Think Parkhurst and you probably think trendy coffee shops and restaurants, not the last mile.
But the last mile, or overcoming the last mile, has further raised the trendy barometer as Parkhurst has become the first residential suburb in Joburg to get genuine high-speed – as much as one gigabyte a second – internet, with fibre optic cable.
The last mile is the final, crucial leg of connectivity into a person’s home, that where incumbent telecomms providers can be slow to provide the high-speed broadband the fibre optic crowd like to see as a necessary human right.
Every house in Parkhurst now has a small grey box on its outside wall, into which is fed a 2cm plastic tube, and inside that tube is the magic cabling that is the final bit of the last mile.
“We have approximately 2 100 households in Parkhurst, and we met the 30% uptake moral commitment (630 households) within a month,” says resident and the mover behind the project in the suburb, Ryan Hawthorne. The moral commitment indicates residents’ willingness to commit but not locking them into a contract.
This was the first step, initiated by the Parkhurst Village Residents and Business Owners’ Association, back in April 2014. Next was to find a supplier - by May last year Vumatel was selected. Then, by the end of February this year, cables were in place and boom, Parkhurst is now a fibrehood.
Parkhurst resident Tim Truluck says the suburb has been a “dead area” since ADSL basically stopped working there in 2007. “There has been such hatred of Telkom which was just not interested in our problems.” The system became overloaded and Telkom – dubbed Hellkom by residents – refused to respond to residents’ requests for upgrading it “So Parkhurst has been fertile ground for this project.”
People in Parkhurst are ecstatic. “Faster speeds are amazing,” says Hawthorne. “ My wife and I are now able to have high definition calls with my family in the UK (my mom has fibre in the home at her house) and I am able to work entirely in the cloud in real time, which means I can easily collaborate on documents with colleagues working remotely. We are also able to watch YouTube videos in high definition, which we have never been able to do before.” He was previously paying R1 600 a month for 6 megabits/second plus a landline, but now pays R1 649 for 100 megabits/second, 1 Gigabit of mobile data plus a phone line.
Truluck is equally happy: he pays R400 a month to get 4 megabits/second into his home. And, he says Vumatel gives more personal service, responding to problems immediately from its office in 4th Avenue.
The cables run under pavements, and the whole operation was very slick: photos were taken of each house exterior so that it could be restored to its exact condition, and residents decided where the box would go.
They don’t pay for laying the cable in their streets, they only pay to have the cable run from their outside wall into their homes, which is done by their preferred internet service provider, at a cost of R1 500. A connection fee of R1 000 is also charged, which is waived if the customer takes either a 100 megabit/second or a 1 gigabit/second line. There are a range of options available: from month-on-month to 24-month contracts, at a cost of R199 a month for uncapped 4 megabit/second, to R2 499 for 1 gigabit/second. Speeds will be up to 1 gigabit/second.
“The last mile is the costly and complex bit,” says Niel Schoeman, the CEO of Vumatel. The company has spent the last eight years or so fibre cabling business parks, but saw the gap in the residential market, and grabbed it. “There’s huge interest. People are fed up with the services that are available.” The older suburbs are especially prone to poor service where the copper cabling used for the ADSL service becomes congested, and anyway, those cables haven’t allowed for expansion. Also, five years ago, two megs was sufficient, but nowadays, more people want to download movies at home, for which they need more bandwidth.
Schoeman says they are only Joburg-based at the moment, but will be cabling up Cape Town next year. “That is 42 suburbs over the next two years, 29 of which are in Joburg.”
Vumatel is now laying cables in Greenside and Parktown North, and by April will be moving into Riviera and Killarney. But the race is on. Another company, Dark Fibre Africa, is busy trenching in Parkview, where over 600 responses have been received to the initial survey, says Indra de Lanerolle, a resident and head of an internet research project at Wits. “We expect the first homes to be connected towards the end of April and the network should be completed by June/July.”
Dark Fibre Africa is offering the suburb more: free connection for the library and a broader project to connect Gauteng’s broadband network project to all the public schools in the area via the fibre network. The shops and restaurants along Tyrone Avenue will get free wi-fi too.
Telkom tendered for the Parkhurst project but was up against Vodacom, MTN, and a company called Fibrehoods, among others. Vumatel offered the “best and most comprehensive proposal”, says Truluck.
Schoeman is not fazed: “Competition is good for South Africa, particularly important in the new information age.” We are the second most expensive country in the world in terms of bandwidth cost, he adds.
Several of the restaurants and businesses along 4th Avenue have also signed up but fibre will be presenting new challenges to them. Customers could come in, spend the morning, drinking a long, slow cup of coffee, while using the high-speed internet. Craft restaurant is getting around this by giving one-hour vouchers with their coffee, while Vovo Telo is test-running the vouchers idea. Others are not using it at yet, while some are planning to move to it shortly.
Vumatel has a small store on 4th Avenue, with concrete floor and wooden-beamed ceiling, cow-hide carpet and transparent hard plastic chairs. Twenty-one-year-old sales rep Leo Cele told me that the fibre optic cabling is not vulnerable to lightning damage, another plus. “The fibre gives customers 1 gig per second, which means it is eight times faster than what we have now.”
This means that the time required to download one HD movie will take 9 seconds, compared to one and a half hours through ADSL, while 100 songs can be downloaded in 3 seconds compared to 19 minutes.
Describing it as “a revolutionary project”, he says that there is also a lot of interest from other provinces.
There are other advantages too – the network will also form the basis for CCTV and number plate recognition cameras that are planned for Parkhurst; and fibre uses about 20% less electricity.
So how does Vumatel recoup its infrastructure outlay? It charges the service providers a fixed fee, besides the connection fee to homes.
Schoeman says Telkom is being cut out the picture altogether: other countrywide networks and undersea cable companies are being used.
I’m glad to see that my suburb is among the 30 suburbs on Vumatel’s future list for cabling.