Fibre cheat sheet for commercial real estate professionals

Don’t know what you don’t know. Me too! Well at least that was the case before I tried writing this article. To save you time, here I condense and share my learnings about fibre. Hope you find this efficient summary of info enlightening and helpful.
What is Fibre CRE

Recently at Gmaven we enhanced our handling for fibre. During this process I realised I actually knew very little about what fibre actually is. I thought I knew, but when I was tested by feature requirements, some pretty significant knowledge gaps became obvious!

As businesses become more efficient and tools and processes move to the web, a working knowledge of fibre in business today is almost a non-negotiable. To remedy my situation, I personally had to do research. Here I am sharing this knowledge in the hope it makes you more efficient. Our aim with this handy “fibre cheat sheet” is that, after reading it: you understand fibre, can talk with confidence, and can correctly answer any questions.

This fibre cheat sheet is divided into three parts:

A. Your fibre questions answered

B. Deeper information on fibre

C. A list of 7 questions (further to the knowledge above) for you to ask when looking at fibre options

A. Your common fibre questions answered

Is (ethernet) “fibre” better than WiFi?

Definitely – fibre scores higher on both speed, and reliability. WiFi uses wireless networks – meaning the internet is sent using electromagnetic waves. These WiFi radio waves are susceptible to signal loss, “cross-talk” (interference from other devices) and slower speeds. (Note: the cables in your office are called ethernet cables. So it goes: fibre –> office ethernet (data cables) or WiFi –> internet into your computer)

 

Is fibre the same as the internet?

Yes. Some semantics, fibre is the way that internet is served – but you get internet from fibre. Note: you can also get your internet from copper cables, through the air via satellite, or via 4G or LTE data networks.

 

What actually is fibre, isn’t it something healthy people eat?

That, plus it’s the name for internet served to you through fibre optic lines (tiny, slightly-thicker-than-human-hair strands of glass or plastic). Interesting fact: fibre optic cables transmit internet data using pulses of light.

 

Why is it important to know the difference between an ISP and a network?

See the “deeper dive” below.

 

Internet speed – what is contention, and why is it important?

See the “deeper dive” below.

 

Why are some sites slower than other sites?

Data-heavy software or sites are simply more “resource-expensive” – i.e a video has to process a lot more data than, for example, a written news story. Secondly, network latency: every major website is hosted by a data center.  The further that the data has to travel between the data center and your computer, the slower the response, and the higher your latency. If the distance between these two points is 100 meters, the latency is way less than, say, a 5,000 km distance. (This assumes that all of the following are equal between both sites: packet loss, website server load distribution, website infrastructure, network congestion, and the websites’ software engineering. For more info, please see here)

What is faster: 4G, LTE or 3G?

4G is faster than LTE, which is faster than 3G.

LTE, or 4G LTE, is a marketing way of saying “too slow to call it 4G.” LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, which means “we’re working on it” or “we’ll eventually support 4G.” This pithy summary comes from this article. More info on this topic is here.

Commercial property fibre

B. “Deeper dive” on fibre / internet

As of 2020, the most common, cost effective and reliable form of internet is fibre. But, as stated above, you can get internet though other distribution channels like copper cables, through the air via satellite, or via a 4G or LTE network.

To keep things easy, we are going to focus on internet transmitted through fibre (but most of the concepts below are the same).

First off, the industry players are divided into two:

  1. Network internet provider or network fibre owner “networks” (aka tier 1) – i.e. “wholesalers” | Who sell to retailers (ISPs)
  2. Internet service provider (ISPs) – internet retailers (aka tier 2 and 3 ISPs) | “Middlemen” who sell to us

So for South Africa, Dark Fibre Africa, OpenServe or Vumatel is an example of a network provider.

While the ISPs, businesses who deal with the “last mile” (taking the internet from the road or air into our offices/warehouse), have names like Vox, Bitco, Cool Ideas, Afrihost etc.

(Note: One can also have hybrids between tier 1 and tier 2. For example, in SA, Bitco is both a network, and an ISP)

Network providers act as wholesalers, providing a fixed offering. ISPs retail that offering, dealing with the admin of marketing and selling the fibre, handling faults and queries and accounts, and packaging the fibre into packages that suit the budgets and needs of customers from large to tiny.

ISPs are generally not “married” to one network provider, and can thus provide a wide variety of packages to you, the buyer. (Note: Some tier 2 ISPs buy from tier 3 ISPs (i.e. middlemen buying from other middlemen))

So, when buying fibre through an ISP provider, provided a network/s service your area, you can choose which network provider you would like.

 

Why are networks important?

1. No network, no fibre.

If a network doesn’t provide fibre to your area, no ISP can give you fibre – meaning: you can’t get fibre.

2. ISP does not determine your max fibre speed

An ISP is a “data taker”. The networks determine your max fibre speed, not the ISP. So if the only fibre networks in your area offer 20MBps, then that’s the max speed your ISP can give you.

3. Network speeds and contention

The more users who you have to share your network with, the less the speed each user will get. Some networks are heavily contended, others are less contended.

