This is why ADSL is broken in South Africa

May 04, 2015

DSL subscribers in South Africa have been complaining about poor service levels from their Internet service providers and slow Internet speeds for the past few months.

This has raised questions about the overall quality of ADSL networks in South Africa, with users asking what the source of the problems are. Complaints range from long waiting times to receive technical support or for services to be installed, to poor speeds and random disconnections. Multiple ISPs said the problems are not due to a single issue, but a combination of factors that has caused a perfect storm.

A summary based on feedback from Cybersmart, MWEB, Telkom, and others is listed below, and further detailed in the article. 

  • Telkom’s aggressive maintenance and upgrade timeline may cause temporary disconnections.
  • Eskom load shedding may damage your router or modem.
  • Telkom has increased line speeds tremendously, but not all exchanges have received corresponding upgrades. This has likely resulted in congestion at various points in some of Telkom’s exchanges.
  • Some ISPs may not have bought enough wholesale capacity (IP Connect) from Telkom to serve all their customers.
  • Some ISPs may not correctly manage the bandwidth they have.
  • Legacy equipment on the Telkom network that doesn’t comply with standards sometimes conflicts with the new Assia management system.
  • All of this has caused an increased number of support calls, which ISPs have struggled to clear.
  • Telkom service levels are lower due to a labour dispute with call centre staff.

Why do lines disconnect frequently?

Laurie Fialkov

Laurie Fialkov

Yes, there appears to be a general problem with ADSL networks in South Africa, but nobody is owning up,” said Cybersmart CEO Laurie Fialkov. He said they are seeing line disconnections with the reason “Lost Carrier” on a number of accounts every day, which almost always coincides with an exchange upgrade, or a fibre upgrade at the exchange.

MWEB’s head of operations Ettiene Cloete has made similar observations, adding that Telkom maintenance and upgrades have been on very aggressive timelines for awhile. It is positive that Telkom is working on its network, but Cloete said this can be disruptive at times.

Telkom maintenance is not the only reason a subscriber’s line may be dropping, though. “Dropped connections and desyncs if they are repeatedly affecting the same customer always need to be dealt with on a case by case basis as they are usually indicators of poor physical line conditions, a line fault, or faulty customer premises equipment,” he said.

Widespread symptoms with regional trends may be an indication of exchange equipment failure or maintenance related outages. “One should never rule out the fallout from load shedding and the subsequent impact on user hardware such as routers and modems. Fialkov agreed that Eskom blackouts are also a contributing factor to the problems ADSL users are facing in South Africa.

Because ADSL is a copper-based technology, surges and brown-outs can break equipment,” said Fialkov. 

Why are speeds poor?

Fialkov said it doesn’t seem like Telkom has upgraded capacity at its exchanges in-line with the increases in line speed it has given to ADSL subscribers. “The local loop line speeds have doubled almost everywhere. This requires a corresponding increase in capacity at the exchanges.”

He said when low-end ADSL download speeds were 384 kilobits per second you could get away with cheap 1 Gigabit per second equipment at the exchange. “At 40 Megabits per second per customer, you would need 10Gbps or higher at the exchanges and obviously this is more expensive.”

MWEB agreed that congestion continues to affect customers who have not moved onto Telkom’s multi-service access node equipment. Cloete added that it is very difficult to comment on questions about poor speeds, though, without region-specific information.

“We cannot comment on the state of other ISP networks, however we are confident MWEB’s network capacity is constantly monitored and that we have sufficient bandwidth to meet the demands of our customers,” said Cloete. To manage customer expectation, Cloete said it would be useful if they had information on congestion levels at specific exchanges.

“This is information we’ve been requesting for years, however Telkom is not willing to share this.”

Ettiene Cloete

Ettiene Cloete, MWEB GM: Operations

First-hand experience

Telkom was asked for comment on ADSL performance, with a spokesperson for the company taking issue with claims that exchanges are congested.

