Q&A: Dark Fibre Africa

Reshaad Sha, chief strategy officer of Dark Fibre Africa on the need for high-level broadband, public/private sector collaboration, and the tech-savvy SA citizen of the future

Q&A: Dark Fibre Africa


Q: How and why was Dark Fibre Africa (DFA) established?
A: As mobile telecoms networks in SA expanded, with the roll-out of 3G and subsequently 4G services, they aggressively deployed mobile base stations, which required high-speed and reliable transmission backhaul connectivity. As the number of subscribers, calls and internet users on these base stations grew, the capacity and reliability of transmission links became increasingly more critical to the mobile operators.

Fibre is the most appropriate transmission medium when it comes to capacity, speed and quality of service, and DFA saw the opportunity to construct a fibre infrastructure network of ducts and physical dark fibre that could be leased out in pairs to mobile operators for their base station transmission backhaul requirements.

Over time, as new internet service providers and electronic-communication network providers entered the market, DFA extended its infrastructure and dark fibre products to these new players, to enable them to connect and service their end-users and to also use the DFA network to build their own networks without costly capital and infrastructure investments. Service providers and operators could now lease fibre infrastructure and connectivity services in a manner that improved speed to market, eliminated the duplication of infrastructure deployment, and was cost-efficient. Since DFA started in October 2007, we’ve constructed a national network in excess of 9 000 km of fibre, representing an investment of more than R6 billion. Our open-access model enables our clients, large and small, to scale their operations quickly, easily and cost-effectively. It stimulates competition and gives smaller operators the opportunity to compete with larger players on a much more equal footing.

Q: How would you describe the company’s business model?
A: DFA is a wholesale open-access fibre connectivity provider. We specialise in constructing and maintaining a world-class optical fibre network, which covers large metropolitan areas and smaller cities and towns, and in providing related products and services for telecoms and other clients on an equal basis. Our clients most commonly use transmission links that they get from us to transmit data between their points of presence and/or data centres. They also use the access links that they procure from us to deliver services, such as internet access, voice and video services, cloud-based applications and a whole host of other value-added services, which they then offer to their customers – end users or businesses.

Because of this model, the end users and businesses have more competitive options from service providers. They can choose the best solutions for their needs at the best price.

Q: Globally Is SA ‘playing catch-up’ in terms of fibre optic networks? what more needs to be done to enhance connectivity?
A: Of course, as an emerging market, SA is definitely still in the catch-up phase in terms of connectivity, both in coverage and connectivity speeds. As one of the key factors mentioned in the NDP, it’s a significant building block of our country’s future success.

In line with this requirement, SA Connect – the government’s initiative to make connectivity ubiquitous – aims to deliver 100% national broadband access by 2030.

The government and private sector need to collaborate closely to meet this target. In addition, with the availability of open-access networks such as DFA’s, clients should start demanding fibre connectivity and services from their service providers. The capacity is there and growing – now it needs to be used to its full potential.

Q: So far you have installed a network of more than 9 000 km. What are your plans for future development?
A: Still focusing on enterprise connectivity, DFA plans to continue connecting small, medium and large businesses to our network, enabling service providers to offer high-speed connectivity and services to these businesses in a cost-effective way. Our network and offerings will continue to evolve and make more opportunities available to our clients. We will continue expanding our network footprint for the foreseeable future.

Q: Cloud computing is set to become critical for SA businesses. How does fibre fit in with this?
A: With cloud computing, connectivity becomes crucial – and often high-speed connectivity is the only way to ensure that users have a seamless, reliable and responsive experience with applications and data in the cloud.

Storage solutions are rapidly moving away from local servers or devices to large cloud drives and databases. This means that gaining quick and reliable access to your data depends highly on the connectivity that you have. At the moment, fibre is arguably the fastest and most reliable medium.

Q: The country has become highly urbanised. What role will fibre optic networks play in SA’s cities?
A: Ubiquitous high-speed connectivity is a crucial catalyst of – and foundation for – the development of smart cities, the benefits of which are wide ranging, affecting a broad spectrum of industries and making life easier for residents and businesses in a multitude of ways. From smart traffic regulation and rapid, informed emergency response to smart waste management and integrated health records among institutions, smart cities promise a future of intelligent, effective and efficient service delivery.

Take for example the healthcare sector. Local and provincial hospitals currently deliver services in isolation, and patient records are not mutually accessible. Yet, in a smart city with integrated systems, standardised records will be available regardless of which hospital or clinic the patient visits. This process will provide better service to the patient and more accurate national health information to the relevant authorities.

