Wire Up The Engines!

I love the word access because I think of it as an open door to so many possibilities.

With this in mind, I thought about the different types of internet access we have available today thanks to our dear friend technology.

It is possible you might get confused by all of this, so for the next three weeks, I will be breaking them down for you, to try and help you get a grip on what they are, how they work, or could work best for our current digital climate here in South Africa.

Today, we will start with the basics and delve into the world of wired technology, which is becoming increasingly available all over the African continent.

Wired up:

Wired technology refers to the use of fixed wires or cables that give you access to the internet.

The most common is Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) which uses the high frequencies of an existing telephone line to provide a connection to the internet.

The ‘A’ in ADSL means that our upload or upstream speed is different from our download (or downstream) speed, since we are often more interested in getting information off the internet, than say, putting information on it, hence the term ‘asymmetrical’.

Today, the data exchange speed for ADSL typically ranges between 256 kbit/s to 20Mbit/s (sometimes more) and enables faster data transmission than a conventional voice-band modem (anyone remember dial-up?).

In plain speak, these numbers indicate how quickly you can download your music, movies or series from the web (legally of course!).

ADSL is generally only distributed over short distances which is typically up to 4 kilometers, but could range up to 8 kilometers depending on the original wire gauge.

(wire gauge: determines the amount of electricity that can be safely transferred through the wire).

Only 10% of households in South Africa have access to the internet (through fixed lines).

Factors like location play a big part in this with affluent provinces like Gauteng and the Western Cape making up 36,8% of those with internet at home.

The North West and Limpopo province had the lowest statistics.

What this means is that rural communities continue to lag behind in areas of ICT development and other means must be explored.

Which brings us to its counterpart: Fibre Optic Communication/Cables.

The distinction between ADSL and Fibre is that ADSL makes use of fixed lines in which data is transmitted over a high frequency, while fibre on the other hand, uses signals that are made up of light.

The light travels through a special type of glass or flexible cable which is what gives it its super speed.

You can read here for a simple explanation of this.

The advantages of fibre mean that we are able to have access to the internet at a very high speed and these cables can cover a long range of geographical space.

This could be a stepping stone to getting South Africa on equal playing ground for access to the internet as the fibre communications cables have brought more capacity to our shores.

Currently, South Africa is served by five underwater cables: SAT-2, SAT-3 /WASC/SAFE,SEACOM,EASSy, and WACSand another five have been proposed, but are not yet in operation.

The main problem with this, however, seems to be the cost.

As you might expect, fibre is much more expensive and difficult to install.

Furthermore, the maintenance for these cables significantly affects the price you must be willing to fork out to use them.

It’s all ’bout the money:

ADSL prices have decreased, mostly in response to competing mobile network operators and more Internet Service Providers (ISP) having entered the South African market.

However, ADSL prices in South Africa still remain among the highest in the world in comparison to developed markets.

In terms of speed, The State of the Internet report for 2010, showed that South Africa was one of 86 countries which had an average connection speed below 1 Mbit/s, which is below the global average broadband threshold of 2 Mbit/s.

While wired technologies have paved the groundwork for South Africa’s internet access, it seems that this is not the best option for our digital climate at the moment given the costs and implementation time.

Next week, we’ll be exploring wireless options and look to see if this may be a better response to our ICT challenges.

In the mean-time, check out this presentation that details the history of the undersea cables in Africa, or this really cool site that has a comprehensive overview of each one (and others) mentioned in today’s post.

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