To address some of the experiences MyBroadband has had with its VDSL connections, including random disconnections and slow Internet speeds, Telkom provided an account for two days to benchmark the performance of our lines. 

MyBroadband normally uses capped accounts from Afrihost and Vox Telecom, while the Telkom account was uncapped and unshaped, running on Telkom Internet’s IPC. Capped accounts typically aren’t shaped when an ISP’s network is under pressure, while residential uncapped accounts are first in line to be shaped.

The Telkom accounts outperformed the capped accounts, with none of the mid-day slow-downs and random disconnections experienced. There was still an instance where our line did suddenly disconnect for a few seconds during the test, though. 

Afrihost, Vox Telecom, and other ISPs were also asked about problems on the country’s DSL networks. Vox said it is aware of the issues and have raised them with Telkom. Afrihost said it does not have sufficient data at the moment to offer comment.

Slow support

Another complaint from DSL subscribers in South Africa has been the decline in quality and speed of support. Fialkov said they have seen a dramatic increase in support calls. “Line faults are almost triple what they were at the same time last year,” he said. Cloete said they have also seen a dramatic increase in technical support calls since the end of 2014.

“By far the highest percentage of calls we get into the Technical Support call centre are connectivity related problems,” said Cloete. He said there has been an increase in the duration for Telkom line faults to be resolved, too, with the average time-to-resolve doubling since September 2014. Initially, this had a negative impact on MWEB’s service levels.

“We recently appointed an additional 25 support agents and are in the process of recruiting more support staff to enable us to cope with the rising number of calls into the call centre.

Telkom MSAN installation

Telkom MSAN installation

Telkom call centre problems

One of the reasons the quality of support has declined is because of a labour dispute between Telkom and call centre staff. Telkom said the dispute placed their service levels “under severe pressure” and apologised to all customers affected by the industrial action. It also said it is working on extremely outdated support systems – 17 in total, none of which communicate with one another.

Telkom said it has taken steps to resolve these issues, including bringing on additional staff and developing new systems to better manage customer engagement.

In the meantime, Telkom has advised its customers to use alternative channels to request support, such as its website, SMS, e-mail, and Twitter: 

Its website (telkom.co.za) has a chat service and may be used to log a fault.

  • SMS: “service” to 30951.
  • E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Twitter: @TelkomZA

New Telkom management system

ISPs say an increase in support calls relating to line degradation and frequent disconnections can be attributed to Telkom’s rollout of a new dynamic spectrum management system (DSMS) from Assia

Telkom disputes the claim the Assia system has degraded the ability of ISPs to resolve their clients’ line fault issues. It also promised the system will let ISPs offer better first-line technical support in future.

It is understood that most problems encountered during the rollout of Assia’s system are due to legacy equipment on Telkom’s network, in which certain standards aren’t implemented correctly (or at all). Whenever such a problem is encountered, the rollout is paused and a workaround developed so the Assia system can interface with the old equipment.

Once fully operational, the Assia system promises to reduce the number of support calls Telkom and ISPs will deal with as it will detect and manage faults automatically. 

What can be done?

It is apparent the problems experienced by DSL users in South Africa do not spring from a single source.

MWEB said it is a combination of long-standing congestion issues, aggressive upgrade and maintenance timelines, and the network disruptions caused by load shedding. “These are all contributing factors to a general feeling of ‘rocky performance’ over the last 6 months or so,” said Cloete.

Fialkov said as much as it might be an unpopular comment to make, he is concerned that the persistent downward pressure on pricing is resulting in too many corners being cut. “The fact that Telkom has increased some of their voice service pricing seems to indicate this may very well be the case and they are trying to find budget from other areas,” he said.

Cloete added that there is no silver bullet to fix ADSL services. Constant improvements are required to infrastructure, networks, and overall customer support by all role players as an ongoing process.

Credit: MyBroadband 

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