A review of available off-grid telco service options

Selecting the ideal telecommunication services for your business, for broadband Internet access and for voice and video services, is a simple choice when you are in town or any area connected with fibre networks. Fibre will then be your de facto option. All you have to do is select your service provider and service bundles, which are commercial considerations and not a technology selection.

If, however, you are in an off-grid location, it is not so simple. “Off-grid” locations are any business or residential address that is not connected with the national telecommunication fibre or cable grid provided by Telkom, MTN, Vodacom, Cell C or any of the network providers. For “off-grid” users, the choices are using 3G data bundles (if you have sufficient mobile coverage), using a point-to-point radio service from your local ISP in town, or using satellite data services.

This review aims to provide some context and understanding of the different advantages and benefits of the primary “off-grid” service options ie. 3G, radio or satellite, and aims to help users in building a reference of the market and to understand the fundamental differences between the respective technologies. Once users understand the technology principles, they will be better equipped to consider commercial offers and trade-offs for their specific requirements.

The following graphic representation provides a review of the key considerations of the main off-grid service options. A relative high-score indicates an advantage or benefit vs a low score. In this way, if the price is low the score will be high, indicating the benefit of a low price.

Service Costs

Service price is probably the first consideration for all users and the general perception is that satellite is the expensive option. It is very interesting that the next generation HTS services coming on line will provide 30GB bundles at less than R1500 per month, making satellite very much at par with 3G services. Radio point-to-point links can offer the lowest cost per GB volume option, depending how the specific radio network is developed in your area.

Access Speed

Our view is that access speed is only important if it is not good enough. If end-users can readily access email, watch videos and do business, then the nominal speed is not of much value. Understandably, users in off-grid locations can’t yet readily access Netflix and the on-line entertainment users in the cities are getting used to.

From this perspective, radio is the stronger option with link speeds of 10Mbps and more, followed by satellite with speeds at 5Mbps. Mobile 3G is very much a “best-effort” service and link speeds in remote areas will certainly be compromised and not offer a great advantage.

Equipment and Implementation Cost

3G data services only requires a dongle or small router and offer the minimum equipment cost and basically no installation cost. The issue is more around whether there is coverage at your location and specifically at your point of work.  For a radio service, you will need a wireless terminal installation at your premises, plus perhaps a mast structure to get the required wireless line-of-sight. In a worst-case scenario, you will need a repeater or extra network points.

To install your satellite service, you just need a small DStv-type of terminal installation, no mast structures and no dependency on any tower or repeater network infrastructure. Some of the next generation satellite terminals will even be “self-installed” so your local handy man or electrician contractor will be able to do this installation for you.

Service Coverage

Service coverage can be a go/no-go decision criterion and is very high on the list of considerations for any user. Satellite services are not “terrain dependant” and are available everywhere in the target market. Satellite is also not time-of-day or weather dependant and is an assured signal coverage option.

Mobile 3G services are not predictable and users will need to confirm signal coverage and signal levels where services are required.  Radio service coverage is dependant on the local wireless networks and can be very good or highly problematic – it all depends on the specific radio network in your area. As a minimum, it will include a network of repeater stations and tower infrastructure with the associated service and security risks.

Reliability

Of all the services, satellite is the most reliable and dependable option. It has guaranteed network uptime, it is not dependant on any local network infrastructure and is only dependant on the user terminal at the user premises. It is for these solid reasons that all banks use satellite services for ATM connections.

Radio services are less reliable due to the dependency on the local network elements, and 3G services are again a best effort service.

Summary

For users that are not connected with the main telecommunication networks and who are at “off-grid” locations, the most common options are a radio service from local wireless ISP, or a 3G service, or a broadband satellite service.

The satellite service option is the most reliable option, with lower equipment and installation cost than the radio option and lower cost than 3G data bundles. Satellite has come a very long way from being the “too expensive” option and will increasingly become the trusted and reliable option – specifically for off-grid business users.