Comsol to spend US$70 million rolling out Millimetre Band nationally in South Africa to create fibre-like wireless for local access

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Big international players like Facebook and Google are promising a range of connectivity solutions relevant to Africa including balloons, drones and lasers. Comsol has rolled out and has operational with customers Millimetre Band wireless technology that can deliver 7 gbps connections at a local level. Russell Southwood spoke to Comsol’s CEO Iain Stevenson about how it works and its potential for Africa.

South African connectivity provider Comsol has gone through a number of evolutions before its current focus on providing last mile connectivity for all sectors and delivery to fibre nodes.

Without much fanfare it has been piloting Millimetre Band technology to roll out 7 gbps data capacity at the last mile. It purchased national frequency  spectrum “which is being talked about as the future 5G band and we use that to provide a stable medium. We’re the first player in South Africa to use HF radio frequency for this purpose.” Google has deployed the same technology in the USA. The acquisition of the spectrum has enabled it to raise investment for the roll-out.

Depending on terrain and the configuration of the base station, it can deliver a 6 kms radius. The downsides? There are issues with weather (particularly rain) and it has to be line of sight:”We have to plan around weather and the base station could be picked up 12 kms away but we only deploy to 6 kms.” The radios used are either placed on existing towers or on high buildings.

The business case for the roll-out is to provide higher levels of data throughput for areas which currently do not justify laying fibre:”Fibre doesn’t need to go everywhere.” But the business is not just about technology. Comsol is an open access infrastructure provider:”We’re the first player to do this on a national scale and we’re using Teraco’s three (independent) data centres”.

It has been running a pilot phase with two vendors, Cambridge Broadband (from the UK) and Intracom (from Greece) and Alcatel Lucent has been used at the core. Having evaluated the pilot, it has chosen Intracom for its national roll-out. The pilot had 14 base stations in four different communities split between the two vendors.

Existing customers included ISPs, Government and telcos:”It’s organisations wanting to deliver Layer Three services to customers. For example, 60% of UNISA’s infrastructure is over this medium and Telkom uses it for outsourced customers. We deliver it with an SLA and provide fibre-like wireless of a telco grade. It’s not an experiment.”

The order has now been placed for the national roll-out to 200 communities across South Africa.

The initial CAPEX investment is R0.5 billion and it will spend a further R1 billion on leasing fibre infrastructure to connect the base stations, a total spend of just over US$70 million:”There’s plenty of choice for fibre infrastructure but the biggest hurdle is backhaul price. That’s the biggest cost but as prices fall, we will drop our prices.” In the so-called “golden triangle” (Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban) it will be using Fibre Co but it will also use several other of the national fibre players in the market.

The investment came from Convergence Partners, Nedbank and IDC. Convergence have been shareholders since 2008. Other shareholders include Nedbank, Internet Solutions and the company’s own management.

Is this relevant for the rest of Africa?:”There’s potentially opportunities for cookie cutting into other African countries and delivering Millimetre Band over existing infrastructure.”

Facebook announced a couple of weeks ago that it’s Connectivity Lab had delivered in test conditions a laser-based signal that could carry 2 Gbps to remote place. Google’s drone recently took another test flight in Arizona. All of these things may have some relevance for Africa in three to five years time or maybe longer…but in the meantime Millimetre Band is one technology that is actually working “right here, right now” and has customers.

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