MTN says its ‘AirFibre’ is a real alternative to cables – here’s how it compares on price

Business Insider SA
Supersonic AirFibre MTN cost
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  • MTN’s ISP, Supersonic, has launched "AirFibre" as a rival to cabled network operators in South Africa.
  • AirFibre uses MTN’s already existing cell phone tower infrastructure and doesn’t require trenching to lay underground cables.
  • It’s uncapped 10Mbps package, which costs R499 per month, matches offers by Webafrica and Mweb over fibre-optic cable.
  • But a tree in the wrong place, or bad weather, could mean trouble.
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Mobile telecommunications giant MTN has launched Supersonic "AirFibre" in South Africa as an alternative to cabled fibre. The wireless internet service will use MTN’s existing reception network and will not require trenching for the laying of underground fibre optic cables, but will still compete on quality, the company says.

According to Digital Council Africa, fibre internet subscriptions have surged by over 168% in the past five years, with 1.6 million end points registered by 2020.

But while the rollout of fibre has been fast in major metropolitan hubs, rural and peri-urban areas have seen slower rollout, and uptake. Although fibre network operators (FNOs), like Openserve, a division of Telkom, are actively expanding into South Africa’s townships, a huge portion of the country is not yet connected via fibre.

The process involved in laying fibre optic cables is labour intensive. It also needs to comply with municipal bylaws and approval. The infrastructure is not immune to vandalism and needs to be maintained by technicians.

But using an unlicensed frequency spectrum, it can achieve “fibre-like” internet in a coverage area of more than 15kms, MTN says.

“We install additional equipment on the existing MTN towers, and then we do an install at each homeowner’s home with a small dish that will connect to the tower,” says Calvin Collett, managing director at Supersonic, MTN's internet service provider (ISP).

“This will allow connectivity to multiple people within the home where the dish is installed.”

All packages are uncapped and include installation costs and a Supersonic router. Launch prices are:

  • R399 for 5Mbps
  • R499 for 10Mbps
  • R599 for 20Mbps
  • R799 for 50Mbps
  • R999 for 100Mbps

Here's how those prices from MTN's fibre alternative compares to actual fibre services.

AirFibre price comparison
ISP price comparison

Comparisons are based on the cheapest ISP rates across three different FNOs – Openserve, Vumatel, and Octotel, which provide the widest national coverage – and do not include synchronous packages, so only download speeds are compared.

While the cost of Supersonic’s AirFibre is competitive across most speeds, fixed wireless solutions do have their drawbacks. Although MTN promises a coverage of more than 15km from the base station, receivers will need to be in the tower’s line of sight. Households surrounded by tall buildings, trees or hills which obscure the vision between the tower and the receiver, will likely be unsuitable candidates for AirFibre.

Additionally, adverse weather conditions, like rain or thick fog, can interrupt the connection between the receiver and the tower, leading to unstable internet speeds and downtime. 

While SuperSonic’s AirFibre technology exists and has already been successfully trialled, the ISP is calling for South Africans to log an interest request which will be used to gauge the demand in specific areas. This is the same approach used by FNOs to evaluate the feasibility of a location-based rollout.

“This approach allows us to be flexible to our customers’ needs and gives us the freedom to deploy the solution in the areas that want and need it most,” says Collett.

Once enough households in a particular area show interest in AirFibre, the coverage map will be updated, and technicians will be able to begin installations within a week of orders being placed.

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