The Unsung Heroes of Internet Access in South Africa
by Paul Colmer
Thu, Jan 18, 24
Internet connectivity is still relatively new in SA. It’s come on in leaps and bounds, but there are many of us who still remember the pre-Internet days of dial-up and ADSL of our recent past.
The reason for this context is important when you consider the story of Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) in the country, and also in many African countries that follow a similar trajectory to our own. It’s a story of emergence, a steep fall, and a surprising rebirth that’s defined our digital landscape, which can serve as a lesson for many other countries that find themselves in similar geopolitical situations down the line.
As in many other countries around the world, dial-up modems were the first gateway to the Internet. But back then, in the 1990s, people weren’t using the internet the way we’re using it now. Then, South Africa’s largest state-owned telecommunications company, Telkom, launched DSL services, and suddenly the Internet became far more accessible.
Not all Telkom exchanges were enabled for DSL, however, especially the outlying and rural areas. As cellular networks came into being, they too didn’t have much coverage in large swathes of rural settlements, and even when they did, connectivity was extremely slow. It left a lot of people, especially in outlying areas, without any internet connectivity at all.
South Africans being the resilient lot that we are, the idea was then born to use wireless links, over unlicensed spectrum bands, to send internet feeds from DSL service areas to outlying farms and landholdings. This was still very slow at first, until we developed ways to strap multiple DSL lines together (known as bonding) to increase the speed of services that they could deliver wirelessly to each other.
Thus was born the first WISPs, out of necessity more than anything else. As they started to expand their services to include voice services (VoIP) and support fax machine transmissions over wireless links, their popularity grew, and they became more established and prevalent throughout the rural mainland.
In 2008, South African WISPs received another shot in the arm when a court ruling was made that anyone with a VANS (value added network service) license could build their own network. WISPs became organised, flourishing in the small towns where they originated, and even spreading to outlying metro areas.
- As technology advanced, we started seeing higher speed ADSL and VDSL services spreading across the country. Cellular coverage was also growing, offering even better speeds as mobile operators squeezed more performance out of the radio spectrum they had been allocated. Fast forward a few more years, and the introduction of fixed fibre to the home (FTTH) promised even faster internet connections, affordable to many.
From a position of dominance in the late 2000s, WISPs were fast becoming a niche market. But the tide was turning in South Africa. Political upheaval and years of mismanaging the country’s sole electricity provider – state-owned Eskom – started to affect internet services in unexpected ways.
Fixed wireless, in the form of LTE and 5G was well established. But mobile operators with millions invested in tens of thousands of cellular towers across the country had to contend with regular power outages, forcing them to spend even more on backup power. With so many towers to service, most of the investment went into protecting towers in urban areas, leaving outlying cellular internet services vulnerable to dropouts.
Nor did the threat of faster, cheaper fibre materialise. Outside the main metro areas, fibre services were proving unreliable. Unregulated fibre rollouts meant that operators often dug up their competitors’ fibre links while laying down their own, resulting in delays and outages for all concerned. Fibre operators similarly had to contend with the power issue, since losing power at curbside exchanges meant FTTH services were directly affected.
Meanwhile, advances in wireless technology used by the WISPs meant that speeds and reliability were now on par with both cellular and fibre service providers. But WISPs had two distinct advantages: power resilience, and unlicensed spectrum. From the very start, WISPs were operating ‘off grid’, mainly out of necessity, being situated far from major centres and power distribution networks. Their equipment was also far less complex than their competitors’, working with unlicensed spectrum, and needing far less power to run.
Today, WISPs have come into their own again. As mobile operators scramble to power their towers with solar panels and generators, they’re finding it increasingly difficult to compete on an even footing with WISPs in their rural strongholds. Similarly, fibre operators are running up against major infrastructure breakdowns in poorer rural communities, meaning the number cases of fibre breakages is rising rather than dropping.
The majority of WISPs are also SMMEs and have the agility to be able to make changes and set up infrastructure in places where there was no grid power in the first place, and where physical cabled infrastructure is redundant.
This allows them to stay up while everyone else is down, using a few towers compared to the thousands mobile operators have to contend with. Even non-radio infrastructure like Telkom exchanges is now suffering from the power crisis, which is adversely affecting FTTH in small towns, when the backhaul goes down.
I think that what we are seeing now, and going into the future, is a distinctly South African issue, but there are many lessons other countries can learn from our experience. For example, in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, the majority of network towers are off grid by design. That was not the case in South Africa in the past, but it is now.
Also, the idea of burying fibre and forgetting about it for decades might work well in the main urban centres and in first world countries, but the majority of South Africa is being constantly dug up because of decaying infrastructure.
As for WISPs, they’re evolving. The hybrid model is becoming more common, with many WISPs now offering both wireless and fibre services. This way, customers get an immediate wireless link, which is then used as a backup to the fibre service once it’s installed. This makes it possible to offer five nine’s uptime, and as long as the client has backup power at the premises, the link will remain active regardless of power cuts or fibre damage.
Looking ahead, South Africa is following the global trend of opening up the 6GHz band in unlicensed (and therefore free to use) wireless spectrum, which has always been the playground of WISPs. This creates an even bigger opportunity for creating faster, more reliable services.
And so, due to a set of unique circumstances, WISPs have become the unsung heroes of internet connectivity in SA. In a country more divided, digitally, than ever before, it’s a silver lining. Not only have they risen above the rest, their future is looking brighter than ever.
Colmer, P. (Wireless Access Provider’s Association (WAPA))(2023) The Unsung Heroes of Internet Access in South Africa. Available at: https://www.digitalfirstmagazine.com/the-unsung-heroes-of-internet-access-in-south-africa.
Wan4u have received permission from the author above to repost this article (https://www.digitalfirstmagazine.com/the-unsung-heroes-of-internet-access-in-south-africa). For more information contact Wapa https://wapa.org.za