This article aims to explore this question, delving into the most ubiquitous types of internet connection available in South Africa to reveal how their respective strengths and weaknesses affect the WFH experience.
What makes a good internet connection for working from home?
First, let’s look at what makes an internet connection good or bad for working from home.
When accessing online resources for work purposes, users need three things from their internet:
- Reliability – It needs to be up, all the time
- Speed – Slow connections negatively affect app performance
- Affordability – It must not break the bank
If any of those three criteria are not met by the home worker’s internet connection, it’s safe to say that it’s not great and the home worker could do better.
First up is LTE, because it’s the most widely-available internet connection in South Africa.
In simple terms, LTE is the wireless signal that MTN, Vodacom, Cell C, and Telkom use to connect cell phones and LTE modems/routers to the wider internet. That signal is put out by thousands of cell towers, each providing coverage over a portion of the country.
South Africa’s telecoms players have been working so hard and so long erecting their towers that today, LTE is available in all but the most remote corners of South Africa.
LTE is delivered over the air and available almost everywhere, so all you need to do is turn your LTE router on and boom, you’re connected to the internet.
LTE speeds can also be faster than fibre and ADSL speeds, if you live in the right area and your nearest cell tower isn’t serving a lot of people. When this isn’t the case, there are some significant downsides to LTE which we’ll cover in the Cons section of this article.
LTE can also be very affordable if you choose the right “package” for your needs. For example, some LTE packages offer full-speed connectivity during working hours, and limited speeds after hours. The trade-off for limiting speeds after hours is that the monthly cost is kept low.
Full-speed, 24/7 LTE connections are better because your speeds are not limited after hours, but expect them to be more expensive by a few hundred rands.
The biggest drawback of using LTE at home for your internet is that performance just isn’t guaranteed, as it’s affected by a number of factors beyond your control.
For starters, if there are a lot of people connecting to your nearest cell tower for their LTE internet at the same time, the performance of your connection will be affected.
Your connection speed will vary as the number of connections to that tower rise and fall, leading to unpredictable internet speeds. This isn’t ideal when you’re relying on it for work. Furthermore, bad weather can affect signal quality, meaning your connection’s performance could take a nosedive when it rains or it’s too cloudy.
Then there’s how your home’s layout affects signal strength. Some people experience “dead spots” in their homes, where LTE and WiFi signal just does not reach.
If you don’t have someone from the telecoms company come out and do a signal strength test first, you may only find out how bad it is once you’ve signed up for a 24-month contract, which can be frustrating.
Lastly, many LTE connections are subject to low data caps, meaning you can’t just use as much bandwidth as you like, and your speed will be heavily restricted once you pass your monthly threshold. Adding more bandwidth is possible, but it’s not cheap.
LTE – Conclusion
LTE is a good option when fibre hasn’t yet arrived in your area or ADSL connectivity is limited, and LTE performance can be good (50mbps+) if certain criteria are met.
LTE is also quite affordable, as providers have a wide range of options that are tailored to various usage and budgetary needs.
However, it’s not super reliable and performance can fluctuate according to the weather and how many people are connected to your nearest cell tower, so don’t go for this if reliability and consistent speed are your main requirements.
Fibre connections are fast, stable, and affordable. However, you need to be located in an area that is covered by fibre, and unfortunately coverage does not extend to every part of the country currently.
Fibre providers have rolled it out in more populated areas thus far, so many suburbs and outlying areas still don’t have access to it. Every service provider that offers fibre has coverage maps, though, so finding out if fibre is in your area is as easy as entering your address into their online portals.
Speeds are available from 5mbps all the way up to 1000mbps; naturally, the cost escalates as the speed increases.
If fibre is in your area, consider yourself very fortunate because fibre connections are fast, stable, and highly affordable.
Many fibre providers offer uncapped packages that let you download as much as you want. This is great for people who don’t like watching their usage to ensure they don’t use up all of their bandwidth, as well as for families that do more than just work-related things on the internet. Like streaming video, downloading games, and hosting livestreams.
Speeds are where fibre really shines, as you can have as fast or as slow a line as you’d like. Packages offer speeds from 5mbps to 1000mbps, and it’s possible to do everything you need to for work with a modest 10mbps connection. The sweet spot is 50mbps uncapped these days, which costs in the region of R800pm.
Fibre speeds are also more consistent than LTE speeds. A connection rated at 50mbps will achieve that throughput most of the time, and it’s not dependent on the weather.
Best of all, the fibre cable itself is worthless to cable thieves as it does not contain any metals. Once it’s in the ground, you can expect no service interruptions due to cable theft.
Top-tier fibre packages are expensive, costing well over R1200pm for a gigabit connection.
Fibre is also not available everywhere, so if you don’t live close to a major metropolitan area and nobody has announced plans to roll it out in your area, you’re bang out of luck.
Fibre – Conclusion
Those two criteria above are the only real disadvantages of fibre: it’s pricy and not available everywhere. But if you do have access to it, fibre is the better connection to have by far: it’s fast, reliable, and can be affordable if you’re willing to forgo the very fastest speeds.
And you absolutely can do that, as a 20mbps fibre connection will cost around R750 a month and is fast enough to use for remote work and everything else a family might need to do online.
Overall conclusion: Other connection types need not apply
The other ways of getting online are ADSL, which uses Telkom’s old copper cable network, and much older ISDN lines. Neither of these is very popular these days, and for good reason.
ADSL speeds were limited by the underlying technologies plus the cables themselves were often stolen, which is why the ADSL network was replaced by fibre. ISDN went the way of the dodo as it was too expensive to use for anyone but the biggest corporates back in the day, plus it wasn’t exactly blazingly fast.
Ultimately, the choice here is between fibre and LTE, and it is our conclusion that people who need to work from home should go for fibre if they can, and LTE only if they absolutely have to.