There is no disputing that fibre infrastructure is becoming a necessity for all households across South Africa. While major metropoles already have extensive fibre deployed — reaching most of the residents in these large cities — the smaller provincial towns and townships are lacking this advanced technology.
Fibre is the latest and fastest way to connect users to the Internet. Everyone, these days, wants to be connected to the Internet and should be, because that is what living in the modern age requires. The Internet has changed the way we communicate and interact, shop, play, learn, do our banking and so much more. The Internet is present in everything we do.
That’s why fibre has, in essence, become a utility.
Without an Internet connection, people and communities are left stranded and unable to actively participate in society. They can’t be fully included in modern society and, as a result, can’t contribute to the South African economy as effectively as those who are connected.
Without a reliable and fast Internet connection, you may will find it increasingly difficult to work, shop, reach government services or contribute meaningfully to the economy.
A utility to bridge the divide
For decades, there has been talk about bridging the digital divide. Despite this, it still hasn’t been fully addressed.
The Presidential Economic Advisory Council has said that President Cyril Ramaphosa should consider designating the provision of fibre infrastructure as a municipal service to ensure poorer and more rural parts of the country get access. The council noted that the digital divide will exacerbate inequality if investment isn’t encouraged to bring high-quality and fast Internet to those without access.
Evotel agrees that it makes sense to consider fibre as a utility, like water and electricity, but not everyone in the country even has water and electricity yet. Can the government provide this utility or is it up to the private sector to take this one on themselves?
As Evotel, we do nonetheless welcome that Ramaphosa, in his 2022 state of the nation address, said that supplying Internet access to all South Africans is a top priority.
The president said government will “facilitate the rapid deployment of broadband infrastructure across all municipalities by establishing a standard model for the granting of municipal permissions”.
This is a huge step in the right direction, as getting approval and wayleaves from municipalities has been one of the major stumbling blocks for fibre network operators (FNOs).
Ensuring fibre broadband is available to all will take a joint effort from government and the private sector. With clearly set guidelines and policies to support the initiative, that reality is entirely achievable.
Policymaking key to success
Part of the battle is overcoming cases where people making decisions are giving unfair preference to certain companies, granting them approvals, without merit, over competitors.
It has become so widely accepted that FNOs wanting to build a network in some municipalities have to offer additional services and benefits to the municipality if they are to stand a chance of getting approval to build.
It seems to be forgotten that FNOs foot the entire bill for installing the network infrastructure. There is no funding provided for this service by municipalities, provincial governments or the national government.
It is, therefore, of utmost importance that government puts the right policies in place. By designating fibre as a municipal service and establishing a standard model for the granting of municipal permissions to build fibre infrastructures, rural district municipalities could also form public-private partnerships for the provision of fibre, especially in areas where the private sector doesn’t find it profitable.
If government establishes a standard model for the granting of municipal permissions and wayleaves, it will provide a fair and competitive environment for network providers to practise their trade.
We believe government will benefit from inviting FNOs to the table when developing and drawing up these policies and guidelines
These reforms will indeed, as the president noted, revolutionise the country’s technological development and make faster broadband more accessible to many more people. This is especially true in smaller towns that have generally been neglected by large fibre providers.
Although people are yearning for fibre in their towns, they do not want it if it means they will have to struggle being without electricity, water and sewage for long periods of time. This is a valid concern, and most FNOs agree with municipalities and residents on the issue of the potential damage that might occur to municipal services as a result of trenching to install the fibre infrastructure. Residents can be left without these services for days or even weeks, as municipalities don’t have the funds for quick repairs.
Evotel suggests that in government’s policymaking process, thought be given to addressing this concern. Some municipalities have already instituted their own policies, such as demanding FNOs pay an upfront damages deposit, which will considerably fast-track any repairs municipal services may require. Municipalities will have dedicated funds set aside for these unforeseen occurrences. When the government is making policy regarding a standard model for the granting of municipal permissions, it should take this into account and make it a prerequisite for all fibre installation projects.
We believe government will benefit from inviting FNOs to the table when developing and drawing up these policies and guidelines.
Free fibre and more
Apart from home consumers, the need for schools to also have access to fibre for the development of the leaders of tomorrow is, as Ramaphosa also expressed, a necessity. He has proposed schools be given free access to fibre, and Evotel agrees.
We have for the past two years already provided free fibre access to schools that fall under our network coverage through our Schools Programme. We can testify that all of the more than 50 schools we have already connected for free that it has made a significant difference in the lives of learners. Not only do learners benefit, but the schools themselves benefit as well, upping their education ante.
Government’s vision of providing each South African household with 10GB of free data a month to access the Internet is an admirable thought, but is it feasible? The concept is noble. However, the needs of the average Internet user extend beyond basic personal admin that the 10GB will assist with. Evotel and our competitors provide a fast and stable service to each user at an uncapped rate capable of much more than what 10GB can provide. That said, providing that data to those who need it can vastly improve their quality of life with access to information, banking and many apps that help with shopping that are not data intensive.
It might surprise many, but South Africa is not the only country that is grappling with providing fibre connectivity to its citizens. Developed countries such as the US and the UK are also struggling to connect people in rural communities.
Evotel, as our slogan states, stands for “Fibre for Everyone”. It is our belief that for the development of our nation and the recovery of our economy, every single South African must have access to fast and reliable fibre Internet. It remains our mission to provide this infrastructure to communities that are often overlooked – hopefully, hand in hand with all spheres of government as the policymaker.
- The author, Bradley Bekker, is head of brand at Evotel
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