Such is the importance of having access to reliable, high-speed Internet connectivity that it has been classified as an essential service during the lockdown. Minister of Communications and Telecommunications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, has gone as far as gazetting regulatory changes to remove many of the barriers limiting the creation of an enabling environment for fibre network operators (FNOs) and others in the sector to fulfil their responsibility in keeping the country connected.
All stakeholders in the South African telecommunications market now have an obligation that extends beyond the standard remit of profitability. Instead, their duty for the next few weeks revolves around providing people from all walks of life with the means to generate a livelihood and keep the economic engine of the country running.
The FTTx Council has taken this task to heart and has assembled a focus group that meets on a virtual basis daily to discuss developments and feed that back to the ministry. As one of only 16 essential service providers, this is a task that all telcos are completely committed to as we illustrate how connectivity has evolved from a luxury item into a utility that is essential for any market growth to occur. Although the regulation gives clear direction in terms of its intent, there are practical issues that have not been dealt with, i.e., wayleave approvals.
As an essential service, fibre must be kept operational at all costs. To this end, regulatory concessions have been made to meet the expected increase in demand for data. Along with these, the regulator ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of SA) has introduced radio frequency spectrum relief during the lockdown to ease congestion and ensure good quality of broadband services. Price increases, except for exchange rate fluctuation, have also been put on hold. This will also enable licencees to lower the cost of access to consumers. Already, it has been announced that access to educational websites and resources must be zero-rated, pending clarification before implementation.
And while this is good news from a mobile perspective, fibre operators have proactively doubled the line speed of customers, free of charge to accommodate their changing usage patterns. Because fibre is fixed-line infrastructure, these upgrades have taken place automatically with no disruption to end users.
There are also strict measures in place to ensure fixed network operators (FNOs) adhere to the highest safety standards from both an employee and contractor as well as customer perspectives. This means that all contractors must be trained to the correct safety and health procedures, especially as they pertain to home installations. It is important that the movement of contractors is tracked to ensure we know who they have been in contact with. These types of applications should be rolled out to all providers of essential services.
The pressure to rapidly deploy services has also softened the complicated permitting process. Unfortunately, the municipalities are not supporting any of the network operators at this point in time – the impact is that potentially lots of users are left without any form of connectivity. The FTTx Council is doing its best to try and get this resolved too.
Even though COVID-19 is a massive humanitarian and economic crisis, the focus on fibre and its mass-scale deployment will, without question, hasten the adoption of a digital culture in South Africa.
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