Game on

For the telecom firms of South Africa, planning for the World Cup began when the country won the right to stage the tournament.

Tags: FIFA World Cup 2010MTN GroupSouth AfricaTelkomVodacom
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Game on Guy Zibi, CEO of Africa Next Investment Research, says that South Africa’s fixed line infrastructure compares well with other countries in the continent.
By  George Bevir Published  May 5, 2010

MTN’s chief technology officer says that the telecom operator is fully prepared for the anticipated influx of almost half a million people to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup.

“We are ready today. Except for some small, minor issues, we are ready, and we are completely on plan,” says MTN’s Sameer Dave.

MTN began getting its network ready some three and a half years ago, after South Africa was awarded the rights to host the tournament.

South Africa has hosted some major sporting events before, including the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 2003 Cricket World Cup and last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup. But the FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Africa for the first time this year, is on an entirely different scale; MTN is gearing up for 450,000-500,000 football fans arriving in South Africa, and it says that it is expecting up to 30% more mobile traffic during the tournament.

Making mobile ready

One of the chief concerns has been to make sure that there is enough mobile capacity for those at the games – and those who live and work nearby who are not watching the football. Sameer Dave says that MTN has ring fenced the capacity around the stadium in such a way that people nearby will not get sucked into the same capacity. “We have to ensure that people who are not football fans continue to the same service as before the World Cup arrived. That is a big USP for us,” he says.

MTN says that investment in 2009 reached R7.1 billion ($964 million) to upgrade its network and infrastructure, which now covers 98% of the country, with 496 2G sites activated, together with 3G coverage boosted from 35% of the population to 48%, with 659 extra BTSs integrated resulting in 3G capacity increase of 22%.

The Confederations Cup, which is held one year before the World Cup, is an opportunity for World Cup hosts to test out some of the infrastructure and make sure they are ready for the World Cup.

Dave says that during the Confederations Cup, MTN “had a very low call drop rate of 0.4%”. “The international bench mark is within 2%...but we planned a network to provide 0.4% on 3G, and on 2G we had 1.5% even in those areas that were absolutely chock-a-block,” he says. “We were very happy with the way we designed the network. We are quite within the benchmarks, and I am sure we will do even better than parameters laid down by the international organisations.”

Now, MTN, South Africa’s second biggest mobile operator by subscriber numbers behind rival Vodacom, is working on optimising the network that is in place and planning for the unforeseen. And in case of any unplanned eventualities, MTN staff and supporting vendors will be on standby at stadiums, and Dave says that MTN also has eight mobile vans, which he affectionately describes as “COWs” – cell on wheels.

“They will be provisioned in case of the eventuality that we do cater for an upsurge in traffic. They won’t be in the stadiums, because we have planned that, but they will be on hand for the unplanned. For those situations we can rush these vans to the hot spots,” he says.

Cables and satellites

South Africa is often highlighted as a country in need of greater connectivity, both internally and to the rest of the world. But Guy Zibi, CEO of Africa Next Investment Research, says that South Africa’s fixed line infrastructure compares well with other countries in the continent.

“Penetration is around 10%, the fixed line network is fully digitised, and the transmission network has extensive coverage, adequate capacity and is reliable, if expensive,” he says. “Compared to the wider world, South Africa’s fixed network is probably at the mid to low end on the access front, but the core and transmission infrastructure is as good as in many developed markets.”

South Africa’s government has made 17 guarantees to FIFA, promises that are required of any country that wishes to host the World Cup. These guarantees were consolidated into an Act of Parliament in 2006, included in them is the guarantee that South Africa’s telecommunication infrastructure be upgraded to make broadband accessible to all the football stadiums.

Telkom, one of the larger communications service providers on the African continent, will provide the fixed line network infrastructure and it is investing R3.2 billion ($435 million) between 2006 and 2010 in a Next Generation Network (NGN) to transport all information (voice, video, data) and help increase bandwidth.

Last mile fibre connection to support high-definition television signals from each of the stadiums to the wide area network and then to the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) will be installed.

High Definition

The 2010 World Cup will be the first broadcast in high definition, which demands a network capable of transmitting larger packets of data. Telkom’s managing executive for consumer markets, Thami Magazi, says that Telkom is responsible for getting the images from the pitch to the IBC. 

“Beyond the IBC it becomes a commercial issue," he says. "Some broadcasters will come to Telkom and ask for services beyond the IBC, but that becomes a different commercial transaction.”

By the time the World Cup kicks off, Telkom will have spent R900 millon ($122 million) installing a 20Gbps fibre network connecting each of the ten venues to the IBC, where an estimated 3000 broadcast journalists from around the world will be based for six weeks. The IBC will then link South Africa to the rest of the world via satellite teleport and telecommunications infrastructure which will be able to support transmission capacity of 40Gbps.

“All the fibre has been completed, four of the stadia were used for the Confederations Cup, so they are ready,” says Magazi. “We actually did terrestrial broadcasting, because we had put down the fibre for communications, plus we had enabled video adaptation, which is the broadcasting element, in the network, so now we are completing the rest of the other venues plus the IBC.

“Pretty much, I would say, we are ready. We had completed most of the stadiums, there are about two that we are just finalising in what we call the primary technical areas, that is just the cabling inside the actual venue to enable IT services, the overlay. But the fibre and the wide area network is completed to all the venues and most of those services are already running as we speak.”

