So, what IS it with all the fibre deals?

PICTURE: CAROLYN FROST

Somerset West residents, Elizabeth Dickson and Giles Scott, recently wrote to Bolander (“What’s the fibre deal?”, April 17, and “Fibre optic damage”, May 1, and again below, “Fibre fiasco”), raising questions about the proliferation of fibre optic internet connection deals that are on offer in the Helderberg Basin.

Ms Dickson’s concerns related to whether or not residents are obliged to take one of the deals on offer, whether or not the municipality is involved, what is Telkom’s role, who will pay for the repairs to verges where trenching is taking place, and why very little has appeared in the press.

The ADSL (asynchronous digital subscriber loop) service has been the mainstream technology for the last two decades or so for the provision of internet services.

ADSL uses the existing copper wire-based telephone network, owned and operated by Telkom, to reticulate internet services countrywide. In the last few years, wireless internet services have proliferated, principally because no physical connection is required into a subscriber’s home.

Despite owning the network infrastructure, Telkom struggled to keep up with demand for ADSL services, hence the popularity of wireless services.

The actual internet service is supplied by an internet service provider (ISP). Telkom is but one of many ISPs with MWEB, Internet Solutions, Afrihost, and within Bolander’s distribution area, Snowball and Cape Connect Internet being familiar names.

Whereas initially Telkom’s infrastructure was a proprietary network, it was forced to open it to other ISPs hence the circumstance where a Telkom subscriber would receive internet services from the likes of MWEB or Afrihost. The subscriber paid Telkom for the line rental, and the ISP for the internet service.

The major mobile phone companies – MTN, Vodacom (previously 50% owned by Telkom), CellC, and Telkom through its 8ta network have also entered the fray as de facto ISPs with data services offered over their respective network infrastructures.

Mobile data is comparatively expensive, but as prices fall, signing up for an internet service in the home from one of the mobile operators will become more common.

The copper cable network used for ADSL has the inherent disadvantage of degrading in performance as it ages. It is prone to failure, and its line speed – measured in mega-bits per second (Mbps) – is limited by distance. The further you are from the exchange, the lower the ADSL line speed you can expect to get. ADSL is also a best effort network technology.

This means that even if you sign up for a 4Mbps connection, there is no guarantee that you will ever enjoy that connection speed.

The contention ratio – the number of subscribers who share a single ADSL port – is also a limiting factor. The higher it is, the less likely you are to enjoy anything approaching the connection speed for which you signed up.

Contention ratio also increases lagging, which in turn impacts streaming quality, and with the likes of Netflix, Showmax and Amazon Video rapidly gaining popularity, subscribers will have to be discerning about the offering they choose.

On this issue, Michelle Bainbridge, managing director of Cape Connect Internet, a Somerset West-based network operator and ISP, told Bolander: “This can be overcome by peering. Peering is when ISPs set up direct connections with other networks over internet exchanges. ISPs who connect directly with the likes of Netflix, Google and Amazon will always provide a more stable service than those who do not.” Visit https://bgp.he.net/country/ZA for a list of peering networks and their peers.

The new technology is known as FTTH – fibre to the home – and it is being rolled out country-wide in urban areas. FTTH replaces the copper network infrastructure with fibre optic cable, which is significantly faster because it uses light rather than electrical impulses to transmit data.

It is also immune to weather effects, unlike ADSL, which abhors moisture in any form.

The backbone of the internet worldwide is fibre optic, with a single multi-mode optical fibre strand, about twice the thickness of a human hair, being able to carry massive amounts of data at gigabit speeds, by comparison with the enormous, old copper-based trans-ocean cables.

Aside from the activity in the Helderberg Basin, the Drakenstein area is also seeing a number of companies installing FTTH, so residents there are also seeing much verge digging and are contemplating offers from competing ISPs.

Telkom is as active in the FTTH as are the many other companies installing fibre optic networks, through its sister division, Openserve, a significant player in the ADSL market as well.

The majority of fibre networks are open, which means the network is installed, owned and operated by one company which may or may not be an ISP, but other ISPs will be able to lease access to the network in order to provide services to connected households.

This means that one has a choice of ISPs in most instances, and also the choice to refuse any and all offers made. If you’re happy with your ADSL service, you are not obliged to switch to a fibre network simply because it is being installed on your verge.

The rider to this is that the copper network is ageing and will not be upgraded or replaced. Telkom is rolling out a wireless phone service to replace its copper-based network.

Subscribers retain their existing Telkom landline number and are supplied with an instrument that takes an 8ta SIM card.

The switchover is seamless. One of the advantages is that if you want to take your Telkom phone along with you on holiday, you can, as long as where you holiday, is within the 8ta network footprint.

Inevitably, as Telkom’s copper network degrades, ADSL subscribers will have no option but to switch either to FTTH, wireless or one of the mobile network offerings.

The companies installing FTTH must comply with strict licensing requirements under the stewardship of ICASA.

An electronic communications network services (ECNS) license entitles the licensee, in terms of Section 22 of the Electronic Communications Act (Act 36 of 2005), to certain rights, and also imposes certain obligations.

Disputes have arisen between landowners – most often municipalities – and ECNS licensees, and in a recent Supreme Court of Appeals matter (Dark Fibre Africa (Pty) Ltd v City of Cape Town [2018] ZASCA 168 (30 November 2018)), the matter was clarified.

According to a press release by Sandiso Sogula of Stellenbosch law firm, Cluver Markotter: “Section 22 of the ECA creates a servitude over all land, including any street, road, footpath or land reserved for public purposes, and an electronic communications network service licensee may enter upon the land and construct and maintain an electronic communications network or electronic communications facilities.

However, the relationship between the servitude holder and the landowner is governed by common law principles on servitudes, including the right of the landowner to impose reasonable conditions and the duty of the servitude holder to act reasonably in exercising its rights and to compensate the owner for loss or damage.”

Commenting on this, Ms Bainbridge said: “We are very fortunate to have an extremely focused town engineer (in the City of Cape Town), who guards your pavements and looks after the interest of the ratepayers above all else.

If it were not for him and his strict adherence to the rules, our town would look [terrible], where everyone with a licence digs, but nobody reinstates properly.

To limit the number of times pavements are dug up, trench sharing is advocated.

“Unfortunately, there are people who would rather not provide service in an area than share trenches with others.

“A prime example of successful trench sharing is the recent fibre rollout in Beach Road, Strand, where several networks have made use of the same trench – hence the multitude of manholes on the pavements.

In my opinion, many people in Strand owe Frogfoot (a company currently installing FTTH) a massive debt of gratitude as they are reinstating the entire pavement in many locations – something that would have cost the City of Cape Town many millions of rands.“

Turning to the proliferation of FTTH networks in the Helderberg Basin, Ms Bainbridge said: “This is not a cheap process and relies on customer uptake to be successful – hence some ISPs trying to ‘get their numbers up’ by running specials.

“At the moment, four networks are laying fibre in the Helderberg basin. Octotel and Frogfoot are running underground fibre in parts of Strand, Gordon’s Bay and Somerset West. Internode is running underground fibre in parts of Somerset West, and Openserve is running overhead fibre in Strand, Gordon’s Bay and Somerset West.

“Each of these fibre networks has ISPs that provide service on their network. For example, you can receive a Cape Connect service on Frogfoot, Internode or Openserve fibre, or you can receive a Vanilla fibre service on any of those four networks.

“You are under no obligation to take a fibre service when a fibre network passes your front door. If you are happy with your existing service, there is no need to respond to an offer that seems too good to be true.”