Mobile operator MTN has started the process to rollout some 5 000 km of optical fibre network nationwide over the next two years, the company said at a presentation in Sandton on Friday.

MD Tim Lowry called the initiative “a massive self-provision investment” that would involve an estimated R1,2-billion to R1,3-billion, depending on possible joint ventures or partnerships that are likely to be entered into during the course of the project.

Possible partners included fixed-line incumbent Telkom, new entrant Neotel, and the country’s biggest cellular operator Vodacom, which has also said that it plans to build a fixed-line network.

Lowry said that MTN would want to reduce the level of capital expenditure through partnerships.

MTN announced in June that it was considering entering the fixed-line business in South Africa, to keep up with the growth in data traffic and cut one of the company’s biggest operational costs.

MTN said that it had designed and mapped out its own national backbone network, and was in the process of going out to tender to identify relevant suppliers and obtain final costings for the laying of the 5 000-km network.

The tender process is expected to be finalised by the end of the year.

MTN has already undertaken a pilot project with fibre optic cables being laid between Sandton, Illovo and Rosebank. Lowry noted that the project “was largely deployed” at present. Companies such as SABMiller and the JSE have been involved in the project.

The first phase has involved a capital expenditure of about R8-million for the fibre and about R2-million for the equipment, Lowry noted.

He explained that the area in which the pilot project has been carried out was home to a number of financial services companies and large blue-chip organisations, and that MTN’s product offerings were well-suited to these firms.

MTN will initially launch three products; an Ethernet MPLS, an Ethernet private line service and a multitenant connect service. Future developments by the end of the year may include an Ethernet e-local area network, a dual connect, a full redundant connect, and a multitenant connect service that would use a building’s existing copper cabling for reticulation.

Lowry said that MTN was trying to build an environment where a company could have a centralised server and centralised applications and could run the entire business nationwide from the one location.

MTN Business head of network solutions Mike Brierley explained that the usual lead times attached to fibre optics networks was about 12 months,but that MTN could roll out the service in between six and 12 weeks.

He added that bandwidth was flexible and could also be easily and quickly upgraded, where required.