Chamgpagne quality internet at beer prices

Dealing with inequality is a massive problem for Africa and in developing countries where poverty is the norm, not the exception.

According to Alan Knott-Craig (Jnr), affordable access to the internet is the best way to brighten everyone’s future and if we are serious about dealing with inequality in South Africa, free wi-fi is the answer to these problems.

“We have massive financial resources, tax base, skills base and infrastructure. We don’t need donors to do this, but political will,” said Knott-Craig. “We talk about inequality in social structures, education, welfare, healthcare and access to digital equipment, when we need to be proactive about how we help government to address this and cross the digital divide. Internet access is a basic entitlement, like water and electricity.”

Knott-Craig cited the example of applicants standing in a queue over 1km long outside a Thusong Service Centre, looking for jobs. The alternative — posting a CV or résumé on the internet — not only gets the reach, but demonstrates that the applicant has a desirable degree of computer literacy.

He has been spearheading the City of Tshwane’s plan to roll out free internet access to its citizens. This means building a telecommunications infrastructure frugally, but without affecting quality. In his words: “Champagne quality at beer prices”.

“Wired communications, such as copper, fibre and cable is not the future and the vast majority will be unable to cross the divide with ADSL,” he said. “Then there is wireless — 3G and wi-fi. We also need to provide internet access over a network that all phones can deal with and not have to provide high-end phones. Every household should have access to a wi-fi-enabled device.”

Infrastructure

The importance of doing this as inexpensively as possible cannot be stressed enough, and according to Knott-Craig, wi-fi is simple to deal with, not requiring expensive masts and labour. “The third way is to use government structures to reduce infrastructure costs, such as water towers, schools, libraries and police stations.

“Fibre is a very sexy word and much has been laid in the ground. However, it is too expensive for most people to get onto. What we did was approach the telecos and request access to this massive capacity to reduce our breakout costs and get it into the communities at a fraction of the cost, which is 6 000 times cheaper! The telcos have been very supportive, recognising they were not cannibalising their exisiting customer base. Neotel, for example, committed at risk, but now receive a cheque for half-a-million rands a month.

“We landed up in the City of Tshwane, where there was meeting of the minds over what we proposed and Project Isizwe was born. It started with a small project, with open-space public-aired wi-fi in five sites with every user given 250MBs per day, open to everybody 24/7. 

“The business case is that anyone wanting more data means revenue for the municipality as when the citizen hits the daily cap, they can enter their ratepayer number and purchase more. This helps the municipality to generate more income and provides the incentive to keep rates up to date, helping them to collect outstanding debts,” said Knott-Craig. 

Wi-fi TV

“The city has now taken it to the next level and now there are over 600 sites in the metro. By the end of 2017, every Tshwane citizen will be within walking distance of free wi-fi. We have already started rolling this out in other provinces as well.”

Knott-Craig says this has all happened very quickly, with some interesting applications, such as wi-fi TV, where they have recruited young people, taught them basic journalism skills, equipped them with a laptop and in teams of two, they interview people in their communities and post their stories on the internet. There is also a weekly interview with the mayor of Tshwane.

“There have been five million downloads of these broadcasts in just five months,” said Knott-Craig.

“Three big lessons have been learned in this process. Firstly, you cannot expect massive change without working with government. Secondly, don’t expect government to take all the risks and finally, deliver. If you look after the government, it looks after you.”

ICT central to transformation

The programme for the Free State ICT Summit 2015 is “a call from the Freedom Charter of 1956, that the doors of learning shall be open to all who live in this country,” according to the province’s MEC of public works and infrastructure, Dora Kotzee.

In closing the first day of the summit, Kotzee thanked every stakeholder who participated and heeded the call to decipher what she described as “the often complex concept called ICT”.

“As the provincial government, we took a strong stance in ensuring that we improve the efficiency of government and how we respond to our people’s needs. We recognise that ICT stands at the centre of this transformation process and the drive towards excellence,” said Kotzee.

“I must also thank the provincial government under the leader of the visionary premier, Honourable Ace Magashule, who is always driving the programmes of the provincial government to improve the livelihood of the people of the Free State.”

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Rebecca Haynes
Guest Author

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