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UniNet: David Jarvis

A wireless internet services provider takes on the big guns with a cost-effective service

Juliet Pitman

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David Jarvis of UniNet

When Vinny Lingham, internet entrepreneur,started his company incuBeta, he seriously considered flying data disksovernight to the United States because doing so was cheaper, more reliable andquicker than sending them through virtual space. Things have certainly moved onsince then with the arrival of iBurst, 3G and similar services, but the truthis that South Africa still lags behind the rest of the world when it comes tofast, cost-effective, reliable internet connectivity. And this is particularlytrue of fixed line services where businesses and individuals alike are at themercy of Telkom’s copper wire infrastructure.

Enter UniNet, a Cape Town based start-upthat represents the only competition to Telkom when it comes to fixed lineinternet services. Since its inception, CEO David Jarvis and his team havepioneered cost effective broadband solutions to homes and businesses acrossSouthern Africa. In 1999 Jarvis teamed up with partners Mulweli Rebelo andMalenga Machel, both of whom invested capital in the company, to fill theobvious gap left by Telkom’s service.Their wireless internet service provider inCape Town comprises 32 outdoor radio repeatersproviding coverage to over 80% of the greater Cape Town region and 600 UniNet Wi-Fihotspots serving a population of around 2,8 million people. And in agroundbreaking project in Knysna they partnered with the local municipality tobring about Africa’s first completely Wi-Fi covered town. The project has beenidentified by the World Bank as a model of open access network best practiceand provides the municipality with cost effective communications across theregion, as well as low-cost broadband internet and voice services for the localcommunity.

So what gives this small wireless internetservice provider its edge? The answer lies somewhere between identifying andtargeting an obvious gap, having the gumption to take on the Telkom giant (andall the regulatory headaches that accompany such a move) and the ability totailor a solution to meet the unique needs of the local market. While mostother telcos on the African continent import their solutions from the developedworld, UniNet manufactures over 90% of the components needed for its network.This means that they own a much larger portion of the value chain and are ableto reduce costs for the equipment required. “We’re also able to customise a solutionfor local developing world requirements, which are different from developedworld requirements – both from a service and technology point of view – becausewe’re working in low income environments with unreliable power and security.”In addition, being small and nimble, UniNet is able to deploy new technologyfar more quickly than the bigger telcos.

And then of course there’s Telkom’s copperwire infrastructure, which is patchy at best. “Their dependence on copper wiregives us a significant advantage because there are so many areas where theydon’t have copper roll-out,” says Jarvis, citing an example, “We went to tenderon a Cape Town Library project two years ago. Of the approximately one hundredlibraries in question, the Telkom copper network for ADSL could only coverabout 30%. Sentech and iBurst were about the same but we could cover about 90of those 100.”

With bridging the digital divide high ongovernment’s list of social development imperatives, its small wonder thatUniNet has signed a R12 million deal with Under Serviced Area Licensee (USAL)ITel, to roll out a broadband network in the Eastern Cape. UniNet will be ableto build the network at a quarter of the cost of other solutions available inSouth Africa and will operate it jointly with ITel for the five-year contractperiod. “The project fits very comfortably with our company’s vision which isto look at redressing connectivity imbalances, particularly in the ruralareas,” concludes Jarvis.

Contact: +27 21 905 3090; 0861UNINET or www.uninet.co.za

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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