By PAUL COLMER, EXCO member at Wireless Access Provider’s Association (WAPA)
The ongoing power crisis is starting to threaten one of the fundamental drivers of South Africa’s digital economy: Internet access.
That’s because one of the biggest unforeseen consequences of Eskom’s persistent load shedding is the increasing failure of both telecommunications and Internet services to homes around the country.
The impact of load shedding on mobile networks, exacerbated by rising incidents of battery theft, is nothing new. South Africa’s largest mobile networks, Vodacom and MTN, have both conceded to spending millions of rands replacing stolen or damaged batteries and installing generators at thousands of locations around the country. That’s why, in many areas – even urban areas – when the power drops, so does cellphone service.
But with the ever-rising regularity of higher stages of load shedding, what we’re now seeing is both localised and more widespread disruptions to fibre Internet services, especially where these services rely on battery-powered telecommunications exchanges and backhaul networks for their Internet feeds.
This is particularly prevalent in rural and outlying areas, where battery theft from mobile communications towers is more rampant, impacting services that rely on mobile links for their connections to the global Internet. There’s a very real risk, therefore, that the longer the crisis continues, the further the already gaping digital divide between poor, middle-class and wealthy South Africans will widen.
No way round
Mobile and fibre service providers are in a quandary. They realise they have a serious power distribution problem, and that it’s much easier – and more publicly palatable – to maintain and sustain their urban networks where the population density and the majority of their customer base is located.
At the same time, the cost of Internet access is paradoxically much higher for low-income earners. That’s because the cost-per-gigabyte for those who can only afford prepaid mobile data is around R85, while the cost for users with more expensive long-term contracts is as low as 35 cents.
Not only is South Africa the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank, but the basic services that we need to start bridging the gap – namely Internet access in poor and underserviced areas – is now under serious threat.
There’s no way around the fact that the large network providers are going to look after their highest-paying subscribers and shareholders first and foremost. An Internet outage in Sandton will make headline news and lead to calls for strikes and boycotts, but a two-week outage in rural KwaZulu-Natal is now par for the course since rolling blackouts became the new normal.
The reality is that it won’t be long before we start to see regular Internet disruptions in built-up areas too. After all, urban fibre exchanges still need to hop on to layer-2 providers like Telkom for their undersea Internet access. No matter how many solar panels and batteries households put in place to avoid load shedding, there’s very little they can do when the Internet exchange or mobile tower goes dark.
There’s usually a silver lining, even in the heaviest storms, and in this case, it could be the reliability of Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) over their mobile network and fibre-to-the-home counterparts.
The power crisis has blatantly exposed the lack of redundancy and infrastructure issues for traditional Internet providers. Without a wireless link, fibre and cellular providers are only as strong as the weakest link in their backhaul networks.
Many WISPs, on the other hand, invested in off-grid and power backup solutions from the start, mostly because that was always the only reliable way to ensure consistent power supply in the outlying and lower density areas they service. Some even invested in their own fibre networks, while those that maintain battery backups for wireless links can respond far quicker to theft than the larger, less nimble providers.
Even now, as the power crisis is hitting their core services, they are better placed to build additional links to alternate upstream links, should they need them, and do so faster and more cost effectively than larger providers can repair broken services in the same areas.
That means they can offer more reliable Internet accesses to the communities that need it most, and therefore be prioritised as one of the critical strategic solutions to narrowing the digital divide in this country.
This fact alone should steer the debate over opening up more unlicensed spectrum for use in rural and regional areas, since doing so will directly benefit the millions of users suffering from the hidden costs of South Africa’s power fiasco.