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In South Africa, broadband Internet is most closely associated with ADSL. But companies are increasingly investing in other technologies. This article discussed three key last-mile broadband technologies for businesses – Fibre, Fixed Mobile and Microwave.


Fibre is, without a doubt, the fastest and most reliable last-mile connectivity service. Fibre to the Business (FTTB) entry prices are higher than Fibre to the Home (FTTH), however pricing decreases as speeds increase.

Fibre is flexible in that speeds are upgradeable beyond any of the other three technologies discussed here. Speeds start from 10 Mbps up to a breakneck 1 Gbps.

Unlike ADSL, which is asymmetrical – different upload and download speeds – fibre is a symmetrical technology, which means that speeds are the same whether uploading or downloading.

The downside of fibre:

As evidenced by the amount of digging in many metropolitan areas, this technology – unless it is aerial fibre – is heavily dependent on trenches, which is very expensive and makes availability limited in some areas.

This underground requirement also requires approval from the likes of councils and landlords, which could lead to bureaucratic delays and very long installation times.

In addition, if you are in an area undergoing heavy construction, fibre could be accidentally cut by digging.

Long installation times can be frustrating, however it is definitely worth the wait if you want the benefits of higher speeds and reliability. The upside: you can use wireless or microwave technology as an interim deployment while you wait.


Last-mile access using microwave is another reliable solution, with speeds – of up to 100 Mbps – making it comparable to fibre in speed, reliability and cost.

Microwave is definitely faster to install than fibre but is still fairly long compared to other wireless technologies.

The downside of Microwave technology

While it is fast to deploy in those areas having no fibre, it is a more specialised last-mile technology and requires near line-of-sight from the business to the closest tower. This means if the line-of-sight is obstructed in any way 

This technology offers stability similar to fibre but speeds cannot exceed 100Mbps without becoming too costly.


Fixed Mobile – LTE
Long-term evolution or LTE targets mobile users who require high-speed access.

Since its first deployment in South Africa, this next generation, fast-maturing connectivity technology has seen rapid growth and is becoming increasingly more cost-effective. Estimates are that as much as 67 percent of South Africa is covered by LTE, with speeds starting at 2 Mbps and going as high as 150 Mbps in some areas.

It doesn’t require line of sight and the coverage areas of the major networks increase almost daily.

The downside of LTE

While providing fast Internet access, speeds could vary depending on the load on the network as well as signal strength and coverage areas.

Also, LTE is a best effort service which means you cannot get an SLA to guarantee uptime.

No matter the size of a business, choosing the right Internet is fraught with challenges.There are many factors that impact the performance and experience of the Internet. Understanding what your business usesInternet for will help you to determine which technology service is right for the business.

While price is an important factor, it should not be the primary reason for selecting an Internet service.Internet is not a commodity or expense,it must be viewed as a business asset. It is worth taking the time to really explore how your connectivity is used to power your business.

How your business uses Internet

The simplest way to think about Internet is to understand what you and your staff are using the Internet for and determine how reliant your business is on the Internet.

Some businesses have very basic usage needs such as for sending a few emails and Internet browsing; others are connecting to international servers, using a lot of voice and video; and some cannot run their business at all without Internet connectivity.

What you use the Internet for will govern the price, speed and reliability of the product you actually need.

Determining where you fit on the Internet Reliance Wheel is important to understand the type of technology that is best suited, the service level you need, and understanding the limits of the solution you eventually choose.

Implementing the wrong Internet solution for your business can seriously impact productivity and your businesses ability to deliver to your customers.

Not every business requires connectivity at a premium service level, but do you know where you stand?

Do you know whether the Internet you have in place is enabling or hampering you?

The Internet Reliance Guide

We have developed this guide to help you assess where your business currently stands and which Internet you need.

Our recommendation is to discuss this internally, get to know what your true needs are then connect with usto speak to a sales consultant who will support you through the options that are best for your business.


Fibre is a technology that provides high-speed Internet over strands of glass, with data being transmitted as pulses of light. Meaning data can travel faster than ever before. The fibre optic cable that is laid underground in your area has a varying number of glass strands and they are contained within a glass layer called cladding and a jacket which is a final protective layer.

Fibre compared to copper

Old technology like ADSL instead uses copper, which is a conductive metal using electricity to send data and is therefore more likely to have interference. As copper has a high value in South Africa, copper cables are often dug up to sell illegally, leaving many businesses stranded without Internet.  Fire optic cable has no value on the black market in South Africa and is therefore left alone. In addition, copper conducts electricity which means thunderstorms, which affect all areas of South Africa can cause interference on the lines. 

