How wireless can pick up the slack when fibre falls short

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When it comes to broadband connectivity in South Africa these days, the line in the sand is drawn quite clearly – fibre or wireless.

You’re either one or the other, and it seems like fibre is winning the war at the moment, with trenches being dug on every street in all the large suburbs across the country’s major cities.

But what about those who have a mixed experience with fibre, or the houses and small businesses waiting for their local ISP to get an infrastructure in place?

Is the answer just to sit and wait it out?

According to chief technology officer at Wirulink, Riaan Maree, that need not be the case, with wireless broadband proving just as valuable, reliable and in some cases a more cost-effective alternative compared to its fibre counterpart.

We sat down with the Wirulink CTO as he unpacked the debate around fibre versus wireless, and why it’s actually a case of technologies complimenting one another as opposed to competing with each other.

Connectivity blind spots

Part of Wirulink’s approach in connecting communities is targeting the areas where fibre is unable to reach.

As Maree frames it, part of the reason why fibre is not as widespread as it should be is cost. For a company to set up a fibre network within a suburb or neighbourhood, a great deal of feasibility testing needs to be done.

“For each property it passes through, fibre costs anywhere between R9 000 and R12 000 to lay the infrastructure and connect the client. To make the implementation of fibre feasible you need high density, high income areas to ensure a good deal of uptake. This process can therefore leave quite a lot of households and businesses without access to fibre,” explains Maree.

He also points out that if a fibre operator begins digging trenches in a neighbourhood, you’ll very seldom see another operator enter the same area, as it means fewer opportunities for clients they can sign up.

Plugging the gaps

It is these gaps in fibre connectivity where wireless can make an impact, notes the Wirulink CTO.

“It’s our objective to provide connectivity to those areas as well, as we’re now talking about a digital divide as everyone in cities and towns are getting better connected, while those in rural areas are being left behind,” adds Maree.

He stresses though that it’s not a case of fibre versus wireless, but rather how wireless can complement fibre.

“Our backbone runs on fibre, and we try to set up fibre networks wherever possible. Wireless comes into the equation in the last mile, where fibre may not be able to reach. We try to deliver fibre wherever we can place towers, and when we’re not able to, we use high-speed microwave links to stretch connectivity to the places it needs to be,” says Maree.

Designed for the SME

In explaining the types of potential customers that lie in the pockets that fibre cannot reach, Maree explains that the make up consists of homes and SMEs (small to medium enterprises).

Focusing on the latter, with larger corporates touting the financial clout to overcome any obstacles when accessing fibre, often smaller businesses are left without the same options when it comes to connectivity.

“When you look at business fibre, it can cost from R3 500 to R4 000 and upwards, and that’s not something that a small business can afford to shoulder. They’re normally use to paying between R700 to R1 000 for their ADSL-type service, so making the jump to fibre is simply not feasible,” adds the CTO.

It is here where wireless services can help ease the burden, costing less than their fibre alternatives, and requiring far less in terms of infrastructure setup.

Don’t wait

For those waiting for their local ISP to deliver on the evangelised promise of fibre, Maree says don’t.

Any business that is happy to wait and see when fibre can empower their organisation runs the risk of not only being left behind by the competition, but also limit the capacity of what they’re able to do in the here and now.

“The internet should simply be a thing that runs in the background for a business. With everyone focusing on waiting for fibre, or lower cost per gigabyte, the real value of internet access often gets forgotten. You’re not getting internet to have access to the internet, you’re getting internet to allow your business to do other things,” he says.

Another point stressed by Maree is the fact that businesses should get the best connectivity option available to them. If fibre is freely available in their area, then go for it, but if it isn’t, look for an alternative, and in the CTO’s opinion that’s wireless.

Dispelling myths

As for why wireless has gotten a bad rap ever since fibre came on the scene is up for debate, but in most of the cases, it is unfounded.

Wireless being less reliable than fibre is a prime example, and one that puzzles Maree, especially as he adds that it is the latter that Wirulink has seen as suffering from more downtimes.

“Fibre downtime that we’ve seen is usually the result of two things. The first is other companies trenching through existing cables and pipes as there are no real records of what has been laid in the ground. The second is vehicles knocking over the polls for overhead fibre, with that issue in particular found around residential areas,” he says.

When it comes to the placement of overhead fibre in residential areas, there is normally one pole that is initially erected in the early phase. If that pole is knocked down or effected in some way, it can potentially leave entire neighbourhoods without connectivity.

“We see more downtime on the fibre side than wireless, as wireless is being delivered over-the-air,” adds Maree.

The right mix

When making a choice for you connectivity setup, whether at home or for your work, Maree says that people should do their homework.

Ensure that the ISP you’re going with has a good track record in terms of turnaround time and after-sales service. Also opt for a connectivity solution that can meet your current needs, especially with it being uncertain as to when fibre may be hitting your neighbourhood.

Lastly for businesses setting up their connectivity solutions, make sure a backup is in place. The Wirulink CTO advises that those who opt for fibre should also have a wireless backup system in place to cope with any downtime.

“When it comes to uptime and reliability, wireless is better. Because fibre is relatively new, it’s the solution that’s being punted more, but as people get more educated, uptime and reliability are becoming greater deciding factors,” concludes Maree.


[Image – CC0 Pixabay]


Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.