SOME of SA’s best known business people will spend billions over the next few years to launch a new, national, very high-speed data network, claiming the effort is an antidote to the negativity surrounding the country’s economic woes.
The group, which includes former FirstRand co-founder Paul Harris, tech-savvy former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan, and Design Indaba CEO Ravi Naidoo, aims to bring fibre-like speeds, initially to home users, bypassing the growing fashion for fibre-optic cable connections in SA’s richer suburbs.
It will not initially be a competitor to existing mobile operators, but will provide sim-enabled routers for home use until its national network is established.
"We are essentially an LTE start-up and a competitor to fibre and ADSL connections," Harris said.
Also part of the group is a consortium, the Multisource Group, which includes former MTN chief technology officer Phumlani Moholi and Brandon Leigh, both founders of Multisource, as well as management, including the CEO Duncan Simpson-Craib.
In 2015 it acquired WBS, the holding company of the iBurst and Broadlink businesses, which have about 400 base stations and related network infrastructure. The group intends extending that over the next five years to about 10,000 sites.
It will be building an national data network using technology commonly referred to as 4.5G, a precursor to 5G and by building this network, WBS claims it will be "at the forefront of 5G adoption globally when it occurs".
Network speeds vary according to usage and equipment, but Harris said the network should reach a high point of 200mb/s, and should consistently provide speeds of between 50 and 100 mb/s.
"We are very confident we will have good, consistent, fast performance," he said.
WBS is licensed by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) and the new service will use WBS’s existing spectrum assignments in the 1800 MHz and 2,600MHz spectrum bands.
Building new operators in the face of giant, well established operators is ambitious, but Harris said the group had advantages over established operators. It is not building a 2G and 3G network, so it will not be constrained by legacy requirements and will be able to dedicate its entire spectrum assignment to high-speed bands for the provision of data.
"Bandwidth on the cell networks is a bit like a 10-lane highway, on which six are taken up by ox-wagons and trucks, leaving only the remainder for high-speed users. "Because we [are] focusing only on LTE, our entire effort will be devoted to high-speed traffic," Harris says.
Also, by focusing solely on data, it will ride the tide of the disruptive technologies dubbed the "internet of things".
Third, the new system has the advantage over fibre connections in that it can be moved around to the office, work, and even while travelling around SA.
The initiative "aligns perfectly" with the policy objectives set by the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services and Icasa of promoting competition in facilitating better access to faster and more affordable fixed and mobile broadband in SA.
The group is upbeat about the developmental and economic consequences of the network, claiming that "Investment in competing new-age networks will contribute to a precompetitive market environment to the benefit of customers."
"These next-generation networks will have a major impact on the economy, especially education and healthcare, which will increasingly be enabled by broadband," Harris said.
"This is a huge trend internationally. Our approach is to say, ‘why sit on the sidelines?’ The economic situation is what it is, and we won’t allow it to be a factor in not investing."
"It’s a smart play," says Stuff editor in chief Toby Shapshak. "WBS had enormous potential that it squandered with an initial poor technology choice — Wimax was overtaken by LTE — and bad customer engagement. But they’ve built the infrastructure that Multisource can now benefit from. "For as long as SA’s cellular data costs remain as high as they are, and data usage continues to replace voice calls as the primary revenue generator, new entrants like Multisource have a real shot at being a pure-play broadband player," Shapshak said.
"They also have an enviable business brains trust, who have the right kind of experience in telecoms and understand the importance of customer service."