Latency is a big factor

Latency is also a big factor when it comes to the performance of the Internet.  Latency is the term to describe the time it takes a data packet to travel to a local server and back again. This duration of time is known as latency and is recorded in milliseconds (ms). What affects latency is the last-mile: last-mile is the final connectivity leg between a telecommunication service provider and a business or home. Last-mile connectivity can be fibre, wireless or copper and will affect latency. If the last-mile is slow, lagging or intermittent, the Internet will feel slow.

With fibre the latency is far quicker than copper or wireless (air). Fibre is 3 ms, wireless between 30 to 50 ms and with ADSL 100 to 200 ms. This last-mile is therefore just as crucial as the Internet speed itself.

High-speed broadband

Fibre is also known as a high-speed broadband technology. Broadband is the term for any high-speed Internet access including Fibre, ADSL, wireless, mobile LTE and Microwave technologies. What distinguishes broadband from older technologies is that it is always on, and faster than dial-up access over traditional Analogue or ISDN, PTSN services.

As evidenced by the amount of digging in your area, fibre technology is heavily dependent on trenches, which is very expensive and makes availability limited, although this is constantly growing in metropolitan areas like Gauteng, Johannesburg. Broadband fibre also requires approval from the likes of councils and landlords, which could lead to bureaucratic delays and very long installation times.

While the roll out of broadband fibre in South Africa has definitely increased, the entry prices are still high because of the investment in trenching, the cost of manufacturing of fibre optic cables and switching hardware used to decode data at each end of the cable. Telecommunications providers in South Africa who have invested in the cable infrastructure, have been aggressively competing to get as many customers as possible to pay off the cost of the infrastructure and secure a “locked-in” customer base – in what is called the fibre “land-grab”. There are new fibre deals for business being marketed daily, however the cheapest does not always mean the best and depends entirely on the business requirements.

Why you need high speed Internet

Businesses are increasingly seeking high-speed Internet to keep up with their data requirements. There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created around the world every single day and 90% of it was generated in the last two years! We have become a data generating and data hungry world. With smart devices, video, voice and cloud applications becoming the norm, businesses in South Africa have to get high-speed Internet if they are to compete now and in the future.

As businesses increasingly use cloud-based services, intelligent software and communications becomes unified, the availability of data sits centre-stage as a key enabler for productivity and competitive advantage. Connectivity underpins it all: access to connectivity that is consistent, reliable and fast is the fuel that businesses need to grow.

In a world that is rapidly churning out connected devices – consumer products, durable goods, cars, sensors etc., – what is called the ‘Internet of Things’ is going to transform the way we work, live and play.

280,000 South Africans are connected to fibre according to statistics from the FTTX Council as of March 2018 and this is only going to grow. 

Fibre is, without a doubt, the fastest and most reliable last-mile connectivity service. Fibre provides more bandwidth, that is the capacity of a network link to transmit the maximum amount of data from one point to another over a network or Internet in a given amount of time – usually measured in one second.

Fibre has far greater capacity which is measured in millions of bits per second (Mbps) or billions of bits per second (Gbps). Fibre providers currently offer bandwidth up to 1 Gbps in South Africa.

Since with fibre data travels in the form of light, very little signal loss occurs during transmission and data can move at faster speeds for longer distances.

For example, a local area network using copper lines can carry 3000 telephone calls all at once, while a similar system using fibre optics can carry over 31,000. This means that data can travel up to 50 km to and from an exchange before its speed is impacted.

Fibre transfers more data at a higher throughput over longer distances than copper wire.

Fibre is very flexible in that speeds are upgradeable up to 1Gbps without any infrastructure changes. While the entry prices of fibre are high, the costs decrease as speed increases.

Unlike ADSL which is asymmetrical – having different upload and download speeds – fibre is a symmetrical technology, which means that speeds are the same whether uploading or downloading.

The pitfalls of fibre

Unfortunately not every business will have fibre available in their area but the good news is that coverage is growing daily in South Africa.

Fibre could be damaged during any construction or digging in your area because they are thinner than copper cables. 

Purchasing a broadband fibre package is expensive initially as it requires specialist equipment such as routers and wireless access points as well as installers, however the initial outlay will be recovered over time.

When choosing an Internet service the contention ratios provided by your supplier need to be thoroughly understood. It’s crucial that business owners themselves – and not their technical personnel – understand what they will be getting because it could affect their experience of the Internet.

