Fiber Optics: A Magic Bullet?

Published on 22nd June 2009

The Fiber Optic craze has hit Kenya and there is much talk of improved internet connectivity and drop in internet use prices with its advent. Are Kenyans’ hopes based on sinking sand?  Allan Maseghe sheds some light on fiber optics to Josephat Juma of The African Executive.

AE: Why are people excited over Fiber Optics?

The excitement being experienced on the fiber is due to media hype sponsored by the companies in question. However, some factors are not being explained to the common man to enable him understand what the technology portends. The intercontinental fiber has been in existence in the western part of Africa but nothing much has changed in those years. Fiber has been in use in this country-- the only difference was the international hop. We have been on VSATs all along and now we shall have another link--Fiber.

Workers lay a fibre optic cable on Kenyan Coast  Photo:courtesy
AE: Should we expect high internet speeds? 

Good speeds are not entirely dependent on the type of pipe which carries the data, but on the efficiency of the customer end provisions. I will give you an example: 

A company might have a fiber switch at your building. For you to get the service, you will need to have an Ethernet cable to terminate at the switchport. If some technician runs a faulty cable or crimps it badly at any of the ends, you will forever have bad service due to the fact that signals are being lost along the cable. 

If another company comes in, instills a wireless radio, does a good cabling and provide  you with an antenna based on WIMAX technology which uses licensed frequencies, chances are you will have far much superior services as compared to the former. Companies like KDN, JTL ,Telcom and KPLC do already have wide fiber coverage.

People do have the misconception that the fiber is all about internet. You will be surprised to realise most companies (such as banks) actually use only 30% of the available bandwidth for internet.  Many use it for interconnectivity between branches. 

The fiber will mainly improve how fast we get to access anything outside our borders but not how efficient it is delivered to us. This will depend on the ISPs and other providers. 

A ping (ICMP querry) to yahoo will give you 650 ms currently because it has to move from a Nairobi VSAT dish, go to a satellite gyrating around Africa and get reflected to the VSAT at Europe where the yahoo server is located before coming back to you. Considering the many factors affecting the signal in the air plus eclipses, we are held at ransom a major way.  Fiber is meant to reduce this to maybe 50ms depending on how first your LAN is and how many hops you have to go through. Most likely VSATs shall be there to act as redundancy and also serve remote areas in our country. 

AE: Does its advent herald new jobs? 

Concerning the job market, you will notice that, the fastest expanding industry now is the telecommunications sector. There are immense opportunities which are already existing and more to be added with the coming of fiber. 

AE: Aren’t cyber café owners doomed? 

It will not spell doom for the cyber cafes, but the owners will have to up their game. One, it will not mean that everyone will have a fiber link in their homes. That will not make any economic sense. So, someone has to provide the internet within the estate maybe. 

Secondly for ISPs, what will spell doom for them is not the coming of the fiber, but the decision by Communications Commission of Kenya to allow the PDNOs (Public data Networks Operators -who own the infrastructure) to also do the small supplying of internet. ISPs are meant to buy bandwidth from a PDNO and then resell it. But when KDN also competes with them in the same area, then the ISP has no chance. It is like a wholesaler doing retail business. 

Secondly, with the coming of fiber, voice traffic is going to be cheap. Big mobile service providers know that profits will not be coming from voice anymore but from data. Data is the next frontier for the companies and the fact that in Kenya/EA we only have only 5% penetration, then there lies a gold mine. 

AE: Should we expect reduced surfing prices? 

Internet prices will not drop to zero just next month. The companies that will have invested a lot in fiber optics will have to recoup the expenses before they reduce the prices. 

AE: Shall fiber permeate every home? 

Getting fiber into every homestead will be very expensive and will not make any economic sense. That is when wireless networks are going to get in.The WIMAX antenna at where the fiber terminates within the town will be used to broadcast to the smaller clients’ antennas signals which they pay for putting it in layman's terms. If you have subscribed for a 32/64 kbps, you should not expect the same efficiency experienced by a 1204/1024. 

Now, if your ISP happens to have a bad network, you will not live to see the fast speeds of fiber translated to your house. It will get worse if the ISP gives you an Unlicensed wireless connection (5.4 or 5.8 GHZ) to your home. Secondly, if your LAN is spamming, then the fiber won’t be your saviour.

For those who are within a building where the fiber switch terminates, you will pick a 100Mbps speed from one of the switchports using an etehernet cable. I have seen cables badly run and eaten by rodents within the trunkings or with some sharp bends, or injured by door hinges. You will have losses on it and your services may not be as fast as you will expect. 

AE: A parting word on fiber? 

The fiber will improve the speeds of fiber connections from one end point to the other, but ultimately two things will matter: good network setups at the customer end and good support team within the ISP serving you. For the job market, the trick is to know what the market wants. One, we do have a shortage of people who can do switching and routing, RF planning and implementation and Installers. Just doing packages and hopping to be marketable will not be a wise idea. Specialization will be what we need and not to forget, reevaluating what our tertiary institutions teach.

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