First Tuesday: Broadband discussion

I decided to head off to the First Tuesday event this month for a panel discussion about broadband in South Africa. I thought I would blog some of my thoughts about the event so here goes …

One of the panelists was Henk Kleynhans from Skyrove. Just as Henk got started one of the attendee’s phones rang with the theme from Magnum PI … what an intro. After going through the pros and cons of 3G and WiMAX (a load of hot air, according to Henk), he espoused the benefits of wifi as the wireless medium of choice. Henk briefly painted a picture of almost ubiquitous wifi connectivity and single signons. It all sounds great and I’d like to know how that will pan out. Metro wifi will certainly help matters but will street lamps become wifi access points?

Broadband panel discussion @First Tuesday

Matthew from WebAfrica wasn’t as optimistic about wireless Internet access in South Africa although he does see ADSL as the speed connection of choice in South Africa. He pointed out that the mobile networks have faster uptake but sees Telkom remaining a dominant force in South Africa’s broadband landscape for the near future.

Much of the talk focussed on low adoption rates and the economics of developing further infrastructure to service under-serviced areas and what really bugs me is that many service providers seem to take the existing cost structure as a given and that pretty much means South Africa’s broadband userbase remains pitifully low. This is one of the reasons I like Skyrove so much. Users can make their broadband lines more readily available for less and provided you don’t have too many people using the connection at the same time and degrading the connection speed, you can add more bandwidth to accommodate increased usage of the line. If Telkom won’t make better broadband penetration possible, users can do it for themselves.

The one panelist from MWeb (don’t remember his name) made the point that Telkom sets the prices and in the absence of any meaningful regulation in the local telecoms space, service providers are forced to bite the bullet and deal with the pricing structures. He was far more positive about WiMAX as a preferred wireless choice for IP traffic. He described WiMAX as a simple and elegant solution that is pretty similar to wifi. WiMAX also makes a lot of sense in South Africa where we have terrain and distances not conducive to cabled Internet access. For the time being it is a matter of waiting for all the hype to die down a bit and let WiMAX achieve better recognition as a preferred data transmission platform.

At this point the discussion started to devolve into a bit of a pissing contest with the 3G/HSDPA advocate undermining the WiMAX guy. Matthew talked about the problems with wireless technologies compared to cabled technologies and even Henk got in on the debate with his further thoughts about wifi as a better “last yard” option. This all misses the point. Does it really make a big difference which acronym labels fast, affordable and meaningful broadband access to end users like you and me. As I wrote this my mobile phone was battling to find enough of a signal to upload a photo I took of the panel for this post. There simply wasn’t a signal for my phone even though I was sitting about 20 to 30 metres from a door leading outside. Who cares about speed, latency and development in 3G if the signal isn’t there in the first place.

The panel was asked about the core issue of Telkom’s pricing and the first response was to asked about Telkom’s capacity which is estimated to be around 20Gbits/s. Telkom has apparently said that Telkom only uses about 2.4Gbits/s for IP traffic which begs the question what the remaining 17Gbits/s of bandwidth? Is Telkom holding back to provide for the future? Another point made is that with all the talk about the last mile, there is a fair amount of congestion between South Africa and the rest of the world. Matthew pointed out that the big problem is the national backhaul where Telkom and Neotel control the pricing. This is where there is a substantial bottleneck too. He stated that it is no good landing an international cable on our shore and not being able to get that data up to Joburg …

The discussion shifted to Joburg’s plans for a metro-wifi network and opposing views on the sustainability of the model. At this point my butt cheeks went numb from the chair … not exactly an edge of my seat discussion.

My friend Craig Bregman challenged the panel’s VHS versus Betamax (or perhaps Blu-ray versus HD-DVD) arguments and they ultimately came down on the side of consumer choice and picking the most appropriate option. Henk made the point that where a mobile worker comes across wifi, that person will likely use wifi. He was connected via 3G at the time. I think this is a fair representation of what people do when they are roaming. Until my phone stopped talking to my MacBook I used a combination of wifi and 3G when I was out and about and ADSL when I am back at home base or somewhere I could connect a cable to my MacBook.

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