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FTTH and the Oklahoma land grab

FTTH and the Oklahoma land grab

A look into the challenges for both client and provider: the frenzy that has accompanied the acquisition of fibre to the home (FTTH) services has not been seen since the “Hoola Hoop” craze of the late 1950s or perhaps the Pet Rock in the 1970s.  The jury is still out on the longevity of Pokemon Go.

Slow down – we have to untangle a few things.It is this frenzy that has motivated providers to jump on this new “band wagon”, with “wagon’ being a very appropriate word as it is evocative of the Oklahoma land grab of 1889, the first land rush into the rich farming lands of mid-America.

Abraham Lincoln once said “Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I’ll spend four sharpening the axe”. This has obviously not been the philosophy of the FTTH roll outs across South Africa. The rush for delivery is unlikely to slow down anytime soon so we all have to take a deep breath and understand as providers what we are offering and as consumers what these offerings translate into.

So what is FTTH?

Fibre to the home has recently been defined by the FTTH Council.

“In order to be classified as FTTH, the access fibre must cross the subscriber’s premises boundary and terminate inside the premises, or on an external wall of the subscriber’s premises.
FTTH may enable just one service, but generally enables several such as data, voice and video and potentially from multiple service providers.”

This FTTH definition excludes architectures where the optical fibre terminates in a public or private space before reaching the premises and where the access path continues to the subscriber over a physical medium other than optical fibre (for example copper loops, power cables, wireless and/or coax).

So this literally means that if it’s not fibre all the way it’s not FTTH – merely broadband internet to your home.

So who does what in FTTH?

Providers enter into the FTTH space on different levels, some of whom embrace all the levels from fibre in the ground to services to the end user. These levels can be broadly defined as follows:

  • Layer1: The physical fibre in the ground and the associated civils and trenching that go with it.  It is literally just glass in the ground.
  • Layer2: These are the providers that install the hardware both head end and in the customer premises and in doing so “light” the fibre so it can transmit data from end to end.
  • Layer3: The layer3 providers are normally known as “open access” ISPs and deliver broadband packages and other services to the end users.  They all have agreements with the Layer2 providers and utilise their networks but provide their own internet breakout both locally and internationally.
  • Resellers: These providers resell services of a Layer3 ISP either in the ISP’s own name or “branded” under their own name.

All the above have to run under the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) licences, except in a few limited cases where resellers can apply for license exemption.

The secrets that hide behind the terms

There is a myriad terms associated with FTTH and unfortunately are not simply black and white, so let’s try and dismantle them and distract ourselves from the frenzy where we only see “speed and price” because all things are not equal.


Capped is probably the easiest term to explain. Let’s say you have a 50 Gig cap, it is simple. Once you hit 50 Gig usage the service stops. What is not so simple is to find out how much it costs to load additional data once you’ve hit the cap as this information tends to be hidden away. I have often heard consumers saying that they use very little so a capped product is fine for them. Don’t however, underestimate the change in behaviour that comes with having a fast reliable connection. Suddenly streaming becomes possible and addictive.

Uncapped however is probably the hardest term to explain as many uncapped services have “soft caps”, subject to a fair usage policy (FUP) or are throttled down to a slow speed after a certain amount of data has been consumed. We have seen in the past broadband services that have been throttled down to 128 Kbps. Might as well move back to using carrier pigeons. Uncapped should be restricted to those packages that offer a truly unlimited service as it is misleading to pretend otherwise.

Data shaping

The shaping of data allows providers to get more “bang for their buck” from their upstream providers by slowing down certain traffic. A classic example of this is “BitTorrents” but may embrace other traffic too. As there is no standard in the industry it’s difficult to work out what is being shaped and what is not. A new term has hit the industry called “semi-shaped” and as we cannot define shaped properly we have no chance on this one.  Any contribution to defining semi-shaped will be gratefully received!


Synchronous literally means same speed up and down so on a 50 mpbs package you get 50 mbps down and 50 mbps up but an asynchronous package may give you 50 mbps down and 10 mbps up. All providers treat asynchronous upload speed differently. With the new revolution of cloud base services, upload speeds are becoming increasingly more important.

Delivered speed

All FTTH packages are best effort unlike business class 1:1 services, so the delivered speed is dependent on the individual ISPs and how they are contending and loading their backbones.   This can result in delivered speeds from two open access ISPs on the same network being very different from each other and also different depending on the time of the day. In this regard, what a good provider should be offering you is 90%+ of the speed, 80% of the time, word of mouth is powerful so try and find out from other users on the network.

Be warned: there are websites out there offering  100 mbps 1:1 business connections for under R3500\month; I assure you this is just false advertising, they are just fake marketed FTTH connections and the providers need to be reported to the Advertising Standards Authority and their associated network carriers, for action to be taken against them.

Contract periods

The FTTH market is evolving at such a speed that the signing of long term contracts borders on an act of insanity and completely defeats the open access model that allows you to choose between providers. A reasonable time frame is three months or up to a year but any longer and you will be kicking yourself.

Service level agreements and expectations

As mentioned previously, access to high speed fibre means our internet behaviour changes. We need seriously good WiFi and are getting into movie streaming with the arrival of Netflix to our shores. Smart TVs, Roku boxes and Apple TVs, home CCTV, home automation and online gaming are now within our grasp and a reality, and you need the ongoing support of a provider that will assist you in setting all this up and supporting you. Unfortunately, it may still be the case that the provider will drop off a box and tell you to phone “Dial a Nerd” or Google it when you are in trouble with issues around third party devices.

Beware of the freebies

I’ve seen many offers that include a free WiFi router, which may sound attractive but in reality is as about as useful as anything that falls out of a Christmas cracker, with the new speeds we are delivering with fibre. Single router setups and a few range extenders were OK with our old faithful 4 mg DSL line but to deliver your high speed from your fibre into the corners of your house and maintain the speed and throughput, you need a WiFi solution and a provider that can assist you in achieving this.

Regulatory and code of conduct

As mentioned earlier all providers should be licensed under ICASA (sadly some are not) and it is best to look at providers who are members of the FTTH council and/or the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA). The members of such bodies have to be compliant and uphold the organisations code of conduct.  If you have any issue with the conduct of your provider, these organisations will protect you.

So in a nutshell

So in regard to the above we should be looking for a service that is uncapped, truly unlimited, synchronous, not shaped or throttled, on a short term or month to month contract, delivered by a provider that is licensed, upholds the code of conduct of the industry and has the ability to support you as a client for both the setup of your service and ongoing as your requirements change within your home.

I think this information is relevant to individuals, body corporates, home owner associations and resident associations alike. It is time to start comparing apples with apples and move beyond the myopic vision of  “speed vs. price”!

Meanwhile on the plains of Oklahoma

As the providers ride on to the horizon, peg in hand and spurred on by competing suburbs screaming “here, here, here” I think we have become victims of the frenzy too and in danger of turning over the wagon.

Any network provider must ensure that their open access ISPs and resellers adhere to the same standards and codes of conduct as themselves, effectively making the industry self-governing. Failure to do this can only result in the degradation of the name of the providers, badly impact the image of the industry as a whole and lead to the disillusionment and disappointment of the end users.

The industry requires leaders, just as Oklahoma required pioneers, and in the words of the late great Steve Jobs “Managers make people do what they do not want to do, leaders make people do what they did not believe was possible”.

Contact Paul Colmer, paul@greencom.co.za

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