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Free Wi-Fi comes to Soweto

April 23, 2015

Connecting the whole of Soweto, south of Johannesburg, to free Wi-Fi internet is a goal of Jabulani Vilakazi.

Soweto is one of South Africa’s most densely populated areas, with over one million residents. All major local mobile networks have a presence in Soweto as they tap the area’s voice and data services market.

But Vilakazi, who is the chairman of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Soweto Wireless User Group (SOWUG), is part of a team that has piloted a free Wi-Fi project in ten spots in Soweto.

The pilots have used mobile network data to test the Wi-Fi project thus far. Vilakazi told Fin24 that the project has been tested in areas where there’s a high crime rate so that cameras connected to the network can also be installed.

Up to 100 people at each of the ten sites have been accessing the free Wi-Fi to then also browse the internet at speeds of up to 1 Mbps.

But the next phase of the project is planned to use fixed wireless technology, which is expected to boost the capacity of the network.

“There is a gap here. People are in need, the demand is there and it’s underserviced areas. Currently, people don’t have any other alternatives. They only have access to connect to the internet over mobile networks,” Vilakazi told Fin24.

“You find yourself that people can’t even email, simple jobs, people can’t sell anything.

“Most of the people that are disadvantaged; they are definitely excluded in the digital economy. They are getting left behind and the gap is getting wider,” said Vilakazi.

SOWUG also plans to push educational content over the free Wi-Fi network once it’s moved over to fixed wireless technology.

Plans are in place to offer uncapped access to these educational services online on the network. Meanwhile, capped access is expected to come into effect for entertainment use on the network such as watching YouTube.

Challenges that lie ahead for SOWUG, though, include funding for the free Wi-Fi project.

To date, SOWUG has partnered with network provider Dark Fibre Africa, data centre company Teraco and internet provider Vox Telecom to launch the Wi-Fi project. Teraco and Vox Telecom are involved in the project as part of their enterprise development programmes.

Vilakazi told Fin24 that SOWUG has also received funding from global organisation the Internet Society for the project that is planned to last 12 months. But he said this funding could run out sooner owing to the high costs associated with running an infrastructure project of this nature.

“We are working on shoe-string budget here,” said Vilakazi.

“To cover the whole of Soweto we’ll need another R2m because we’ll need another three to four high sites, back-end, infrastructure, fibre…all over the place,” he said.

He further explained that to cover the whole of Soweto, SOWUG needs another 200 high sites across the area.

“Currently, in the next year or so, we see ourselves pushing another 100 at least,” he said.

Vilakazi, in turn, is calling on business to help out the non-profit SOWUG with building out the network.

Vilakazi said he used to work on data support at MTN but now commits his full-time to the free Wi-Fi project.

“We’re working as an NGO so we’re not going to be able to sell anything on the network. My main focus is pushing the NGO side,” he said.

Free Wi-Fi networks in SA

Soweto is not the only area getting free Wi-Fi offerings in South Africa.

Non-profit organisation Project Isizwe has helped expand free Wi-Fi in Tshwane.

Meanwhile the City of Cape Town has rolled out rolled out 69 free Wi-Fi access hotspots throughout Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha. The City of Cape Town further plans to expand the service to another 61 areas across the city by June 2015.

Source: Fin24

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