By BILLY MORGAN
After a few months of digging up verges and roads, fibre is now rolling out apace across Makhanda. All sorts of folk are dashing up to you in the local supermarket parking lot trying to sign you up for one or another fibre deal.
So what is it all about?
Well first, let us define some terms…
Asymmetric: the maximum amount of data that can be delivered over the service (download) is higher (typically about 10 times) than the maximum amount that can be sent out (upload).
Symmetric: the download and upload bandwidth maximums are the same.
Ping time: the speed at which the signal travels – think of this as the maximum speed trucks carrying your data can travel because of the road service and conditions.
Megabits per second (Mbps): the amount of data that can be transferred in a certain time – think of this as how many trucks carrying your data can travel side-by-side.
Asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL): a fixed-line service over copper.
Termination Point (TP): the box on the wall where the incoming fibre from the curb is terminated.
Optical Network Termination (ONT): sometimes referred to as an optical modem, the device that converts the optical signal to an electrical signal.
Router: the device that connects to the ONT and allows all your other devices to connect to the Internet.
Wi-Fi: A wireless network for connecting devices to a router.
Infrastructure Provider: company that provides the physical connection – for example OpenServe (for ADSL), Frogfoot (Fibre), Herotel (Fibre).
Internet Service Provider (ISP): company that provides the Internet service over the installed infrastructure – for example GEEnet, Imaginet, Webafrica, Afrihost, Vox.
Work From Home (WFH): at the moment this is also study-from-home for many.
Right, let us get into it!
Many people are familiar with having a connection to the Internet over ADSL. This is what is known as a “Fixed Line” connection. A company provided a physical copper cable from the local telephone exchange to your house and you paid someone else to provide you with access to the Internet using a modem or router that connected to that cable.
Fibre is simply a replacement for the copper cable using a fibre optic cable. You will still need to plug a router into that cable and pay someone else to provide you with an Internet access package.
So if it is so similar, why make the change?
Well, the similarity is only that it is a Fixed Line service. The differences between a fixed copper cable and a fixed optical cable are massive in terms of speed and reliability.
Optical fibre connections are more stable as they are not affected by weather or electrical interference.
While optical fibre cable is expensive, it does not have the kind of resale value that copper cables have and they are therefore not a target for thieves. This also makes the service more reliable as large sections do not go missing overnight only to resurface at the scrap merchants the next day.
So think of ADSL as being an untarred mountain pass that the trucks carrying your data have to travel over, contending with mudslides when it rains, potholes or entire sections dug up. By comparison, fibre is a tarred multi-lane highway that the trucks carrying your data can speed along side-by-side.
Does the fact that it is a fixed-line service mean that all my devices must plug in with a cable?
No, while the router plugs into the fibre via a fixed-line and then provides some wired connections (typically 4) to connect wired devices like PCs or TVs directly via a cable, it also has a built-in Wi-Fi service that will allow for the connection of all your Wi-Fi enabled devices like your cellphone or tablet devices. If you use a service like WhatsApp on your cellphone to make calls, these calls can then route through your fibre line and not use the expensive mobile data provided by your cellular provider.
Okay, you’ve convinced me. I want to move from the dirt track to the tarred highway.
How much bandwidth (available traffic lanes) do I need?
Well before we get to that, let us discuss uncapped or capped. A capped service is where the provider of the road says that they will limit the number of trucks that can go to your house during a certain period to ensure that other people who are also expecting truck data deliveries can share the road equitably. This was a big issue on the dirt track as you did not want your few trucks to get stuck behind a convoy. But on the nice wide tarred road, not to worry.
Almost all the packages offered by the ISPs are uncapped and this is probably the best way to go.
Asymmetrical or Symmetrical?
This is worth considering. It is related to whether you are predominantly a consumer of content or also a producer of content.
For most use, asymmetrical (higher download speed) is usually the most logical choice as we mainly consume content.
However, with working lives changing to more WFH – we are also now producing content that needs to be uploaded. This is particularly true for lecturing staff.
The good news is that typically it is not that much more expensive for a symmetric service rather than an asymmetric service – so if you are unsure, you can go symmetric without too much of a cost penalty.
Okay, so what speed do I need? I am completely flummoxed by whether I need 30/2 Mbps or 100/100 Mbps. Help!
Both the number of users and the number of simultaneously connected devices are factors. So consider how many people will be connecting using their cellphones, tablets and PCs. Smart TVs are also usually connected. The first step is to get a sense of how many people will likely connect simultaneously and how many devices are likely to be connected simultaneously. Also remember that even if there are 4 of you each with a cellphone that is connected, it is unlikely that all 4 cellphones will be downloading a large amount of data at the same time.
