Open Access Networks (OANs) have played a vital role in the growth of access to fibre connectivity around the country, created a level playing field for internet service providers (ISPs) to offer services across the coverage area and provided consumers with more choice in terms of affordability and contract flexibility, notes Shane Chorley, Head of Sales and Marketing, Frogfoot Networks.

It will also be key, indirectly, in bringing high speed wireless connectivity to the masses.

In the Open Access Network model, there is a separation between the operator of the network and the providers of services to end users. This is unlike in wireless networks or even in closed access fibre networks, where users don’t have the option of choosing from between a number of service providers.

In fact, OANs could be looked at as a case study in how to provide services to a greater number of people while still offering them choice. This model has been especially popular in South Africa with the top three fibre providers being open access, and we continue to see some investment into laying additional infrastructure around the country.

While we were initially behind in comparison with international peers, local operators have caught up significantly and are now able to offer services on par with what is offered in other markets, especially when looking at urban areas. A notable difference is that many such initiatives in other parts of the world are driven by the state (the national government in Australia and New Zealand or municipalities in Sweden) or public private partnerships (seen in several counties in the USA), but in South Africa growth has been championed by the private sector.

Open access operators, such as Frogfoot Networks, are continually building relationships with multiple ISPs as they pursue a strategy of expanding fibre beyond South Africa’s urban areas and into the secondary cities and towns, and providing them with access to high speed broadband capacity. It currently has over 140 ISPs on its network and could theoretically accommodate as many providers as wanted.

“Flexibility and being nimble in an ever changing, internet hungry environment has always been critical in our space as an internet service provider. Being part of one of the leading open access networks in the country allows us that freedom to put the customer first. The fact that we’re able to control 95% of the user experience because of Frogfoot’s open access model, gives us the ability to deliver a world class user experience

Webafrica believes in the consumer having choice. Open access is critical to driving better offerings because of network democratisation which ultimately leads to better product offerings and allows us as an internet service provider to contribute to a better, more polished user experience,” says Webafrica spokesperson.

Giving the customer the upper hand

Investing in national long distance networks to provide sufficient backhaul, and providing access to multiple undersea fibre optic cables further improves network stability, allowing for ISPs to focus on other areas as key differentiators in a highly competitive market. This could be in the form of including additional redundancy (such as bandwidth on multiple undersea cables), more offerings (hardware, software, services, bundled offerings) and high customer satisfaction.

Of course, it is possible that someone signs up to a particular ISP because of their price, reputation or type of service offering, have a positive experience initially, and then experience a degradation of service as the provider scales (not so efficiently). What then? This is where the beauty of open access lies, as customers have the ability to switch between service providers while remaining on the same network. This is simply not possible in a closed network, where you are stuck with a single provider. Open Access Networks give customers the upper hand.

“By adapting to the market trends and being competitive, Frogfoot has helped us in turn to adjust our offerings, give the best value for money back to our clients and help connect more communities with fibre-to-the-home. Without open-access fibre many ISPs and subscribers would be left out of fair competition, affordable pricing, and transparent products/offerings.

A closed access model promotes monopoly, whereas open access fibre has promoted rapid expansion of connectivity by a plethora of providers within South Africa. Immeasurable opportunities have opened for small and large enterprises alike – this, in turn, helps our economy,” says an Afrihost spokesperson.

High speed connectivity for more people

Expanding fibre networks however requires significant investment, and operators have to assess financial feasibility before rolling out infrastructure across more areas around South Africa. The growth in fibre networks has to date seen between 3 and 3.5 million homes around the country being passed, though this remains a fraction of the total number of homes, and more can be done to grow this number.

One of the drivers of growth in fibre today are new property developments where an open access fibre connection comes standard with each unit within the complex or estate – in a similar manner to other utilities like electricity and water, or the telephone line of old – allowing the user to choose their own provider. A growing number of developers are taking this approach as it has been found to be more cost effective to carry out installations during the development phase itself.

Going further into peri-urban areas, and areas with lower disposable incomes remains a challenge, due to the costs associated with rolling out infrastructure. Fibre networks still have a key role to play in expanding access to high speed connectivity in these areas though, as they will be used to provide the necessary backhaul capacity required for the LTE and 5G towers operated by cellular operators.

The increasingly connected lifestyle that we are seeing isn’t only an occurrence in middle class South Africa, but also an aspiration among all income groups. Upward mobility will see them consume more data and add more smart devices, they will realise that the most cost effective and stable way to remain connected is through fibre, which will spur demand for this connectivity type. As current fibre networks are amortised you will see more expansion to individual customers living along the edge, with high speed wireless connections being extended to provide coverage further out, and we will see this cycle repeat.

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