Let’s unpack with a simple example. You have one ISP, offering you two options for a network provider:

  • “Network Big”: You can sign up with that ISP as client number 100 for a network provider who is piping in 100MBps to you and 99 other customers in your area.
  • “Network Small”: You can sign up with that ISP as client number 5 for a network provider offering 25MBps in your area.

The next bit assumes the worst case scenario: i.e. everyone is trying to max out their line at the same time. (If you are the only user on the network at any one time, you will always get 100% of maximum line speed. If you are user one of 20, you will get 5%).

For Network Big, the 100MPbs you get is shared, so each customer only gets 1MBps (100MBps / 100 customers). While for Network Small, your 25MBps is shared between five customers, meaning you get 5MBps each.

Therefore, while Network Small has a lower maximum line speed, due to lower contention, they beat network Big’s internet speed. By 5 times!

So always ask the question about how contended your network is. Here, if interested, is a post explaining this contention concept further.

C. Fibre cheat sheet: 7 smart fibre questions for you to ask

How much does installation cost?

If free, it may be tacked on to the price of your contract (the cost has to be recovered somehow), or come with a clawback clause (in case of early termination).

 

If I need WiFi, will my WiFi router provided be able to cover my operations area?

You may need to buy a WiFi booster, or pay for an upgrade to a better router.

 

Am I getting a good deal?

You will probably want to evaluate whether the proposal you are getting is market relate. Fibre Tiger or Fibre Compare are websites you can use to compare fibre deals in South Africa (note these website may not have all ISPs or their prices all the time – so you will have to do a bit more research for your analysis to be comprehensive).

 

Is my data uncapped, and if capped, what is the cap?

Capped means, after a certain point, you have to top up (i.e. “pay as you go”). Generally data prices increase noticeably “out of cap”. So, sadly, you may end up that “cheap is expensive”.

 

What, as an ISP, is your support / customer service policy?

I.e. how do I get information regarding outages as a result of a) your error as ISP, or b) network provider issues (not your error). How stable has the ISP’s service been historically? If you can see past the vitriol and trolling, customer reviews on Google or Hello Peter can provide some sense of an ISP’s support capabilities.

 

What fibre speeds do I actually need?

Netflix themselves say you only need 5MBps to watch shows in HD. Unofficial sources of entertainment may not have invested in the infrastructure to keep up with demand, and so you may need more. It all depends what you are using your data / internet for – reading the news online is less data-intensive than playing online games.

 

How long will it take from me signing to having fibre?

It can take days, or weeks – depending on demand pressures and supply of the contractors.

D. Fibre cheat sheet advanced

Why do I see different speeds for the same website, at the same time, based on where I use it from?

Okay, this part of our fibre cheat sheet is complex, but interesting. In essence, this is an environment or what engineers call a “client connection” issue.

Example

  • I use a web-based service / application (“website”)
  • I use the website using one combination of ISP and network (client connection 1)
  • I use the same website, at the same time, using a different combination of ISP and network (client connection 2)
  • I get two different speed experiences, for the same website, at the same time. Why?

Cause

  • Generally this is exacerbated when:
    • You add another “hop” or “middleman” onto your client connection – for example a VPN.
    • You are using a website that is hosted overseas (and, even further, if / when an overseas cable is down). Remember, local line speeds should generally be fairly similar. However, difference between international line speeds (due to the international data speed specific to each ISP and network) can be pronounced.
  • The different data speeds (per client connection) are due to line contention.
  • The more ISPs and network providers pay, the better their contention ratio (with 1:1 being the best).
  • Low-paying ISPs and networks receive higher contention ratios. Effect: their customers to suffer with high contention ratios.
  • However more expensive packages don’t necessarily translate into better data. Some ISPs may charge more for the same contention as other ISPs.

Action

  • No fibre cheat sheet would be complete without this part… So what do I do from here?
    • Understand where your target website’s data center is hosted. Is it local, or is it international? If international, where?
    • Figure out what the contention for each client connection is.
      • Firstly, ask your ISP what their contention ratio is between ISP (tier 2) and network provider (tier 1).
      • Secondly, if international, ask what the contention ratio between the network provider’s data center (tier 1) and international is.
      • Thirdly, Identify any other “hops” your client connection is going through (e.g. VPNs).
    • Contention ratios compound. Thus, for an internationally-hosted website, a 1:10 contention between tier 1 and tier 2, and a 1:5 contention rate between tier 1 and international gives you a calculated max contention of 1:50.
    • Then compare your different client connections.

What about Facebook and Google, how come their speeds are less affected by international data issues?

These tech businesses employ thousands of engineers. Suprisingly, the bulk of these engineers are not actually employed to build features. A large portion of these engineers are deep in the “back end”. Their  responsibility is to manage system stability, so that users, all over the globe, can have a wonderfully fast and smooth experience.

How serious do these businesses take fibre speed? Well they have the user volumes to justify setting up a data centre “in-country”. I.e. this means that your Facebook or Google data requests do not have to pass through an international line. Your requests can be serviced on local lines. This means both a) lower latency, and b) immunity from the international contention ratios of a user’s ISP (and network provider). Smart!

So there you have it. Hopefully with this fibre cheat sheet you are more empowered and knowledgeable. And if you’re advising / helping people, you’re able to provide better advice, and grow trust in us CRE professionals.

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