Challenge Africa: How Telkom SA is looking to connect a continent

Mr Alphonzo Samuels, CTO of Telkom, South Africa
Mr Alphonzo Samuels, CTO of Telkom, South Africa

As the second largest landmass on Earth it’s no surprise that Africa is a continent of extremes. Nowhere is this more clearly reflected that in the wide variation of Internet connectivity enjoyed by its inhabitants. While some enjoy the latest in high-speed fibre connectivity, others remain untouched by any form of radio communication whatsoever. However, this also makes Africa a place bursting with opportunity.  Ahead of the Broadband World Forum, we speak to Mr Alphonzo Samuels, CTO of Telkom, South Africa’s largest communications provider, on his mission to not only take broadband communications in South Africa forward, but also to improve the connectivity for the rest of the entire continent.

It’s clear from even a brief conversation with Samuels that ending this digital divide is something of a personal crusade. “[I] want… to make a difference in the lives of the marginalized in society and to see how we can get them to become part of the broader economy through this quest for ubiquitous broadband,” he says.

This is a topic he will cover in further detail in his presentation at the Broadband World Forum in October where he will not just talk technical, but also strive to make people aware of the wider social issues at stake. “I think that people are all very happy [talking about] G.fast, vectoring, and bonding, and some of the LTE advances, but we must not forget that there are under three billion people that are still not connected today at all, and the challenge is that we have to connect them.”

He’s clear on the scale of the connectivity challenge for the continent. Even in South Africa the tele-density, a common marker of social economic development, is just 20 per cent, he says, reflecting the lack of physical infrastructure. Mobile penetration on the other hand is much healthier, clocking in at 140 per cent, with multiple SIMs in many households. In line with this, mobile-based financial communications in the continent are more advanced that in most Western countries. While digital cash transactions via mobile phones is commonplace in many parts of Africa, trying to pay a friend in the UK via a smartphone app usually still leads to bemused looks.

Contrasting this though, in Africa there are those who are yet to experience even making a mobile phone call, let alone shopping online. “South Africa has one of the best banking system in the world,” Samuels says, “secure VPN, SMS authentication etc., so a lot of the companies are demanding first-world security. And there’s an emerging middle-class that want the same things as London, New York, Mumbai, or Shanghai – but then you have people living below the poverty line.”

So how to get those people connected? Therein lies the challenge. The first issue says Samuels is simply getting power to the remote villages, many of which have no electricity. Logically, solar powered base stations are the solution and with no wired infrastructure backhauling is done via satellite. However, piracy is rife. “We find a lot of the solar panels disappear as organized crime finds a use for these things.  So it’s really challenging and you have to build in costs for security.” It can’t all be down to the operator though by educating the villages as to the benefits of the equipment, the villages are encouraged to take responsibility for the security of the equipment themselves.

What was interesting is that while speaking of connectivity for the masses, Samuels did not focus of the need to drive profits. However, that’s not to say he’s not aware of the financial realities that have to be faced to make it all happen.  When quizzed on this, Samuels reveals that clear strategies are in place. Areas such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, where the focus is on the latest technologies such as bonding, vectoring, FTTC, FTTH and LTE Advanced, help drive the profits that are then reinvested in what he dubs the ‘social responsibility projects’. Indeed, according to Informa’s World Broadband Information Service, Telekom has more than twice as many customers as all its competitors’ combined, placing it at a competitive advantage. However Samuels is realistic that Telkom can’t afford to connect Africa all on its own and only through public/private partnerships between business and government will the continent gets the connectivity it needs.

In terms of the future, Samuels believes Telkom is well prepared, having made the full leap to an IP core in August 2013. This, he points out makes Telkom one of the few carriers in the world to, as he put it, “put its money where its mouth is”.

However, an area where South Africa lags behind is with its digital dividend spectrum, which is still currently being used for terrestrial TV. When it does happen though, it will be good news for Telkom, which currently suffers from a dearth of sub-1GHz spectrum. Due to its superior propagation characteristics this will be essential for cost-effective wireless network deployment in such a huge continent .

As with other countries, over the next five years Samuels predicts triple-digit data growth, with ultra-high definition 4K video and much increased local content driving up the demand for data. There will also be a need to promote the benefits of Internet connectivity to those that have yet to experience it. As he puts it, “If people are living below the poverty line—just to put food on the table—how do you get them into a space where they think differently about broadband?”

Clearly they need to see what it can do for them and Samuels relates one story that clearly gives him great satisfaction and typifies the approach to his work.

“There’s a joint venture that we’ve done in a town in the Eastern Cape where we’ve connected over ten schools together, and because of the location we’re backhauling over satellite. These schools are basically in a Wide Area Network and then connected to the rest of the world through satellite. During the day the students can do part of their education using the broadband and the rest of the village can market their crafts. One of most remarkable things was seeing an elderly lady seeing her son who was working in Johannesburg on Skype for the first time – the look on their faces was priceless! That’s the most fulfilling part.”

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