SA’s small towns were hesitant about fibre – now, as Zoom towns, they’re begging for it

Business Insider SA

Fibre internet small town South Africa
(Photo by Gallo Images/Fani Mahuntsi)
  • The coronavirus-induced remote work trend has made small towns, particularly those near the coast, more attractive.
  • These "Zoom Towns", in the southern Cape and parts of KwaZulu-Natal, are experiencing an influx of new homebuyers.
  • But fibre connections, generally considered more stable and affordable than LTE or satellite, are still lacking.
  • Some towns which initially opposed fibre firms digging up roads and sidewalks to lay cables are now asking for faster internet.
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Some small towns in South Africa were opposed to laying of underground fibre optic cables – but that was before the Covid-19 pandemic and the influx of new, younger residents looking to capitalise on the remote-work trend.

The global coronavirus pandemic has altered how and where people work. South Africa’s offices are emptier than they’ve ever been before. Employees are working remotely, utilising video communication apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to stay connected.

Smaller towns, particularly those close to the coast in the Western Cape and parts of KwaZulu-Natal, have attracted a flurry of inland homebuyers. "Zoom Towns", or "Teams Towns" – named after the popular platforms which facilitate virtual meetings – offer entrepreneurs and employees a better work-life balance, with property prices generally more affordable than those near metropolitan business districts.

And while this influx of remote workers has given new life to small towns which were previously reliant on seasonal trade, technological infrastructure, critical to work in this heightened digital age, has some catching up to do.

A stable, secure, consistent, and fast internet connection is a prerequisite, something some of these new Zoom towns, initially resistant to the digging of roads and sidewalks for the laying of cable, still lack.

While fibre is generally considered one of the most reliable and affordable ways of connecting a home to the internet, many small towns still rely on LTE, wireless broadband communication utilising cellphone towers.

For areas with poor network coverage, satellite internet access has been a feasible, but more costly, alternative.

“When broadband companies initially started deploying fibre infrastructure they mainly focussed on the major metro’s where there was certain demand,” Juanita Clark, cofounder and CEO of Digital Council Africa, which tracks and supports digital and data-driven technologies, told Business Insider South Africa.

“As those areas became saturated, they started moving into secondary towns and today many smaller towns have excellent fibre optic network infrastructure, or at a minimum they are in the planning phase to deploy fibre optic infrastructure and most of these small towns should see FTTH [fibre to the home] operators working in their streets in next two years.”

Openserve, which has the largest fibre network in South Africa, is already connected in some Zoom Towns like Hermanus, Malmesbury, Langebaan, and Kleinmond. Cables are still being laid in towns like Rooi Els, Pringle Bay, and Bettys Bay.

Other newer fibre installation companies, like Lightstruck, founded in 2016, have focused their attention on outlying areas in the Western Cape, Northern Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal.

Some small towns and municipalities have traditionally been wary of fibre. The process is invasive, with roads and sidewalks chopped up to accommodate cables, requiring machinery which disturbs and disrupts the typical small-town stillness.

“Unfortunately, in the earlier days of deploying broadband infrastructure, some municipalities refused to allow operators entry into the towns, and, as a result, those towns today have to live without broadband,” said Clark.

“These places will simply be left behind. Demand has meant that operators have simply moved on to other towns that have allowed them to proceed, and although it is a bit easier to deploy infrastructure today than it was 10 years ago, the processes are still slow and cumbersome.”

“In many cases the residents stopped the deployment because they did not want ‘their roads dug up’. We have seen a marked increase in the same communities now asking for broadband to be deployed.”

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