The Hatfield connection

The Pretoria suburb of Hatfield is leading the pack in the race to bring affordable internet access to broadband-starved South Africa.

Residents and business owners in Hatfield can sign up for 1GB of wireless broadband for a mere R180 a month, or a 3GB service for R350, thanks to a network set up by internet service provider (ISP) Neology as a proof of concept. These services have download speeds of 128KB per second.

In comparison, a 1GB service from iBurst costs R469 and packages from MTN or Vodacom cost between R400 and R500 a month. However, these offerings do have faster download speeds.

Neology’s Roelf Diedericks says that in the two and a half months that the Hatfield trial has been running, about 180 users have subscribed to the service.

Physiotherapy student Lizanne Marais is one. She was working on her computer when she noticed the wireless connection and decided to find out about the service. Within a matter of hours she was connected. Marais was directed to Neology’s website and received her access password shortly after registering on the site and providing her credit card details.

“I am very happy,” says Marais. “The service is great and, compared to other packages, it is very cheap.” She used the service to do a lot of downloading in her first month, but has slowed down in order to preserve her 1GB cap.

“It’s not really that much of a problem if you use up your cap, because the second gig is R80,” she says. “I think they have something going.”

This wireless network is run using the backbone of 37 Wi-Fi high sites that the City of Tshwane has rolled out in the past year, one of which is situated in Hatfield.

In order to take broadband from high sites to users, Neology installed 18 radio access points in Hatfield, which are attached to street light poles. These act as a wireless last mile, equivalent to the Telkom copper phone line that delivers voice services or broadband to your home.

These radio access points are known as a wireless mesh network and are used to extend the range of a Wi-Fi network to a larger area.

In addition to these offerings, the city is also providing a free 64KB per second offering to residents who live close enough to a high site to access the service.

Diedericks says there are 269 registered residents who use the service for basic browsing, internet banking and accessing municipal services online.

Pieter du Plessis, a web developer who lives in Hatfield, says he was using the free service when his 1GB iBurst account ran out, but was going to subscribe to Neology’s service after finding out about its cheaper offering.

Du Plessis says the free service was great for general browsing, but he could not turn down a full broadband offering at such “great prices”.

Charles Kunn, the manager of Tshwane Digital Hub, says he is extremely excited about the Hatfield trial and prepared a report that is being considered at the moment and will go before council in January.

Kunn says that if the council approves the project a tender will be issued and a roll-out strategy drawn up. This will see more of Tshwane’s suburbs receiving affordable wireless broadband. “We have come full circle as a municipality. Finally we are putting our money where our mouth is,” he says.

Kunn says the plan would be to deliver broadband services to the whole of Tshwane in the next two years, using the mesh network model and allowing multiple service providers to offer packages to residents on the municipality networks.

Wi-Fi phones using the Hatfield mesh network have been tested and work, which will allow the municipality to introduce cheap voice calls on their network at a later stage.

Diedericks says the open access model, which allows multiple ISPs to offer services on the same network, is important for stimulating competition and bringing down prices.

“We see the problems in the US, where a single provider or operator hogs a network, and we believe this is an incorrect model,” says Diedericks.

Icasa’s attempts to bring down the price of broadband in South Africa had not been effective and Diedericks described its recent ADSL regulations as “useless”, commenting that they have done nothing to stimulate competition or improve service.

Neology is in negotiations with a number of municipalities regarding similar projects and talks are in the early stages with Witbank, Secunda and Potchefstroom.

And the rest of the country?

Hatfield may be leading the pack, but other municipalities are scrambling to get their wireless ducks in a row.

Last year, the Mail & Guardian reported that the Knysna municipality was working with UniNet to set up a Wi-Fi network that would blanket the entire municipal area in an attempt to provide cheap broadband and voice services to residents, businesses and local government offices.

UniNet’s David Jarvis says the company has delivered the broadband services to Knysna residents, but the voice services have been stalled by the failure to secure an interconnection agreement with Telkom, which would allow residents to make and receive calls outside Knysna.

Knysna’s residents can purchase uncapped broadband packages from UniNet that range between R255 and R800, depending on the download speeds required.

Jarvis says the services have only been on offer for a few months and already they have just fewer than 200 customers. A massive marketing campaign is planned for next year to attract more customers.

UniNet also provides wireless hot spots throughout Knysna where residents get free access to the internet. Jarvis says this is set to change: residents will get 45 free minutes a day and pay for usage over and above this.

Once the interconnection agreement with Telkom is ironed out, Knysna’s residents can expect their first 100 minutes of local calls to be free, a 50% reduction in rates for calls to cellphones and a 10% to 15% reduction in long-distance call rates to Telkom landlines.

Jarvis says the recent deal UniNet signed with ITel—to provide the same services they offer Knysna to the entire OR Tambo district in the Eastern Cape—will speed up the interconnection agreement. He hopes voice services will be offered by February next year.

The City of Johannesburg is also planning to offer broadband services using its backbone network, but services are unlikely to reach the first customers before 2008.

The city’s economic development, tourism and marketing department is heading up the project, says project consultant Douglas Cohen. It has taken a huge leap in terms of political buy-in, with the mayoral committee approving the project in October and agreeing to set up a mayoral sub-committee with a project office.

Cohen says that early next year a request for a proposal will be issued and, once an implementation plan has been drawn up, a tender will be issued. “We are on the path now,” he says.

However, some analysts and stakeholders argue that bureaucratic red tape and a lack of political will are stifling the attempts of municipalities to bring services to residents and businesses.

Dave Gale, who is head of business development for telecoms operator Storm, says conflict between municipal departments, which have to work together on projects such as this, has been a major headache.

“The wheels just turn so damn slowly,” he says. “You have to get people to move at an IT/Telecoms real world speed.

“These guys have assets and a great opportunity to use those assets, but they don’t see the urgency with which they have to run. Or if they do, they are thwarted by a lack of political will.

“I don’t think they’ve missed the boat, but I don’t think they’re the great white hope of telecoms either,” says Gale.

Cohen says there will always be a role for municipalities to play because there will always be under-serviced areas.

Robert Lipschitz from Genesis Analytics says as long as broadband prices remain high there will be room for services of a similar quality at a lower price, but that it is up to the municipalities to prove they have the capacity to make it work.—Lloyd Gedye

Lloyd Gedye

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