Independent WISPs are integral to SA Telecoms Landscape

September 20, 2012

Independent wireless service providers are becoming an increasingly important part of South Africa’s telecoms landscape:

Currently 36% of all internet traffic is being delivered over wireless networks. By 2015, this figure will grow to 46%, with less than 10% of traffic delivered over cellular networks. Wi-Fi will soon surpass wired traffic. This is good news for South Africa, where much of the landscape is currently not serviced by large telecommunications operators and fixed line service providers. Independent wireless internet services are an important part of South Africa’s telecommunications industry, enabling countless schools, hospitals and community institutions currently not serviced by the large telcos to connect to the internet.

The South African Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA) represents 136 members, essentially ‘wireless pioneers’ which move bytes across often difficult and unfamiliar terrain. “WAPA members are geographically dispersed and offer personalised solutions to those in need. They collectively have national reach, strong local relationships and excellent technical skills. They also support smaller businesses and job creation and are key to the achievement of many of the country’s economic objectives,” says WAPA Chairperson, Christopher Geerdts.

WAPA focuses much of its time on lobbying for the release of spectrum in the Television White Spaces frequency band for open use by wireless service providers. Currently, independent wireless operators have to provide access on shared spectrum in the 2,5GHz and 5,8GHz frequency bands, which are license-exempt and unmanaged. “The potential for broadband transformation in South Africa is enormous if we had access to spectrum,” says Geerdts. “If we had access to more spectrum, we would manage it differently. We would collaborate to build infrastructure on an inclusive basis and build local industry, thereby creating jobs. Providing support to WAPA members and freeing up unused spectrum will give a major boost to broadband penetration, the pricing and quality of these services, entrepreneurship and job creation and technical skills development,” says Geerdts.

During 2012, WAPA has played a significant role in addressing wireless regulatory and spectrum issues in the country. The organisation has made direct inputs at national and provincial level, and is currently chairing a TVWS trial, which is a great tender opportunity for WAPA members. WAPA has also had serious engagements with ICASA about stricter enforcement of legislation governing the wireless telecommunications space.

WAPA has focused on improving its corporate profile during 2012. The organisation’s website overhaul in 2011 has improved the website’s popularity by more than four times and significantly grown web traffic. WAPA has also received invaluable media coverage on a number of online publications and has developed an active social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

WAPA membership is up 18% year-on-year having reached 136 members by September. The organisation has also improved its financial performance by getting its financial audits up to date and generating a surplus, due to cost-cutting initiatives and increased membership.

WAPA has also been involved in negotiating business enablement opportunities for its members with major Internet Service Providers. These agreements will enable WAPA members to provide connectivity to clients outside the reach of large internet service provider’s fibre networks. “Projects like this hold great promise for the average South African business and consumer as they will bring even greater high-quality broadband coverage to the country,” says Geerdts.

Going forward, WAPA is on track to take each of its main projects further into 2013, the most important of which will be achieving Industry Representative Body status, which gives WISP’s immunity from third-party content carried over, or hosted on their networks. The organisation is looking at forming a customer management working group to look into the development of member-friendly billing solutions. The organisation’s budget surplus will also enable a number of new initiatives, such as additional training courses for members.

“WAPA members are crucial to the rapid and necessary transformation of broadband services in South Africa,” stresses Geerdts, concluding that “by providing support to WAPA member organisations and the freeing up of currently unused spectrum will go a long way towards achieving many of the key economic goals of the country and uplifting the lives of ordinary South Africans.”