With many internet service providers (ISPs) reporting a surge in demand for fibre connectivity since the nationwide lockdown began in March, there are significant opportunities to be had for delivering reliable, high-speed access solutions across the country. But for this to happen, fibre network operators (FNOs) and ISPs must work together for an improved end-user experience.
This is something that was becoming critical even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Demand reflected a growing awareness from home users and businesses about the benefits of always-on access. Fixed internet and data revenue in South Africa reached R26 billion at the end of last year, an increase of more than 40% from the R19 billion of 2018. Additionally, fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and fibre-to-the-business (FTTB) subscriptions grew by almost 29% during the same period.
Unfortunately, confusion from end users when it comes to the roles and responsibilities of the FNO and ISP has contributed to often challenging situations between these respective parties.
“End users generally do not care who the FNO is. If they have the access they pay for from the ISP, they are generally happy. But this can potentially result in blame shifting taking place where an ISP could attribute any connectivity issues to the FNO. Much depends on the relationship between the FNO and the ISP. If the FNO does not provide the ISP with innovative services that help facilitate a quality value proposition to end users, then the partnership will inevitably become strained,” says Shane Chorley, head of sales and marketing at Frogfoot.
A critical component to managing the complexities of these relationships is an ecosystem built on the concept of open access. This means an FNO cannot offer end-user services on its own infrastructure. Instead, the FNO sells access to the network to ISPs at a standard price point.
One of the reasons why this model works is that the FNO is detached from the connectivity sold to the customer, so it cannot undercut the ISP rates. End users therefore have the freedom to select any ISP they want based on value proposition, geographic availability, and price point, amongst others.
“The amount of time it will take an FNO to roll out infrastructure to every home in South Africa would make it impractical. Instead, open access is ideal to accommodate the amount of fibre rollouts taking place across the country. This enables entrepreneurial operators to install fibre, make it open access, and have a customer still be able to select the ISP of their choice,” says Chorley.
Effectively, open access allows multiple operators to roll out services at the same time with the ISPs becoming ‘independent third-parties’ accessing the infrastructure to sell connectivity to end users. This results in a more competitive market where the end user can easily migrate between ISPs if service levels are not met.
“In addition to being a proponent of open access, Frogfoot has introduced several value-adds for our ISP customers that automate notoriously time-intensive processes as much as possible. For example, our ISPs have direct API access into our system, can place orders online, and easily communicate through all channels to continually deliver a world-class service to their end user customers.”
The introduction of 5G
Another way that the FNO and ISP relationship can be strengthened is with the addition of 5G. Cynics might argue that this new technology makes home and business fibre access redundant. But it does not have to be an either/or situation as these access technologies are complementary to one another.
“For 5G to work effectively, it requires the service provider to backhaul data over fibre networks especially when it comes to real-time information generated by Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as traffic lights, smart meters, and so on. Simply put, if there is no fibre connectivity between cellphone towers, the experience will suffer. If anything, the growth of 5G will be predicated on fibre rollouts to all parts of the country as the high-speed link between mobile base stations becomes fundamental to 5G.”
Events of the past several months have highlighted just how important affordable and reliable high-speed internet access has become to people’s lives.
“Whether you are a small business or a home user, connectivity is critical to operating in a digitally-led world. An open access ecosystem provides a vital link in the chain to accomplish this. And when FNOs and ISPs work effectively together, the opportunities are virtually limitless for a more connected environment in South Africa,” concludes Chorley.