London — Last week we carried a story about the launch of FTTH in Gabon adding another country to the list that have rolled it out. For all the talk of leapfrogging, there just some things you cannot leapfrog like providing proper fibre infrastructure. This week Russell Southwood spoke to Juanita Clarke, CEO of fibre industry lobby body, FTTX Africa about why fibre matters and what it's doing to get fibre infrastructure built.
Q: How did the idea for FTTX Council Africa (formerly FTTH Council Africa) come about?
A: It was Richard Come's (President, FTTX Africa Council). He had just invested in DFA and I did some market research for him on the readiness for the FTTH business. The real estate companies were not really ready for fibre. The market needed an industry association that could go out and do grassroots education and make the general proposition on fibre.
The FTTX Council Africa is part of the Fibre Council Global Alliance, of which there are five globally that argue that the only sustainable infrastructure is fibre. We collaborate on topics and this year's is 5G. We attend each other's meetings.
Q: So where do you think the industry is at the moment in terms of progress, particularly in South Africa?
A: There's certain areas where South Africa is quite advanced, and others where it is not. We've built the foundation for Open Access. We've developed a definitions document for what Open Access is.
Q: What's the balance of your work in terms of South Africa vs the rest of Africa?
A: We have mandate to cover Sub-Saharan Africa. Andile Ngcaba as the new President has outlined a new strategy and we need to achieve more outside of South Africa and get more investors involved in putting in money. My role will change slightly.
We've got good relationships in East Africa and we'd like to open up an East Africa Chapter. We've had a second regional conference in Nairobi. We're speaking to a local industry association about providing them with a resource in exchange for them doing the work.
Q: How much Fibre-To-The-Household is there in Africa?
A: Mauritius Telecom has led the way and there is 100% coverage and 70% uptake. A third international cable is being built. And they achieved all this by being ambitious and by not saying to themselves 'we're just a tiny island".
South Africa is another leader in the field. There are people in South Africa suggesting that the eventual market size may be everyone who has electricity. It's just not comparable to ADSL. Also there's a cheap offering for R50 (US3.60) in Alexandra Township. So I think the potential market is 4-6 million homes and that could increase over time.
Q: So what are highlights outside of South Africa?
A: The key countries are all in East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. West Africa seems to be on the rise and now is the time to get in. The appetite for investment is phenomenal. It's exciting what's happening there. We have tower companies looking to get into the fibre. It needs to be seen as a utility and infrastructure.
Q: What has been the attitude of mobile operators in Africa to fibre infrastructure?
A; They know they need fibre. They want to own the customer with both mobile and fixed line. So for example Vodacom is putting a lot of services on fibre so why not own the whole stack? If you're in a country with fibre and it's yours, it's yours forever. But we don't see why people are duplicating fibre. But for mobile operators, the window of opportunity on fibre is now.
Q: How do you see 5G?
A: It's different in the way that it is highly dense: there will be a cell every 100 metres. It's also worth saying that people are still busy developing the standards. It will deliver 100 mbps off of a mobile device. So operators need to be gearing themselves up to get fibre deeper into their networks.
People are talking about needing capacity for 1 million devices per sq kilometre. This will be the impact of the Internet of Things: think what you have in your car and your house, everything that has the capacity to connect from your car dashboard to the fridge. It will take a lot of fibre and that will be a huge investment.
None of this will happen without fibre in the ground and that's the time-consuming part. That's where we're trying to remove the barriers to entry (like Rights of Way) because we need to get fibre in the ground now. We have nowhere near enough for what we're going to need.
In South Africa, Comsol has already announced that it will already launch a 5G network next month on a trial basis.
Q: Why have changed the name from the FTTH Council to the FTTX Council?
A: When we started seven years ago, we wanted to be called the FTTX Council but there had to be a unity of the name at a global level. We felt FTTH was too exclusive. We wanted to be inclusive of the entire ecosystem relying on fibre. We wanted to bring them into the conversation. Nobody was speaking about the Internet of Things or 5G and these conversations were becoming more urgent. Last year the Americas took the leap.
Q: How many members have you got?
A: We have 80 members and we are the third largest (behind Europe and America) in the global alliance but the youngest one. It's indicative of what's happening on the continent?
Q: Finally, what will bring down the cost of last mile fibre connections?
A: Things like aerial cable, Wi-Fi Mesh or direct buried. We're still finding ways of getting fibre for the last mile at a cheaper cost. People need it. They phone us up about it, particularly local communities, saying where can we get it? Fibre needs to be seen as a commodity.
FTTH has to mean end-to-end fibre strand because we have to protect FTTH and fibre as brands. Otherwise you'll end up with people complaining about speeds on services that are not really end-to-end fibre.