Technology the fourth industrial revolution5th Apr 2017
Dark fibre, dirty movies and sewerage pipes – it sounds a little seedy and sordid, but it’s all part of Link Africa’s mission to bring us closer to the limitless world of the Internet through fibre optics.
According to the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016, we stand on the brink of what is termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, essentially a technological revolution that promises to fundamentally change the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation is expected to be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We have witnessed developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology, to mention just a few, that are all building on and magnifying each other. This is creating a foundation for a more comprehensive revolution than anything we have previously witnessed.
Smart systems, homes, factories, farms, grids and cities are expected to help address problems ranging from supply chain management to climate change. The rise of the sharing economy will allow people to monetise everything from their empty house (Airbnb) to their car (Uber). All this “future” is underpinned by the broadband enabling infrastructure that is optical fibre.
Optical fibre is globally recognised as the key building block of a connected world capable of handling gigabit-speed content and applications. The Internet of Things and the increasing interconnectedness of machines, appliances, devices, sensors and – ultimately – people are converging into a perfect storm.
Many of us are already experiencing the joy of fibre to the home (FTTH), and those of use who aren’t yet connected just can’t wait for the big cable drums to roll out in our neighbourhood. But the costly and time-consuming process of actually laying the cable is the main limiting factor. A huge part of the cost is in digging the trenches, physically laying the cables, and then restoring the environment. But Link Africa has patented a system for laying fibre cable in existing sewerage and water pipes, thus reducing costs and civil disruption.
It sounds ideal and obvious, but Link Africa has had to fight a two-year legal battle to be allowed to use the technology. The City of Tshwane took the company all the way to the Constitutional Court to keep it from gaining access to “their” water and sewerage systems. Link Africa’s persistence resulted in a win for everyone, when the Constitutional Court confirmed the original High Court ruling that the use of the water and sewerage system for fibre optic cables was to everyone’s benefit, including that of the City of Tshwane, noting that “fibre-optic cables are the fastest and most effective product on the market to implement electronic communications networks, and provide a safe and secure system that has practically unlimited bandwidth”. That from the Constitutional Court, no less.
Letting Link Africa loose in the sewers has an added benefit for municipalities, because the first step is surveying the piping with remotely operated video cameras. These produce “dirty movies” that soon reveal any structural defects, which can then be addressed by the municipalities before they cause a breakdown in the sewerage system.
This is also important for developers, HOAs and members of residential communities, who are understandably concerned about the impact on their environment of laying yet another set of cables. And given the economic pressure to maximise land usage density, the space in the utility servitude for services is getting increasingly overcrowded. So it seems almost silly not to use existing channels where one can.
Link Africa is not an Internet service provider (ISP), and is committed to open access. The cabling they lay is “dark”, which means it’s not yet connected to the Internet – it’s just an open channel. They don’t charge the municipalities (or anyone else) for laying the cable, but obtain their revenue from renting it out to ISPs.
The number of competing ISPs has increased dramatically, with each offering different benefits, and appealing to different users – so a careful choice of options is imperative. Some ISPs, however, enter into exclusive arrangements with a collective or corporate user, such as an office block or housing estate community, or even a suburb. Although it’s theoretically never too late to make a change, there will be increasing, and possibly debilitating, costs attached to making changes if flexibility isn’t built in at ground level – that is, at the planning stage of a development. Open access gives the customer the freedom to exercise their choice – now, and at a later stage, if and when new options become available.
However, open access isn’t popular with everyone in the supply chain, as it encourages open competition with less opportunity for exploitative profits. Link Africa is working with the FTTH Council to put in place standards and ethical practices that help protect the customer, and Link Africa is intensely involved in ensuring that those standards benefit the end user, who often has the weakest voice.
André Hoffmann, Link Africa’s head of projects, is passionate about doing all that can be done to make fibre accessible to everyone, and is committed to bridging the digital divide. “We’re going to take fibre into the townships, and we’re going to make a difference,” he says.
With its significant involvement in the FTTH Council Africa, underpinned by a commitment to open access, Link Africa is a dark fibre provider whose vision is to illuminate South Africa with the liberating light of fibre optics. Remember how the mobile phone started out as a toy of the wealthy, but is now a communication device for the masses? Fibre, with its limitless capacity, will become the gateway for millions to benefit from the endless possibilities of the Internet.
Link Africa is well positioned to be the enabler of the future in your development.
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