I have had many ups and downs with the internet in South Africa. Some of the positives included 500MB of data included with my Cell C contract back in the day. That was a massive amount back then and I made full use of it. Another one was realising I lived in a 20mbps VDSL coverage area and upgrading immediately.
On the negative side, there are many many more memories. When I lived with my parents in Benoni, our ADSL dropped at the slightest sniff of rain. If rain was forecast, the internet was down. All we got from Telkom were the classic lines “ADSL is a best effort service” and “you live too far from the exchange.” There was Cell C refusing to upgrade their backhaul infrastructure so even when I had full 3G coverage I couldn’t use all 500MB of my data in a full month.
So, I pose the question: Why? Why is our internet so bad and so far behind the curve?
First of all, I think it has to do with Telkom’s monopoly. Back in the bad old days access to information was strictly controlled by the government. TV broadcasts were done by the SABC, and telephones were covered by Telkom. That was the extent of things back then. No company was willing to invest in infrastructure to supply telephone or cable TV services as the government could rip the carpet out from underneath them at any minute. Naspers (Multichoice) took a bit of a chance but opted for broadcast television in the shape of M-Net to limit the initial capital outlay, reducing the risk to their business in case the government decided to pull the plug at any time.
The leads on to freedom and the new South Africa. When the rest of the (First) world had cable TV and competing telephone companies we had Telkom and the SABC. Multichoice was eager to expand their TV offering but by this time it was far too late to go and install cabling all over the country for TV services. They opted for satellite based TV (DSTV) and it has worked very well for them. (Funny how blasting a satellite into space was cheaper than digging some holes for cabling.) Moving into the internet age with very poor last-mile infrastructure did not treat South Africa well. In the age of dial-up internet, we were already behind the curve. When America had 56k dial up we battled to get 14.4k and then (still monopoly) Telkom still opted to charge for the time on the call leading to VERY limited internet for most of the population. With no competition, it became a take it or leave it option.
The age of Broadband (and Mobile): In a similar way to the Multichoice expansion with DSTV, new phone providers opted for “the easy option” of wireless. Not having to run a cable to every single house made things a lot easier and cheaper. It also left our cable infrastructure in dire straits. When the UK and America are getting T1 lines, here we are STILL on 28.8k dial up and if you’re very lucky 128k ISDN or 384k ADSL. Mobile data is very expensive and not much faster. Telkom’s ageing copper cable infrastructure is corroding away, and what are we to do?
Mobile networks took up the challenge and offered “3G” internet. This was (and still is) notoriously unreliable. We also have LTE now, which isn’t quite 4G for reasons I won’t go into because it doesn’t matter. Vodacom 4G is no faster than Vodacom 3G because the backhaul internet supply to the tower is the limiting factor, not the mobile technology.
In response to 3G, Telkom slowly but surely upped their ADSL speeds. They claimed it was a cautious, calculated roll out. Anyone who has ever had their speed increased only to realise it runs slower than before, knows this is not true. The poor, ageing infrastructure battling to keep up, no real competition to incentivise upgrading anything or lowering prices. Telkom has done the bare minimum for the last 20 years and it has gotten away with it because no one else has stepped up to do a better job. Where other countries had cable TV companies with last-mile infrastructure to provide competition, we just had shitty old Telkom.
Many neighbourhoods have now put out requests for tenders to provide world class fibre internet in South Africa. These are very limited projects in very limited (and wealthy) areas. Once again in an effort to keep just behind the curve, Telkom is rolling out fibre to the home (ftth) in even fewer areas. In their never ending bid to discourage competition, they are avoiding the areas that have indicated they are interested in their own private fibre.
I don’t expect the government to step in and “fix” anything. Our own roll out of digital TV shows that the constant merry-go-round of ministers just achieves nothing as no one is in the job long enough to be held accountable.
So there are many factors that have been involved in us having shitty internet. The base was the discouragement of innovation and competition by the Apartheid government. That lead onto private companies taking the easier options (why wouldn’t they?) to offer their non-internet (telephone and TV services) services. That lead to very little investment in actual cable last mile infrastructure. That lead to shitty internet. Fantastic! We can blame Apartheid, The SABC, Telkom, Naspers, our current government, and many other private companies.
But, that is all just an excuse. Easy to blame Apartheid isn’t it? A lot of countries out there have fibre internet. Technology that wasn’t used and deployed to homes in the late 90s and early 2000s. They have replaced their infrastructure, why couldn’t we? Surely because our last mile cabling was so poor it should have been replaced earlier? If in the early 2000s companies realised that the copper infrastructure was crumbling and installed fibre then, we would have been ahead of the curve! Fast forward a decade and only now are last mile fibre connections becoming available.
That is great news! For the select few who have coverage and are willing to pay the premium to have good internet. I am one of those lucky people who lives in a fibre to the home coverage area. The fibre is 30m from my front door, connected to THE SAME building I live in. I am willing to pay the R1000 a month base price for the slowest fibre and smallest cap. Yet, I still can’t have it! Why? Because the building I live in has an “all or nothing” policy. Telkom wants conduit to run the fibre in. I can’t install the conduit without body corporate permission. The body corporate won’t install conduit for just me. Not enough people are willing to pay the price for fibre in my building to pressure the body corporate into installing the conduit.
Now who is stopping us from having world class internet? Well it is actually my neighbours, the body corporate members. The very same people that jump on Twitter and Facebook and bitch and moan about our shitty internet. The very same people who can’t Skype their family overseas. It is about time we took responsibility for ourselves. If we hold people accountable for their mistakes, demand the very best, accept nothing less and lastly, take responsibility. If we do all that, then maybe just maybe, in a decade or two, we might just have some decent internet, half a decade after the rest of the first world.
PS: I am working on the whole body corporate conduit issue, I no longer have 20mbps VDSL as I moved house, I have 2mbps ADSL that runs at about 0.1mbps due to exchange congestion and crumbling copper cabling. If I ever come right with the fibre, I will post a review. Yes, I consider South Africa to be First World.