For a family of 4 or fewer where typically 3 to 4 devices are connected at any one time, the recommendation would be for a 50/4 Mbps asymmetrical package from the ISP. If the budget is really tight, a 30/2 Mbps connection should be the least expensive while still providing an acceptable connection.
If there is content being produced or a lot of 2-way video-conferencing taking place, consider 30/30 Mbps or 50/50 Mbps.
For 4 or more users and 5 or more simultaneously connected devices, a 50/5, 50/50, 200/15 or 100/100 is probably the answer.
Be careful when choosing a package from the ISP – not all fibre operators are available in Makhanda. So for example, if the package is on Openserve Fibre or Metrofibre, you cannot get it here. Frogfoot and Herotel are the Infrastructure Providers in Makhanda. Most of the ISP sites have a tool where you put in your address and it will then list what is actually available for your area.
I am curious as to how the price differs depending on the package?
This is a breakdown of pricing from one ISP.
The prices are per month and most providers bill in advance.
30/2 Mbps package – R 600 (R20/Mbps)
50/4 Mbps package – R 700 (R14/Mbps)
100/5 Mbps package – R 850 (R8.50/Mbps)
200/15 Mbps package – R 950 (R4.75/Mbps)
30/30 Mbps package – R 740 (~R25/Mbps)
50/50 Mbps package – R1050 (~R21/Mbps)
100/100 Mbps package – R 1140 (~R11.40/Mbps)
1000/1000 Mbps package – R 1350(~R1.35/Mbps)
If you are wanting asymmetrical – a really good bang-for-buck package is the 50/4 Mbps offering.
If you want symmetrical – 30/30 will do for most. If you want more, you may as well go 100/100 Mbps or even 1000/1000 Mbps.
Once you get to 50/50 and above it really depends on where you want to set your limit.
50/50 is R1050, but then you can double that to 100/100 for only R1140 which is only R90/ month more or you could just say that for another R210 you could get 10 times as much and go for a speed of 1000/1000.
As you can see it gets cheaper per Mbps as you buy more, so the temptation is to say that you then may as well buy the maximum. But for most people, the majority of that available bandwidth will be wasted. On the odd occasion that you need to download a 10 GB file, it will be fantastic, but when downloading a 10MB file if it takes 1 second or 0.1 of a second you will not really notice – in both cases it will be very quick.
Pulling this all together. If you are on a budget and have typical usage, a 30/2 Mbps package is suggested, or 30/30 Mbps if you are creating and uploading a lot of content.
If you have the money to spend and want to ensure you have the best experience, you probably want to go for a 100/100 Mbps or even a 1000/1000 Mbps package.
Links to ISP websites
GEEnet – https://www.geenet.co.za/
Imaginet – https://www.imaginet.co.za/
Webafrica – https://www.webafrica.co.za/fibre/
Afrihost – https://www.afrihost.com/fibre/
Vox – https://www.vox.co.za/fibre
What router do I need?
Your ISP will provide you with a router that they may or may not cover the cost of depending on the terms and conditions of your contract. In my case, my provider couriered a router to me that I had to pay the courier charges for. I did not have to pay for the router itself as long as I keep my contract for 24 months. If I cancel, they will claw back the router costs.
Once the fibre was connected it was a case of plugging in the router, logging into it with the provided username and password for the router and then setting up the username and password for the ISP connection. I also set the Wi-Fi credentials to be the same as my previous ADSL router so that our wireless devices could just automagically connect to the new router with no intervention needed on their side.
There are a few other things to think of and consider.
If you currently have some sort of power backup like a UPS for your modem or router, you will also need to include the ONT onto this backup as it requires power for the service to work.
The installers typically allow for an installation from the curb-side box to the TP in your house that includes 30 metres of trenching. If they have to trench more than 30 metres, they will most likely bill you for it.
If you are able to, you should probably install your own conduit on your property and provide a pull-through cord for the installers. The installers use a thin plastic sleeve to route the fibre inside your property to your house. A spade or fork will easily cut right through the sleeve if you forget whereabouts they buried it. Using conduit gives the fibre a sporting chance against garden implements. Before doing all this, make sure you know where the curb-side connection box is for your house. It is not always where you expect it will be.
Reference: I used data from https://www.webafrica.co.za/fibre/ for the examples for the various costs and offerings. Other providers may have similar or different offerings for similar or different prices. Shop around for the deal that suits you best.
- Billy Morgan is an ICT Manager in the Departments of Computer Science and Information Systems at Rhodes University and member of the Academic Technologies Roundtable (ATR). For Rhodes colleagues, he created this guide explaining some key terms and considerations for those investigating making the switch to fibre at home. He kindly agreed to share it with our readers and does so in his personal capacity.