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Chinese telecoms firm ZTE has been tasked with building a R5 billion nationwide 12 000km fibre network by FibreCo Telecommunications, a joint venture between Cell C, Convergence Partners and Internet Solutions.
The local telecom sector’s use of Chinese companies such as ZTE and , to roll out communications infrastructure, previously sparked criticism from civil society that the companies are exploiting foreign nationals and not transferring skills to local workers.

Both companies are involved in rolling out mobile infrastructure for SA’s cellular operators. ZTE has a R2.9 billion contract to upgrade ’s network, while provides equipment to , , , and .

ZTE has been accused of illegally bringing in Chinese foreign nationals to work on its projects, and has twice been the subject of raids by Home Affairs, which has led to several arrests.

However, this new project is expected to benefit local companies, as between 70% and 80% of the work will be parcelled out to South African construction firms.

In addition, skills transfer is a key requirement of the deal, and at least 100 technicians will be trained to maintain the network throughout SA so that people do not have to relocate to fulfil that function.

The project will be rolled out in phases, at a total cost of R5 billion. Work on the initial leg of the first phase, a 1 900km cable that will link Johannesburg to Cape Town through the Free State and Eastern Cape, has already started.

FibreCo chairman says the “landmark investment will provide affordable, reliable and fast Internet access to ordinary South Africans”.

The open-access network will be built over five years and will eventually span 12 000km, linking metropolitan areas across SA.

The first phase is a 4 500km redundant core ring linking Gauteng, Cape Town and Durban to international cable landing stations, which will be completed by the end of next year. The next two phases will see additional routes across SA and linking neighbouring countries.

FibreCo expects that the entire first phase will create 2 300 direct and indirect job opportunities. The company will also facilitate training of at least 100 fibre-optic technicians, to be certified under the internationally recognised Fibre Optic Association, who will be involved during construction and maintain the network.

The network will have a theoretical capacity of 1 600GBps on each fibre pair, and there will be several fibre pairs. However, the user’s experience in terms of speed will depend on what bespoke networks the telecoms operators build to access the infrastructure.