’s (who can all compete for business using this infrastructure), using fibre and (licensed, so fibre-like) wireless combined. Also, a 6 day lead time should ensure they get there a little faster than fibre, don’t you think?

  5. Greg Mahlknecht on

    They use other people’s fibre (like other good wireless providers, nothing special there), and no, licensed wireless is NOT fibre-like. They might not be a WISP themselves, but the net effect of their place in the market is a bunch of WISPs.

    6-day lead time is faster than fibre (and average for a WISP), but you missed my point on that one… in the long term wireless is a dead tech, and targetting businesses means they’re competing with a fiber market who’s willing to dig a few km to hook people to their fiber. When I got our office connected up, Neotel trenched 2.8km to us – the alternative was a microwave link at the same cost.

  6. Do you have any supporting evidence of your claim that wireless is “in the long term… a dead tech”? That’s news to me, and I am sure the Gartners of the world would easily dispute so broad a statement.
    Also, as I read it, these guys are using predominantly wireless as a last mile connection, alluding to fibre being used as well. I think you may be missing the advantage that wireless gives them, making them far more agile than other players, while maintaining the stability of fibre (my reference to fibre-like) through licensed spectrum. Traditional WISPS, as you’re so dead set on classifying Comsol as, do not have access to the spectrum that they do, so may not be able to deliver last mile GUARANTEED and dedicated capacity they way these guys can.

  7. Greg Mahlknecht on

    Fiber is superior, and expanding. When fiber enters an area, wireless will get shut down in that area. That’s what I mean by a dead tech. And Fiber targets business-heavy areas first.

    I am fully aware of the advantage wireless gives them, but it’s a short-medium term advantage. I’m talking long term, 5+ years out. These guys are investing half a billion rand, that’s a lot to recover!

    Comsol might not be a traditional WISP, but they do enable traditional business WISPs, they’re not the first to deploy services in licensed spectrum. The difference is, everyone else I’ve spoken to in the industry is seeing it as a stopgap measure until they can deploy a fixed line solution to them.

  8. Not available yet, “coming soon, to-be-built”, just like the promises of all the other providers. To claim that a network that is yet be built is bigger than a network that already exists and is bing utilised and expanded each month, is quite disingenuous.

    Don’t get my wrong, I wish you guys all the luck, but the way this is being marketed leaves a lot to be desired, and leaves me somewhat suspicious.

  9. Andrew Fraser on

    I think it may be wrong to classify them as as “just” a wireless ISP. Comsol has been around for quite a while and (AFAIK) have been offering solutions to the very telcos that they’re now competing with. In that they’re offering layer 1 and 2 connectivity, it isn’t really the same as most of the WISPs that are out there now.

    The licence for a chunk of spectrum does give them a big advantage, and in many areas that advantage will last quite a long time (especially in smaller towns and cities, peri urban areas) especially as Fibre deployment for last mile is expensive where population density is low. Over time, the speed of deployment and ease of connection will be challenged by fibre deployments, but I think there is likely a fairly long period to allow for recovery of investment and pivoting to physical connections.

  10. Wayne Gemmell on

    I’m pretty sure their ‘blanked coverage’ of Gauteng will conveniently miss us again…

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