Lessons for America's Broadband Buildout From the Global South

Fiber networks have proliferated in South Africa without significant government funding because of a competitive open access model.

Lessons for America's Broadband Buildout From the Global South
Dan Flemming, Niladri Dutta, and Greg Wilson

WASHINGTON, February 25, 2024 – While Australia and India relied on government funding to build broadband networks serving substantial portions of the countries, South Africa has largely deployed private capital in building out an all-fiber network that is on track to serving half of the country’s homes.

That was the message coming from three industry experts – originally from Australia, India and South Africa – speaking at a January 17, 2024, Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on "Broadband Deployment in the Global South.” 

Broadband Breakfast on January 17, 2024 – Broadband Deployment from India, Australia, South Africa
What can the United States learn from fascinating broadband deployments in the Global South?

Although Australia invested nearly $50 billion (U.S.) in national government plan for 93% fiber-to-the-premise broadband coverage, it eventually pivoted to a more private sector-driven "multi-technology mix," said Dan Flemming, formerly head of construction for the National Broadband Network Co. in Australia. The original all-fiber goal was set when the center-left Labor Party controlled Australia's government in 2009, he said.

After the conservative Liberal Party took over in 2013, the rollout strategy shifted towards cutting costs via cable, fixed wireless and satellite services handling some less dense areas, said Flemming. He is the co-founder of fiber construction software company Render Networks.

"Connections drive demand for faster service," he said. "More users want higher speeds than you think." 

The discussion also highlighted India's increasing use of public subsidies to supplement more than $30 billion (U.S.) in private investments for mobile and fiber infrastructure since 2013 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This combination has allowed internet adoption to surge from 200 million subscribers to nearly 900 million today, said an Indian telecom expert on the program.

Niladri Dutta, the telecom expert, is now based in Sweden but has extensive emerging market experience. He credited national investment, deregulatory policies and private telecom companies for helping drive extensive broadband growth.

The government has become more involved in funding backbone infrastructure as part of its Digital India policy, which includes the government's BharatNet program. (In Hindi, the word “Bharat” refers to India.)

The effort reflects India's approach to integrating digital infrastructure as a core utility, akin to water and electricity, said Dutta.

South Africa’s private sector path

By contrast, South Africa’s all-private capital strategy has been sustained by business models tapping into low-income markets. Nearly 4.5 million households have been served with fiber, and without South African government support, panelists noted.

Greg Wilson of U.S.-based fiber provider Ripple Fiber – and formerly a leader in building open access networks in South Africa – said that fiber networks have proliferated without significant government funding because of a competitive open access model. Despite lower income levels than Australia or the United States, companies in South Africa made fiber connectivity affordable by offering unlimited data plans for around $20 per month to compete with expensive mobile data.

Further automated network management systems provided additional efficiencies in driving economies of scale in the South African market, he said.

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