Dark Fibre Africa provided sponsored connectivity to Covid-19-critical sites, such as Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Picture: 123RF/EVERYTHINGPOSSIBLE
Dark Fibre Africa provided sponsored connectivity to Covid-19-critical sites, such as Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Picture: 123RF/EVERYTHINGPOSSIBLE

The demands on connectivity infrastructure have never been greater. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has had a marked impact on global health, has also created a meteoric increase in demand for fast, reliable internet access — with the capacity to support a range of digital services and applications.

Largely, these were changes that were expected in various sectors, but existed only in nascent terms. For example, we have been capable of telecommuting for decades, but we’ve not seen this being embraced at scale before now. Responding to the new normal has meant taking a digital transformation plan of several years and truncating it into a matter of weeks and months.

At every level in which businesses and communities have operated and functioned, their relationship and reliance on connectivity has been affected:

  • The increased adoption and implementation of remote working policies has increased bandwidth-heavy collaboration through tools such as videoconferencing, VPN and cloud access to company systems and ERP applications.
  • The acceleration of digital transformation initiatives and programmes has also led to businesses deploying new capabilities and services in the public and private cloud, increasing the demand for connectivity and bandwidth capacity overall.

  • Consumers that are faced with social distancing measures and curfews are now keeping in contact with friends and family using video-calling platforms and, in our downtime, we are consuming bandwidth- and data-heavy digital entertainment services, such as video streaming, multiplayer online gaming, and online shopping services that use rich media to showcase their offerings.

  • Educational institutions who have been dabbling in mixed-delivery curricula have had to pivot swiftly into online teaching wherever possible.

  • The public sector is undergoing a rapid reimagining. There are so many competing needs in a developing nation such as ours that the government’s own digital transformation journey has occasionally been sidelined. But now a more responsive and in-touch public service is critical, and the provision of e-services is a key element. 

Barriers to overcome

As any savvy business knows, you need significant demand for connectivity — in terms of both capacity (bandwidth) and penetration (market reach) — to justify significant investment into new or bolstered infrastructure.

Developing and deploying the digital infrastructure to support SA’s vision for the economy and the immediate increased need is capital intensive and requires the technical and commercial know-how to develop business cases that are palatable to investors and financiers. 

Dark Fibre Africa (DFA) spends close to a billion rand in capital expenditure or capex a year to extend the reach, density and capacity of fibre infrastructure and bandwidth capacity to serve the increase demand from mobile network operators, wireless internet service providers (WISPs), other fixed-network operators (FTTB and FTTH), cloud data centres, and various public sector and state-owned enterprises. This is the open-access, wholesale edge and core fibre infrastructure backbone on which all these sectors are cost-effectively serviced.

DFA was founded on the principle of wholesale open access, not knowing of course that Covid-19 was coming. We knew that we needed to build out a scalable and future-proof network that aggregated common demand on common infrastructure to serve the current and future needs of the segments that we serve. We also knew that, to address the needs of our customers within and across our targeted market segments, we had to have the capability to evolve our portfolio from dark fibre to capacity-based services.  

Intuitively, we decided to invest in upgrading our core network in 2019, and in 2020 that decision has turned out to be a godsend, as it gave us the headroom we needed to respond to the exponential increase in access and core traffic that resulted from the Covid-19 lockdown, without increasing the cost to our customers. 

For example, we offered greater capacity to our fixed network operator (FTTB and FTTX) customers at zero incremental cost, and we also provided sponsored connectivity to Covid-19-critical sites, such as Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. We are now extending this to Steve Biko Hospital, among other hospitals, in partnership with Reflex Solutions.

We’ve been able to sponsor the connectivity infrastructure to these environments, and Reflex has provided the value-added services and associated infrastructure, such as Wi-Fi access points and devices and applications to support the needs of staff and patients.

Forging a path

In the face of such challenging needs and barriers, we have two choices. We can continue to operate in silos, deepening our own niches and markets. I would argue that this is a short-term and short-sighted strategy. Alternatively, we can collaborate, synergise and forge a new path forward across the trenched territory. There is no need for infrastructure duplication, and competition should be driven a lot more intensively in the services layer that is enabled by a cost-efficient, capable and reliable infrastructure layer.

Public–private partnerships (PPPs) offer a solution that brings investment and skills to the table. PPPs are a tactic for higher investment in essential capital-intensive infrastructure, such as ports, energy-utility plants, and roads and other transport infrastructure. Where the government brings the mandate and regulation, the private sector can contribute skills and finance. 

This is also how I see us supporting the local economy, in terms of GDP growth and job creation. These large-scale infrastructure projects create downstream economic multipliers. In addition to this, the infrastructure will support local industrial and business development. It will reduce the dependency on foreign supply chains and contribute to an increase in exports and foreign earnings, provided that other supporting factors and capabilities are addressed and developed as well. 

Here, I’m not talking about withdrawing from a global market but rather developing locally first through domestic supply of intermediate and finished goods. It will create direct and indirect jobs, drive innovation, and transform industries. It also provides a measure of protection and resilience for the local market. 

During this time there is more receptivity to these calls for collaboration. Much of the messaging that is emerging globally in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has focused on the notions of collective responsibility and coming together to create resilient platforms for a sustainable future. This is targeted at both an individual and a societal level and takes the form of slogans like “stronger together” and “apart but not alone”. 

They add to a call for partnerships at all levels. As someone deeply enmeshed in the digital infrastructure sector, I see the huge responsibility that is placed on us to deliver digital infrastructure at scale to enable and support SA’s future industrial, business, social, and economic development plans — as quickly and sustainably as possible.

About the author: Vino Govender is the executive for strategy, mergers & acquisition, and innovation at Dark Fibre Africa.

This article was paid for by Dark Fibre Africa.

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