A smart approach to tackling the challenge of the last mile

The availability of bandwidth in South Africa has improved dramatically in recent years.

September 11, 2012

By Mark van Vuuren, Managing Director of Jasco ICT Solutions

The availability of bandwidth in South Africa has improved dramatically in recent years. However, while there may be a lot of capacity coming into the country, the majority of users remain unable to access it. There has been much investment into fibre rings, which brings this high speed connectivity into cities, but the difficulty remains in getting this bandwidth to the end user. The challenge of a lack of end user connectivity is hindering connectivity for businesses, especially in business parks where multiple users need to make use of limited last mile infrastructure, throttling speeds. Addressing connectivity and bandwidth is in the interests of businesses and the economy, and the time is ripe for private sector to partner with the public sector to deliver smart solutions to the challenge of the last mile.

Bringing capacity and broadband connectivity into South Africa remains a challenge, even though with the landing of several undersea cables in recent years this bandwidth is available. One of the reasons for this is the fact that fixed line infrastructure has been stagnant over the past decade or so. The advent of mobile technology began to address the last mile, but is limited by the amount of spectrum available. These mobile networks are only capable of catering for a set number of users, which means that mobile can never be the only solution to broadband access and connectivity. In order to bring broadband to more businesses and individual users, it is vital to tackle the last mile with a mixture of various mediums, both fixed line and wireless. However each medium also has its own respective challenges, from available spectrum on the wireless side to the cost of deployment on the fixed line side.

The challenge of addressing the last mile is a national problem, it is not only the government or state owned enterprises that have a responsibility to take on this issue. The reality is that lack of last mile connectivity is hindering the economic growth of South Africa, and needs to be dealt with by both the government and the private sector. The capital investment required, the time it takes to deploy infrastructure and the requirement for a variety of mediums and technology to address the last mile mean that this challenge is not something that can be solved by any single entity. Until public and private sector are able to collaborate, we will continue to fall behind in terms of global connectivity, and are in danger of falling behind other African countries which have not had legacy infrastructure issues to deal with and have leapfrogged South Africa.

Even though this is a huge challenge, it also presents a unique opportunity for private sector organisations to get involved in delivering last mile infrastructure, particularly in areas such as corporate parks and corporate buildings, shopping malls and other closed communities. There are metro fibre rings that can be accessed, but these need to be taken inside these closed communities in order to address the last mile. Closed communities are prevalent in the South African landscape, and as a result there is so much work to be done to bring connectivity to these areas that there is more than enough room for multiple players to take the stage, by deploying fibre and wireless solutions, as well as in-building coverage, in these areas.

The solution to the challenge of the last mile is for government and private sector to join forces in the journey towards deploying last mile infrastructure. Corporate South Africa needs to start looking at projects that will address their own business needs by deploying their own infrastructure instead of waiting for someone else to do this. The unused capacity can then be sold to other users, opening up new avenues of business. Municipalities are already beginning to tackle the issue of the last mile, putting fibre in the ground that addresses their connectivity needs but also offering excess fibre capacity for sale to enable more widespread access. As an example, the BWired project has created fibre connectivity in and around Johannesburg, and the additional capacity is being sold on to ISPs who are able to then take this capacity to business. The same model can be applied in the corporate environment, creating open access networks.

If numerous businesses each looked at tackling their own areas, the last mile infrastructure South Africa desperately needs will be created far quicker than if corporate wait for state owned organisations to deal with it on their own. As another example, if mining houses each looked at bringing broadband connectivity to their own operations, outlying areas of the country will also gain access to broadband far quicker, as this will stimulate the deployment of connectivity in rural areas. Banks and big enterprises can follow the same model. Corporates and the private sector could even look towards creating a ‘smart grid’ type of system, where excess bandwidth and capacity can be pushed back into a national pool. Enterprises in suburban areas can also look at making capacity available after business hours to residents of the area, subsidising the cost of delivering this bandwidth to business.

There are many opportunities for corporate South Africa to take advantage of when it comes to last mile connectivity, but infrastructure development may not be a core business focus for most organisations. Partnering with a specialist in end-to-end last mile infrastructure provision will enable corporates to effectively partner with the public sector to deliver the last mile connectivity South Africa needs.