Not all fibre users seemed to be equal and certain types of users were excluded. Small businesses complained that, even though the fibre connections were installed in front of their premises, they could not make use of them. Generic image.
Date: 27 August 2021 By: Anton van Zyl
For the past year, the residents of Louis Trichardt had to endure the activities of contractors installing fibre-optic infrastructure in town. Gardens were dug up and poles were planted in often the most inconvenient of places. “It is all for the greater good,” they were told, because it will bring faster Internet and it will allow everyone to benefit from the advantages of new technology.
This all seemed very good, but the waiting period seemed to drag on and on. The business sector, especially, eagerly awaited the day that the fibre lines would become active. This would allow these mostly small businesses to increase productivity and break free from the frustrations associated with slow and outdated ADSL lines.
The past two months, various companies started to market their services. Posters appeared on street poles inviting consumers to subscribe and you could hardly open a social-media application without being bombarded by the adverts.
As more and more people were enticed to subscribe, problems started to surface. Not all fibre users seemed to be equal and certain types of users were excluded. Small businesses complained that, even though the fibre connections were installed in front of their premises, they could not make use of them. This sounded somewhat unbelievable, so we decided to put the matter to the test.
It’s there, but not for you!
At the Zoutpansberger’s office in 16B Joubert Street, two companies laid their fibre optic lines, namely Vumatel and Herotel. A third company, Letaba Wireless, also offers fibre Internet connectivity, but not yet at the office address.
We first visited Vumatel’s site and used their search option to check whether fibre is available. The results showed that this definitely is the case and that we can choose from a variety of service providers. No mention is made of a differentiation between home and office users.
Because we were familiar with two of these service providers, we opted to start with them. We first submitted an application with Afrihost for a 100 Mb/s line at R997 per month. A further R1 497 activation fee is required and a courier cost for the “free” router. We decided to go for it, and not long after this, the money was deducted, and the router was on its way.
Unfortunately, the matter was not that easy. Afrihost then informed us that they could not find the address. After sending them a Google Maps coordinate, we were informed that they found out that this was a business address. Of course it is, we replied. We even indicated this in the required block for the name of the office building. Sorry, we were told, Afrihost is not allowed to supply fibre to businesses.
After a weekend of being very disappointed and fairly angry, we tried to apply via Axxess. This time we were more careful, first checking whether the service was available. This was not very easy, because unless you want to phone and hold on for a lengthy period, you have to deal with automated responses and “tickets”. Trying to argue with a “ticket” and explain what you want to have done is rather difficult.
The long and short of the matter is that Axxess also refused to do business. They are not allowed to sell fibre packages to businesses either. Even the argument that we are situated on a road where residential and business premises are adjacent made no impact. We did not have a choice to opt for a “home package”. Axxess also pointed out that various acronyms existed that we would have to come to terms with, such as FTTH and FTTB. Fibre is not simply fibre and customers are not equal.
None of the service providers had any indication on their websites, where you apply for their services, that a difference exists. When Afrihost was queried about the lack thereof, they referred us to the “small print” in the terms and conditions.
We then visited Herotel’s website to see whether we could succeed there. Herotel’s website also did not indicate that they differentiated between home and business users. Herotel, however, does not make use of third-party resellers (like Vumatel), so finding out what can be offered or not is more complicated. The only option was to apply, which entailed giving all our details and allowing them to deduct money from our bank account. We did not feel comfortable doing this, so we stopped.
To the suppliers for answers
Earlier this week, we sent detailed questions to Vumatel and Herotel, and we also asked Letaba Wireless for an opinion on the apparent discriminatory practices.
All of them were quick to respond and were extremely professional in dealing with media enquiries.
Herotel’s commercial manager in the northern region, Tom Bramwell-Jones, was the first to respond. He admitted that they distinguish mainly between two packages, namely an FTTH (Fibre to the Home) and an FTTB (Fibre to the Business) package. He explained that businesses have a different level of expectation from their ISP (Internet service provider) from a home user. This is also why a service-level agreement (SLA) is necessary, which stipulates factors such as support provided and guaranteed uptime and responses.
Currently, Herotel does not offer FTTB packages in Louis Trichardt. “However, we are currently working on our new FTTB service offering, which we expect to launch before the end of the year,” he said.
Bramwell-Jones added that they would not exclude businesses from the current packages that they offered (FTTH), but certain conditions applied. “Herotel is actually quite happy for micro and small business in our towns to receive our fibre packages – if their sole requirement is just to have simple Internet connectivity to run their business. If they don’t require an SLA or any additional services such as VoIP, etc., there’s no reason for us to exclude them on this basis. However, what we do restrict is any company that wishes to on-sell our fibre connectivity to other customers, etc. We do not allow resellers on our network,” he said.
Vumatel responded via a very helpful and friendly public relations company, Tribeca. Tribeca’s Caitlin Robertson said that Vumatel did cater for FTTB, but not through ISPs such as Afrihost or Axxess.
“Vuma’s fibre to the business (FTTB) services have been rolled out in various locations during the company’s last financial year. The product is relatively new and roll-out has been slowed by the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns,” she said.
Businesses can request a list of service providers offering FTTB packages, as well as more information by contacting Businessfibre@vumatel.co.za. “Vuma has delivered two FTTB services via an ISP (Seacom) in Louis Trichardt thus far, to the Nissan dealership and to Kaizen Business Analyst,” she said.
“As one of the leading fibre network operators (FNO) in South Africa, we started our business as a Fibre to the Home (FTTH) company, and first broke ground in 2014. Our goal has always been to help build strong fibre networks, in partnership with the communities we operate in, in order to offer super-fast, world-class fibre broadband. As the market grew and requirements changed, so did our business, hence the introduction of our business product offering,” she said.
What Vumatel did not say, is whether they would allow businesses the option to make use of an FTTH package. Judging by the responses from the ISPs offering these services, the company will not.
We will eventually get to you
We leave the final word to Pietman Otto, owner of the Limpopo-based ISP Letaba Wireless. He says that his company is much smaller than its competitors, which also means that they do not have the same resources to invest in infrastructure. Letaba Wireless therefore expands gradually and first tries to serve markets where they can recoup the investment in a reasonable period of time.
“We have progressed well with our expansion into the business area of Tzaneen, but in places such as Louis Trichardt, Musina and Phalaborwa we have only just started establishing our infrastructure in the residential areas,” said Otto.
According to Otto, they will gradually expand as the market develops and they can afford to invest more money in setting up the necessary infrastructure. To him, the differentiation between a business user and residential user was not that important.
The issue of discrimination may, however, also have legal implications. The Competition Act stipulates that no unfair discrimination may be applied between types of users and that consumers should have a choice and opt for a product that they can afford.
In the case of FTTH versus FTTB, this may be an important factor to consider, as the FTTB option seems to be much more expensive than the “home” options. Many businesses, especially small businesses in towns such as Louis Trichardt, simply cannot afford the high cost of the “business” packages.
A quick Internet search indicates that a 100 Mb/s FTTB package from a prominent ISP would cost in the region of R7 000 per month. This is a lot more than the below-R1 000 option offered for an FTTH package by most ISPs.
The only option therefore seems to be to do your homework carefully and put up a bit of a fight.
Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.