While white papers have been released regarding the latest communications software solution, dubbed Telecommunications Financial Management (TFM), in South Africa (SA) we are still stuck with just one fixed-line provider. It is fairly peculiar to think of having to implement an advanced technological solution for the problems of collecting and collating billing information from as many as 20 different providers, checking them for discrepancies, and authorizing their payments.
In a way, it almost makes having the monopoly that we are currently sitting with seem not quite so bad, doesn’t it? What is more, major providers in the U.S. have average waiting periods for new installations of from four to 12 weeks, making Telkom SA Ltd.’s waiting periods of three to six weeks seem fairly trivial by comparison.
Nonetheless, it is progress that we SA customers want from our telecommunications landscape at this point. While worldwide telecommunications costs continue to fall to ever more negligible levels, and substantial amounts of bandwidth are provided to the man in the street, the price of bandwidth in SA remains an expense which prohibits the country’s entry into global commerce.
The World Bank has had published reports available for some time now which directly link investment in communications infrastructure to the success of a country’s economy on the global scale, and it is the driving of this investment through competition and improved services that we now seek.
The local telecommunications arena has undergone some substantial changes in the past 18 months, with new technology bringing both new challenges and new opportunities every week it seems. The monopoly continues to strengthen its already strong position during this time of reprieve, as the long-awaited Second Network Operator (SNO) slowly crumbles into obscurity.
Those ridiculous waiting periods in the U.S. mentioned earlier, for instance, can be shortened dramatically by going with a smaller second-tier provider, of which there are plenty to choose from, while, in many cases, enjoying better services at a lower price. While the bevy of choices that the U.S. market faces is not ever likely to become a reality in this market, at least some options need to be provided here for a healthy commercial environment to exist.
Cellular and the take-up of VoIP
And on the mobile front, the three existing service providers control the market so stringently that mobile data communications such as GPRS remain an infeasible solution for all but the most successful organizations.
However technology cannot be held in check, and cost-saving solution like unified messaging systems and Voice over IP (VoIP) implementations have begun making significant inroads in SA. The convergence of the data and voice networks has led to ways of bypassing current inefficient transport mechanisms on local, contained, IP networks without infringing on the regulatory minefield being created.
Organizations involved in both the telecommunications and ICT sectors, or in most cases today involved in both of these industries, are poised to tackle this option-starved arena with gusto. ICT-focused communications specialist, Comztek, recently launched its own telecommunications division, while large organizations such as Marpless are moving from being background names to being exposed, publicly accessible providers of telecoms alternatives and advanced industry solutions providers for the new operator and corporate customers to consider approaching.
VoWiFi — Next big thing
The newly formed Comztek division has been focusing on VoIP since its inception three to four months ago, according to division head, Chris Rodgers. “A lot of customers still seem to believe that it is illegal to carry voice over their local networks. This is not correct: voice transmissions are allowed, provided that at no point does this traffic break in or out of the Telkom communications network.
“Voice over Wireless is the next interesting area to watch out for. It is really a mature technology at this point with a host of cost savings inherent. Forrester Research Inc. reports maintain that by 2006 in the U.S., more VoIP ports will be provided than traditional telephone network ports, but we cannot expect that kind of uptake in SA. Of course VoIP is not a communications panacea, after all if everyone started using it over the Internet, for instance, the Net would simply bog down in all the voice traffic,” he says.
Marpless has quietly been deploying advanced telecommunications solutions for the requirements of various customers for a number of years, and has established itself as a formidable player in the SA communications arena, by providing the technology employed in the Sentech MyWireless offering among other high-visibility initiatives. Now the organization is shifting to a more exposed position, to take advantage of the burgeoning opportunities in telecoms.
Satellites a stop-gap
Says chief operating officer, Bertie Grobler: “While we are active in the provision of satellite transmissions circuits, I believe that satellite technology is really just a temporary solution until land-based infrastructures have been established. There are technology issues which are likely to limit the extent of satellite’s usefulness, and microwave, radio and backbone fibre transmissions will erode the deployment of space-based solutions.”
He continues: “I believe that one of the things that we require in SA is the introduction of a free line rental service. This will stimulate rural business and the economy on the whole, while the telecommunications operator providing such a service will be able to charge for the value-added services that it applies to these free lines. With a little bit of communications infrastructure investment will come a major boost in economy after all, which will drive more complex usage models and ultimately more revenue for the provider.”
In terms of mobile telephony services and tariffs, Grobler believes that the introduction of a fourth cellular provider by the end of next year, for which provision has been made, will see a major shake-up in the pricing policies of the industry. But, once again, VoIP is seen by Grobler as potentially having a tremendous impact on the face of the local telecoms landscape.
T-Systems SA, meanwhile, was born from debits IT services. But, with its joint venture with Denel providing the organization with a VPN licence, and significant international telecommunications skills from the Deutsche Telecoms group behind it, the organization is now committed to bringing globally competitive telecommunications, bandwidth and communications services to the SA market.
Desmond Seeley, T-Systems executive in charge of telecommunications and business development, is bullish about the organization’s efforts in this space. “We are bringing international resources and experience, together with local skills and ingenuity to create a compelling basket of offerings which the SA market with its global aspirations will really appreciated. What is clearly needed right now is some choice in the market, which will create value.”
Continues Seeley: “We now have an international POP in SA through Deutsche Telecoms, and are currently rolling out our MPLS network in conjunction with MCI UUNet to provide the IP platform that we will need. This is a local loop on the global MPLS platform, again something which no other SA company is capable of offering.”
T-Systems will be introducing its basket of service offerings in the month ahead, with a primary goal of demystifying the access component of telecommunications in the minds of end users. Thereafter the company intends taking the fight to Telkom itself over the all-important last mile. It claims to have a solution in place which will bring the much-desired competition factor into the SA market even sooner than the introduction of a full-blown alternate national operator, while offering the already mentioned service basket to the emerging telecoms concern that it believes will be revealed in due course.
With organizations like these, and others already in place and preparing to serve the needs of the telecoms arena in every way conceivable, can it be long before an enterprising organization will take advantage of these baskets of offerings and bring some real competition to the SA market?
With the SNO bogged down in arguments between consortium members, whether it will be this intended operator, or a currently more low-key third operator, which rumors suggest is nearer to fruition than may be widely believed, has yet to be seen. Whichever the case, however, the telecoms arena seems set for more activity, and more surprises, than it has experienced at any point in the history of our country.