Magazi explains that each venue will have what he describes as an east and west principle, with one fibre connection that carries that 20Gbps of bandwidth going to one telecom exchange and another fibre at another end of the stadium that will go to a different exchange, so there is never one single point of failure; the two fibres never meet anywhere, they go to different exchanges until they get to the IBC.

On top of the 20Gbps there is an additional 2.5Gbps which is used for the overlay for all the IT requirements and content management. Magazi is confident that the estimated cumulative television audience for the 2010 event in South Africa of 26.9 billion will not be let down by the network.

“We were able to provide what was required, and we staged the Confederations Cup without any interruptions on the network without any problems. It went superb. We never had any interruptions
at all.”

Submarine cables

Telegeography research director Alan Mauldin says that in terms of submarine cable capacity, South Africa is fairly well connected, with the SAT 3 cable going up the west coast of Africa, and SAFE going across the east coast to Asia.

“Both those cables have quite a bit of capacity, they represent a lot of capacity and I think that even if Seacom wasn’t in place, South Africa would be fine for international connectivity for the World Cup, due to the upgrades that have taken place. Having the addition of Seacom provides that extra option as well.”

But he warns that a cable failure on Sat 3 would be “bad news” during the football tournament. “You need to have a lot of options to not have a dramatic case if there is damage to a cable. So that has been good for South Africa to get connectivity over different systems,” Mauldin says.

Sameer Dave says that MTN has taken more capacity on the submarine cables and he is confident that MTN is well provisioned in terms of international bandwidth.

Return on investment

The World Cup will run for six weeks, and although it will generate significant revenue in the short term, it will not be sufficient to pay for the investment, so any upgrades must make sense over the long term.

Says Telegeography’s Mauldin: “Every time there is a big sporting event in the world there is a big huge push to build cable, or improve networks, but really all that is happening is that it is providing impetus, a flash point to look at to drive forward investment that needs to be made anyway. It serves as a marketing point and it is a way to drive investment.”

Telkom’s Magazi says that having the World Cup to focus on has helped to speed up plans that Telkom had already made. “Telkom had already said to the market ‘we are building a new generation network’, which meant we were building the core of our network and bringing high capacity where able, and that was on the basis of the needs of our customers.

“The master plan that we would have had to roll out in five years has been brought forward, just like things such as road construction, hotels, and all those sort of things. We did it quicker than we were supposed to have.

“That is of benefit to our customers, because now they can make demands and those sort of services will be available.”

The pull from consumers for improvements to access and greater bandwidth is also apparent in recent research reports and from the statistics provided by operators.
According research firm Africa Next, the African broadband market is set to treble by 2015, with mobile broadband the driving force behind the increase, which it describes as “inevitable”.

Growth in data

Vodacom, which has some 27 million customers, referred to the “increasing contribution of data revenue,” in its last reports, with growth accelerating in the last quarter of 2009 to 35%, which it attributed to increased penetration of mobile PC connectivity and mobile internet usage, with broadband customers increasing 49%.

For rival MTN, there has been a 75% increase in data traffic, with data revenue in the second half of the year increasing from R2,052 (million) during the first half of 2009, to some R2,444 (million).

Guy Zibi says the benefit to consumers and businesses is indirectly related to the World Cup. “The market is undergoing some changes that are more structurally fundamental. Internet prices have been on a downward slope for the past six months as ISPs picked up more international bandwidth, and that’s going to continue. The World Cup may exacerbate that a bit, and in fact, there is a concern it may make things a bit more expensive in the short term. But the improvement in downloading speeds and prices will continue.

Says Zibi: “It’s fair to say [the World Cup] has been a major catalyst. The World Cup provided a bit more impetus and political will for the buildup of the SEACOM cable and some of the other inland backhaul projects, and probably helped accelerate the modernisation of the core and transmission infrastructure.  Not that some of these things would not have happened, but the pace certainly would have been slower.”

Lasting legacy

MTN’s Sameer Dave said that the extra capacity would not go to waste once the tournament had drawn to a close. “We won’t let the capacity go unused when the World Cup is over. Our expectation is that once the event is over, we will pull out the extra capacity we have provided in and around the stadiums to be used in various parts of South Africa.

“The BTS and node Bs, which will be pulled out and put into the areas which we planned as a regular rollout as part of an annual operating plan, so that will be used for those. I don’t see any equipment being wasted or unused.”

The government has said that the investment programmes for the World Cup are planned in such a way that they will accelerate delivery in existing priority areas and leave a lasting legacy. “By 2010, South Africa will have, among other things, better sports facilities, a better public transport system and better telecommunications infrastructure”.

Telkom’s Magazi says that the work that has been completed in preparation for the tournament will be of lasting value to the whole country. “The core of the network is resilient and very strong, and we believe the capacity in the network is not going to be wasted. Also, there is an abundance of bandwidth that will enable more services,” he says. “However, what may be an issue is the access portion, between the Telkom exchange and the venue.”

Magazi explains that in the stadiums there will be a large amount of fibre with a capacity of 20Gbps. While some of the equipment such as network-related elements can be used elsewhere, they will of course not be able to re-use the fibre that has been laid in the ground.

“If the stadium is not going to use 20Gbps then at least the network elements of the terminal equipment can be used elsewhere,” adds MTN’s Sameer Dave. “So I do not see a waste, other than a few fibres.

“We have pieces of equipment that we call dense wavelength multiplexes, the equipment carries high bandwidth video - we can take that piece of equipment and use it with a client, for example a TV station. “Plus, we have a lot of routers that are sitting there, and those are usable for network-related services,” he adds.

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