fibre, digital divide, fast internet
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  • Alexandra, the services-poor township neighbouring the super-rich Sandton, was supposed to get a digital leg up a year and a half ago: very cheap, super fast fibre internet connections.
  • There is still not fibre in Alex, though, thanks to a regulatory fight between an obscure service provider and the City of Johannesburg.
  • It now looks like Mitchells Plain in Cape Town will be the first relatively poor area to get the kind of internet connections currently reserved for the relatively rich.
  • For more, go to Business Insider's home page.

In September 2017 fibre-to-the-home company Vumatel announced the start of a digital revolution.

Within months, Vumatel said, it would start a pilot project to roll out fibre connections to the Alexandra township in Johannesburg – including to the informal dwellings that are common in Alex.

Each home would have access to a 100 megabit per second connection, which is just about five times faster than the best cellphone data connection they could hope for.

That internet pipe would be uncapped, meaning each home would pay only one flat fee no matter how much data they used.

And that flat fee would be R89 per month, less than 10% the price currently paid for roughly the same connection in South Africa's affluent suburbs such as Sandton, the "wealthiest square mile" in Africa right next door to Alex.

Just what the impact would be was hard to predict, but cheap and super fast internet offered some hope in a township its own community leaders describe as a deteriorating slum and where residents protest about the delivery of the most basic of services.

18 months later Alexandra has no fibre connections to homes. But Mitchells Plain, a Cape Town suburb hard-hit by gangs and drugs, seems set to become just the kind of experiment in low data prices Alexandra was supposed to have been.

"The first homes to receive services are expected to be live in August of this year," Vumatel told Business Insider South Africa this week of the Mitchells Plain network, construction on which has already started.

Mitchells Plain won't get quite the deal that had been planned for Alexandra. Residents will be paying up to R400 per month for a 20 megabit per second connection. Those connections will be uncapped, however, and will come with no connection or installation fees, which run to at least R1,725 everywhere else. It will also be sold as pre-paid rather than on a contract basis, and won't have the contention system that would, in Alexandra, have meant that data throughput would slow down if many neighbours used their connections at the same time.

Perhaps most significantly for some of its residents, the schools in the coverage area in Mitchells Plain are each due to get a free connection at one gigabit per second, just as Alexandra schools were supposed to.

Why Alex is still waiting

All three the major players involved in what should have been the landmark Alexandra project are tight-lipped about exactly what happened – and about which of them is at fault – but on one thing they at least agree: Alex does not yet have cheap and fast internet because of paperwork.

They just can't agree on such details as just what kind of paperwork that is, whether it exists, who should have done it, and whether the problem will be sorted out any time soon.

"Currently, the roll-out cannot commence until we have received wayleave approvals from the City [of Johannesburg] to utilise the existing pole infrastructure in Alexandra for aerial deployment," says Vumatel.

Vumatel believes the issue of wayleaves, or the right to run its fibre optic cables over city-owned infrastructure, "will be resolved soon".

The City of Johannesburg, however, says it has no idea why Vumatel would expect a resolution soon. This week the office responsible for Johannesburg's economic development said a forensic investigation into the company that granted Vumatel wayleaves on behalf of the City was still ongoing, and it the city's government would only be able to decide what to do once that investigation is completed.

The City could not say how much longer the investigation is likely to take.

Meanwhile the city contractor at the heart of the investigation, an obscure company called Altivex 705, says both Vumatel and the City are wrong: it never granted any wayleaves to Vumatel, and there is no ongoing investigation into it either.

Vumatel says it has "a contract with Altivex "under which the wayleave application was processed last year", but "the City has not yet released the necessary wayleaves" while it investigates Altivex.

The City agrees that Altivex has played a role in managing the city-owned poles from which Vumatel intends to string its fibre-optic cables, and that there is an investigation into what it termed a "tangled web of intrigue" behind how Vumatel got the right to string up aerial fibre.

Altivex, on the other hand, says things are quite simple. It has a contract to monetise the city-owned poles, charging those who want to string fibre along them money and sharing that money with City (in terms of a revenue-share agreement it will not disclose.) Altivex does not apply for wayleaves, it does not process wayleaves, and has nothing to do with regulations on who can do what where – unless it is stringing fibre along poles.

There was indeed a forensic investigation into its relationship with Johannesburg, Altivex director Brett McLaughlin told Business Insider this week – and according to a report from April 2018 of which it has had sight (but will not share), the recommendation was that the matter be closed.

"Our only comment is that our contract is valid, and in force, and there are no issues with it," said McLaughlin.

Vumatel does have a contract in place with Altivex, McLaughlin said – but it is not yet active in Alexandra. In order to run fibre in that township, Vumatel would have to identify the poles it wants to use and submit an application, and as of this week Altivex "haven't received any information or application".

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