For example, business owners think they are receiving 100 Mbps Internet where in fact they could be getting as low as 10 Mbps depending on the time of day. Let’s find out why…

Explaining contention ratios

Contention ratio is quite simple to explain. Imagine you’re driving a super car down a four lane autobahn highway that has no speed limits at three in the morning. There are no cars around, and you can drive as fast as you want. But drive that same car at eight in the morning in “rush” hour traffic, when everyone is trying to get to work and you’re sharing the same road with all other users, it doesn’t matter how big the road is or how fast the car is, you’re constrained to going as fast as traffic allows.

Now contention ratios simply mean ISPs take one Internet “road” – or pipe — of 100 Mbps, and sell it to more than one customer. ISPs buy IP transit, or Internet capacity, and use a ten-to-one contention ratio, or sell that capacity ten times over.

It’s worth mentioning that if ISP’s have sold a 100 Mbps line ten times, then each customer only gets 10 Mbps, because the reality is that people tend to use the Internet in short bursts – you get to work, you download e-mails, then do other work, then come back and do a bit of browsing, and then you do something else, then you come back and download files.

What does this mean for a business user?

This contention ratio means that during quiet periods, users will get more freedom of the road because very few people are awake and are using the Internet at that time. And when it’s a busy period – for example, when people get to work and download their e-mails, connect to their CRM systems, and use their Internet extensively — then the traffic builds up and the line could get slower.

If we look at the typical traffic on an Internet user, it goes up and down in spikes. Different businesses have different peaks and troughs at different times. With, for example, a one-to-ten ratio, we’ve found most customers get between 70 and 80 percent of their line speed at all times.

But why should SMEs be aware of contention ratios?

Business users need to understand that if they bought a 100 Mbps line, they’re not necessarily guaranteed to constantly get 100 Mbps. There is simply no guarantee other than what is outlined in your contention ratio in your terms and conditions or in the SLA.

So if it says one-to-ten, you’re guaranteed to get no less than 10 Mbps out of your 100 Mbps line. I’ll say it again: if you’ve bought a one-to-ten contention ratio, you cannot contractually complain about the performance of the line if you’re not getting 100 Mbps.

But, that being said, you’re not necessarily going to constantly get the slowest possible speed. It’s only during busy periods when it’s going to be the slowest. But unfortunately, when it’s a busy period, that’s when businesses need the Internet the most. That’s when staff need to be productive, get e-mails done, and then get out on the road and see clients – or whatever the case may be.

So it’s vital the business user needs to look out for the contention ratio they’ve agreed to because it can hamper the productivity of the business when it’s most needed.

Read the fine print

Where do you find your contention ratio? In your contract, look at the fine print in the product specifications or the SLA. If it’s not in the fine print it’s likely it’s not contended — chances are your ISP will advertise it clearly because it is a selling point: if it’s one-to-one, it will be spelled out as a dedicated or one-to-one line or shown like this 1:1.

But if it’s hidden in the fine print in the back of your contract under the terms and conditions or in the SLA, it’s likely your ISP doesn’t want you to be aware of it. So it’s important for the business user to ask about it if it is not clearly spelled out.

Generally speaking, most broadband services are run one-to-ten. Contention ratios on ASDSL is higher. The traditional minimal ADSL ratio is one-to-20 on the Telkom IPC exchange, but ISPs themselves contend it further – we’ve seen contention ratios of in excess of one-to-100!

For example, Neotel’s fibre and broadband is one-to-ten, while Vodacom’s broadband is one-to-20. LTE, as a technology, is one-to-20, and most other wireless providers are in the region of one-to-five or one-to-ten.  For fibre and microwave it’s dependent on the product itself.

But wait. There’s an upside

There is an upside for contention ratios. The benefit is that some SMEs will not use the full capacity of their line speed all the time – it will be used only in short bursts from time to time.

So if the company’s average usage is 10 Mbytes, but from time-to-time it needs 100 Mbps, it doesn’t need to pay for that 100 Mbps when it’s not being used. By buying a contended service, it is there for me to use in those times I need the bursts, but I don’t expect to have it all the time.

SMEs can buy a line that is faster when they can’t afford a dedicated 100 Mbps line — it’s about aligning the needs of the business to the product so that expectation and delivery is on par. It’s about clients understanding what they get, so they make the right decision.

Contention is not necessarily a bad thing. If it’s understood and applied in the correct way, it works for all parties concerned.