|Africa and the Middle East II 2002
|DSL in Africa
|Marketing Director EMEA
|Net to Net Technologies Ltd
Broadband is essential to Africa’s economic development. DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), which uses existing copper wires, is a logical way to deliver broadband services. In much of Africa, however, broadband service providers are denied the use of the local PTT’s copper network to reach the end user. This situation should be resolved by new regulations currently planned in many regions. The cost of DSL connections is a problem, but Internet Protocol based technologies can simplify DSL and reduce cost.
Simplicity is crucial. Africa is only just beginning to emerge as a DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) market. The lack of local competition between operators today, combined with the need for broadband coverage in a timely manner to allow African nations to compete in the new digital economy, means that anything complicated – such as costly and lengthy installations and provisioning of services – is not a viable options for African telecom providers. New operators in new regions have an advantage in that they do not have to deal with the problem of integrating their new systems with existing expensive and outdated legacy solutions. In the telecom arena, this means that suppliers can deploy broadband solutions based on IP (Internet Protocol) and Ethernet solutions without the need to handle the deployment issues and complexity of legacy ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) based DSL solutions. It is essential take into account one of the most important requirements of any successful DSL solution: the service provider must be able, on a practical level, not just to offer DSL on the market, but to install it effectively. The real requirement, again, is simplicity. The underlying technology that drives DSL, and the overlying feature sets, are largely inconsequential. For a service provider to make money, it must be able, technically and financially, to easily deploy DSL. IP is the fundamental, mandatory, protocol of all Internet communication. Since it is available throughout the world, is so widespread, using it makes it easier to deploy DSL. DSL Requires a Copper Circuit A major factor delaying DSL deployment in Europe is the fact that the owners of all those copper lines in the last mile are the original Post and Telegram and Telegraphy companies, or PTTs. These, only now, are slowly being deregulated and taken away from the control of their respective Governments. We can expect this to become a major problem within the next few years, as the African market matures and the demand for DSL emerges; in Africa the local loop unbundling process has not yet begun. The Local Loop, also referred to as “the last mile” or “the first mile,” depending on how you approach it, is the term that describes the piece of cable between the home or business facility and the Central Office, which is typically owned by the PTT. So, in order for a new operator to provide an alternative to PTT service, they need to gain access to the local loop connections. This “unbundled” access is essential if there is to be true competition, if subscribers are to have a real choice and if there is to be growth in terms of value and services at a reasonable price. The process is known as “Unbundling the Local Loop”. In Europe every government has created working groups within their regulatory bodies in order to study the issue and to define the rules and regulations by which a new operator gains access to the copper lines. Each regulator, of course, has had to fight it out with their local PTT. PTTs have entrenched political connections and clout. In order to get the PTTs to agree to unbundling and to abide by the regulatory mandates, the regulatory bodies have often had to wage, quite public battles against the PTTs and their political supporters. In many cases the PTTs disagreed, quite energetically, with the regulatory recommendations. The rules, often quite technical, cover important issues such as the amount of space, the amount of power available, how many racks you can have, the wattage total allowed per entrant, as well as procedures for entering the building. Although the rules are technical, the impact is not – it is economic since the rules tend to erode, more than ever, the control of the ex-monopoly PTTs of the market. This process is only just beginning in Africa, and until the local loop available to competitive operators, broadband deployment will be limited to the local PTTs. As a result DSL deployment is likely to be at least 2 to 3 years behind European countries. Once the copper last mile network becomes available, the next issue is financing the DSL rollout. The costs associated with deploying and maintaining a DSL network are reduced proportionally as the process is simplified. Service must normally be somewhat limited and selective in the beginning. Geographic, demographic and technical limitations such as the density of population, the quality of copper and the distance between end users and a Central Office make it economically unsound for a service provider to aim at providing 100-percent DSL coverage. These limitations are really cost related business limitations. In many cases, the service provider cannot afford to deploy DSL Access Multiplexers (DSLAMs) in every Central Office. This is expensive equipment, when it sits idle or is underutilised it is a threat to a provider’s profitability. Still, potential customers who cannot be reached and serviced must be provided for. Highly scalable, lower cost, DSLAMs products are now available. These can be installed in low capacity configurations and can use lower cost E1 links to the local telephone switching facility rather than expensive high bandwidth ATM circuits. Such equipment is making more rural and lower density DSL deployment feasible. Although equipment vendors are competing fiercely, and DSL equipment costs are dropping daily, deployment costs are still a barrier. These costs often keep service providers from installing as many DSLAMs as needed to service the remainder of the market. By using these newer, simpler solutions, deployment costs can frequently be dramatically reduced. The Central Office equipment configuration required to deploy a service must, in many areas, be simple enough to be handled by an engineer with minimum training. With traditional ATM-based DSL solutions, this was a major concern since activating the service required setting up ATM PVCs (permanent virtual circuits) on the ATM switches – at times, a complicated process for local technicians and engineers. Today, ATM engineers are scarce and expensive, and configuring ATM switches for PVCs can be time consuming and complex. At the subscriber’s end, the equipment also needs to be kept as simple and easy to deploy as possible because the cost of dispatching a technician – complicated by the arduous task of scheduling an installation with the end user – can easily surpasses the cost of the equipment itself. A plug-and-play device is ideal. Bringing service to customers who would otherwise be unserviceable is largely resolved by adopting the simple, cost-effective, alternative of using a native IP network. Because the cost of acquiring equipment, deploying it and activating equipment for new customers is significantly lower, the provider can now deploy equipment in Central Offices previously considered to be risky or unprofitable. Conclusion: IP Over DSL Many in the sector have difficulty in understanding IP over DSL since DSL’s history is that of a predominately ATM-based technology. This difficulty is compounded by the almost exclusive use of ATM in backbone networks. Nevertheless, despite such resistance from some quarters, IP offers solutions to many service provider problems, as: * Managing and maintaining valid IP addresses for new and existing customers, when only a finite number of addresses are available; * Applying QoS (Quality of Service standards) to ensure bandwidth is available to critical applications; * Providing any number of advanced services such as user policies or SLAs (service level agreements). IP’s clearest benefit lies in the simplicity of the total solution. Using IP based DSL the use of additional protocols, and complexity, can be avoided since the end users’ PCs and local networks – at both office and home – are predominantly compatible with IP type packet switching.