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Why we need free public internet by Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana

September 7, 2014

Many of us can count ourselves lucky enough to remember a slower simpler life. For myself, one of my most treasured memories was the school library. I could spend hours in this rural refuge going through and reading the books – only knowing which book I was looking for when I pulled it from the shelf. The library connected me to the rest of the world, expanded my limited experiences and, of course, sparked the imagination, which made me dream and aspire.

Later I went to university and walked into a three-storey library with a Dewey system that itself was an accomplishment to master.

It was incredible walking between those rows and rows of shelves, and really feeling like I could explore any knowledge my mind took a fancy to.

Today, instant access to knowledge is right at my fingertips through Google and my own Kindle contains over 800 books that I take in my purse wherever I go. I no longer have to create space for books in my suitcase when I travel and this has added enormous value to my life. As a voracious reader I am guaranteed access to any author I like at the click of a button.

The educational potential of access to the internet is immense, especially in communities where formal school infrastructure is lacking.

Imagine a child without a school, without a teacher, without a book … but access to the internet. In fact, my own children seem more concerned with whether there is data than if there is bread and milk. Of course the perils of unregulated access to the internet, especially for young children can never be over-emphasised.

However, this is in itself a case for a regulated public service network that limits access to questionable material.

Sharing the educational possibilities of the internet with all children is not a completely blue sky dream of mine either. Although data costs are high on the commercial market, new business models like Project Isizwe, a national project that is working to bring free WiFi to South Africa and connecting people for education, economic development and social inclusion, have figured out a way to bring the data cost down to R1 a gigabyte through the economies of scale enabled by public-private partnerships.

This synergy is important not only to avoid skewing the market, but in terms of ensuring that a private entity does not exploit the public either.

Project Isizwe has implemented the Robertson and Atlantis hot spots as part of the Western Cape Broadband strategy, as well as numerous hot spots in Pretoria. Economic inclusivity is why the Western Cape Broadband strategy is so important.

It promises that everyone in the entire province will have access to affordable broadband by 2030 through a high-speed optical network to be built by Neotel. Four pilot sites have been launched in George, Robertson, and the two under-serviced impoverished areas of Atlantis and Delft.

With hopes of boosting economic growth and opportunities, furthering education and digital literacy, and promoting local tourism, MEC Alan Winde said: “The Free WiFi project is assisting us in developing the most effective way of delivering internet access to residents.

“The aim of this pilot is to pioneer a model we can replicate across the province. We are taking services to the areas that need them most. It’s these targeted interventions that make a real difference in people’s lives.”

From the city of Cape Town’s side, spreading the fibre optic infrastructure across the metropolitan area to connect businesses and public entities is a priority. Following a feasibility study conducted last year, for the past six months it has also run a Proof of Concept Phase to bring down costs and enhance service levels in underserved areas of the city. An announcement is expected soon.

From a business perspective, if I think how we are increasingly moving from an economy of physical goods to a knowledge-based economy, to me the availability of high-speed free WiFi is as important as the road network. It’s a myopic strategy to think that this is something that is going to go away. It’s the modern world.

Personally, I stay connected all the time. I wake up in the morning and check emails before I even brush my teeth – and this applies to a lot of people. Before we go to sleep at night, the last thing we do is to check our e-mail. We can’t deny how porous the boundary between business and private life has become, and connectivity is key to participating in the job market today.

Research by Swedish mobile brand Ericsson confirms that there is a direct correlation between a country’s one percent GDP growth for every 10 percent increase in the number of people online. Doubling the broadband speeds was also connected to a 0.3 percent increase in a country’s GDP.

On a domestic level, Ericsson estimates that households in developed countries add about R3 600 to their monthly income by having 4Mbps (just enough to comfortably stream video) broadband internet access. In developing countries like the Brics, the increase in monthly income for a household is about R530.

The increase is lower in developing countries because of our lagging digital economies. When I travel overseas for instance, I will choose a lunch spot based on whether they provide free WiFi – and really all of the restaurants have figured this out and just about all of them do. Even when I select a hotel, if the level of comfort is okay, it’s the WiFi facilities that will sway my decision.

We at Cape Town Partnership are exploring what free WiFi can do to public spaces. Like our other projects, it’s intended as a conversation starter, an experiment and a way to get everyone talking about what the potential could be.

Our first pilot was the hot spot around the restaurant in the Company’s Garden followed by a second one, Harrington Square in the East City. More than 5 000 users log on to these two free WiFi spots per month.

Through collaborating with Connected Space, we are looking at how we can bring free public WiFi to more popular pedestrian spaces in the central city and are hoping to soon cover the entire St George’s Mall.

It opens up a lot of opportunities for people to enjoy public space, but also for people to stay connected. If we are to believe the cellphone and tablet industry, people walk around always online and connected.

So it makes no sense for us to have unconnected public spaces when we expect people to linger longer, just as it makes no sense to linger longer in restaurants when restaurants cannot provide WiFi.

My first-hand experience of places like Singapore was truly eye-opening in terms of how many location-based maps, services and, even, games that challenge the way we interact with our urban environment there are.

Imagine the public benefit for learners curious about the history of Cape Town who, walking from the Company’s Garden down St George’s Mall, could call it up on their cellphones for free? Or learners from Cape Town High School who download their homework resources as they walk down to the station?

Imagine the benefit to those of us who use the space – the everyday pedestrians downloading useful apps about public arts festivals like Infecting the City, the friends of the Earth Food Market being able to download recipes for the goods bought, the informal trader being able to liaise with a network on Whatsapp, or tourists posting pictures to their social media of their time spent in our beautiful city.

Once we’re talking about connecting public spaces, there’s even the possibility of turning our buses and trains into hot spots, a conversation that we have already started with the City of Cape Town. Internationally this has really affected the nature of work, but also made public transport a more attractive option and decreased overall traffic congestion.

It would be really useful to get a head start on e-mail while catching a bus into work.

Nonetheless, possibly because I have such a vivid recollection of times past, I would still encourage all of us to look up from our screens regularly, and say hello to the people sitting next to us – how many friendships and even romances have come from libraries?

While the internet is connecting us to more people than ever before, it is the people right here beside us who make Cape Town the remarkable place that it is.

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana is chief executive of the Cape Town Partnership.

Talk to her on Twitter @darksjokolade

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