Q: What are your thoughts on the following statement: Pervasive high-speed connectivity needs to be the backbone of the bank of the future?
A: As a mobile-centric hub, Africa has the capability to approach banking in a whole new way. The issue that arises is a lack of infrastructure to support the all-encompassing digital bank of the future.

Moving towards a vision for the bank of the future is more than just an ideal for one day down the line – it is fast becoming a necessity.

Banks are no longer facing competition from similar financial institutions with the same legacy systems to contend with. Current business models can be upturned in an instant by other companies that may not even be in banking itself but have leveraged digital technology to serve a traditional bank’s customers in new ways.

One example of this is Apple, Samsung and Google, which have developed their own e-wallet platforms. Telecoms companies similarly have a keen eye on new ways to extend their reach and garner new revenue with mobile-payment and money-transfer offerings. It’s only a matter of time until banks find their business models disrupted, much like Uber did with the taxi industry. If there’s a lesson to be learnt from this and blockchain, it is to anticipate competition from unforeseen quarters before one is superseded.

Banks, therefore, have a choice to make: become content with serving as transaction engines for new innovators that are able to offer a service more efficiently, conveniently and compellingly, or become disruptors in their own right by innovating their service offerings and leveraging the mobile platform.

While the former path may well lead a bank to assuming the role of understudy to innovative new upstarts, it is the latter that assures a bank the future can become a reality and continue it to help its customers manage and build their personal wealth. This reality will of course not be possible without the foundation of high-speed connectivity.

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Q: How much is SA’s skills deficit impacting on the country’s ICT advancement?
A: It is common knowledge that there is a large ICT skills shortage in SA, and this does present a significant challenge to the ICT sector. We are of the view that the only way to help address this shortage is to contribute directly to ICT skills development and education.

We are in the process of establishing an academy where we will focus on providing telecoms training, especially in terms of fibre splicing, which is crucial in expanding and maintaining optical fibre networks.

Q: The SA citizen of the future will be very tech-savvy. In your opinion, what are the three top non-negotiables on their ICT bucket list?
A: High-speed connectivity, especially reliable, always-on connectivity paves the way for the adoption of richer experiences, such as streaming media, multimedia content and connected and integrated devices.

This will in turn drive innovation at the application and services layers to create compelling and attractive propositions to the benefit of consumers, as well as the service providers who would derive economy of scale benefits associated with an increased rate of adoption.

Even with high-speed connectivity, quality of service will be crucial. Citizens will expect things to simply work and continue doing so without interruption. Many emerging technologies that will drive smart cities and the internet of things will need to always be on, available and highly reliable to be useful. As people adopt cloud services – and more and more devices become connected – security and privacy are becoming a greater concern.

Technologies should give the tech-savvy citizen peace of mind that their information is safe and that they don’t need to fear any intrusions into their privacy.

Businesses must also have confidence that their privileged information will not land in the wrong hands and that they are not vulnerable to security breaches.

All of these must be coupled with a seamless and well-designed user experience.

Q: The cost of building last-mile infrastructure from an existing network into a building has been an obstacle to full connectivity. How have you gone about tackling this issue?
A: In April 2014, to complement our last-mile enterprise connectivity we acquired Conduct Telecommunications, to be able to offer our clients access to a larger business customer base, owing to Conduct’s expertise in last-mile fibre infrastructure.

By connecting thousands of enterprises to our network, we enable our clients to offer their products and services to more and more customers every day. We have now fully integrated Conduct Telecommunications into our business.

To help our clients service end users in their homes, we bought a significant minority stake in South African Digital Villages (SADV) in April 2016. With this transaction, SADV expanded its scope to become a wholesale open-access fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) provider.

This means that, similar to DFA’s model, SADV now gives clients last-mile FTTH access to end users via the extensive DFA infrastructure. Now, any internet service provider can offer home users connectivity and value-added services, such as voice, media streaming, video-on-demand, and online gaming experiences using DFA and SADV’s open-access infrastructure.

Q: What will it take to connect the whole of SA, including rural areas?
A: Now, more than ever, we need partnerships between government and business to move our country forward. Private sector partnerships are also crucial to ensure that while we are chasing a common coverage goal we have an efficient use of capital in infrastructure deployment and avoid duplication.

The SA public and private sector will need to rethink basic infrastructure sooner rather than later. A vital component to this is high-level broadband deployment – the very foundation of the NDP.

By Patrick Farrell
Illustration: Hanlie Huisamen
Repro: Karin Livni