Universal Internet access is a dream that will help all South Africans benefit from the communications, information and resources that the privileged take for granted. Project Isizwe is close to making that dream a reality in Tshwane. Kathy Gibson visited the project’s headquarters in a picturesque castle atop the hill in a Tshwane nature reserve.
Project Isizwe is a super-modern network operations centre, managing communications across the Tshwane metropolitan area. It’s unusual in that this high-tech environment is situated in a castle that has been built around the remains of a Boer War fort.
The castle’s situation overlooking Pretoria would have given Boer War combatants an eagle’s eye view over the city of Pretoria and surrounding areas. This wide vista is the very reason that the site is so perfect for Project Isizwe’s headquarters – with almost 360-degree views over Tshwane, there is unparalleled ability to provide close to 100% network coverage.
This is important, because Project Isizwe aims to bring Internet connectivity to every citizen in Tshwane – and it’s already well on its way to achieving that goal.
Zahir Khan, chief operating officer of Project Isizwe, points out that, while universal access is the stated aim for South Africa, the reality is very different.
“There are significant issues in our country,” says Khan. “The telcos may have extended network coverage across the country, but coverage and being able to access connectivity are two different things. We know that the pricing of Internet services is among the highest is the world, and we are nowhere close to making these services affordable for the majority of people.
“The telcos think they are making a difference and connecting people, but it’s a very different story to truly make a difference to the 60% of people in South Africa who are unconnected.”
Background to the project
Project Isizwe was founded in April 2013 by Internet entrepreneur Alan Knott-Craig Jr, who had previously run the IBurst network, headed up MXit and worked on providing free hotspots in Stellenbosch.
During 2013, the company started talking to the City of Tshwane, which had a stated aim of its own to provide connectivity. About 10 years previously the city had embarked on a major broadband project, installing fibre to connect municipal offices and other city functions.
When the city’s jurisdiction expanded, it needed to expand its network, and also decided that it was a good opportunity to give back to the community.
With the city’s capacity and Project Isizwe’s dream of universal access, a partnership with formed and, in August 2013, the first five free WiFi sites were identified: Mamelodi Community Centre; Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Mamelodi; TUT in Shoshanguve; University of Pretoria in Hatfield; and Church Square.
“By November 2013, we had completed the launch and free WiFi was officially available to the public at those locations,” Khan remembers. “By March 2014, there were 25 000 unique users connecting from these five sites.”
The second phase of the project was to connect additional sites in Shoshanguve, Atteridgeville and Mamelodi, with many of the townships’ residents getting Internet access for the first time.
This added 213 more sites by June 2014, mostly focused around schools and mounted on city infrastructure like street poles. This lets the network reach the broadest possible user base, and has the further advantage that teachers can use the free WiFI as part of their ICT programmes in the schools.
Phase three, underway now, aims to ensure that every ward in Tshwane has at least one free Internet zone (FIZ), and that every citizen in the metro is within at least walking distance of free Internet connectivity.
A further 402 sites have been delivered as part of phase three, bringing the total in the city to 620, and the first goal – of at least one FIZ per ward – has now been reached. The eventual goal of ensuring free WiFi within a 1km radius of every citizen will require the installation of a further 1 848 hotspot sites.
Project Isizwe started off with one major advantage in that the City of Tshwane had already installed a significant fibre optic network that it could leverage.
“The city provides the fibre and we add the last mile access,” Khan explains.
Project Isizwe employs about 20 people, but uses the services of about 80 more for sub-contracting.
Each of the WiFi nodes installed early in the project can handle 200 concurrent connections, but the sites deployed as part of phase three can each support up to 500 concurrent users.
So far, more than 640 000 unique users have connected to the network, with about 40 000 unique users coming online regularly.
Users are not required to register for the service. The network records their device’s MAC address and treats that as a unique user. Each user is allowed a daily allocation of 250Mb per device per day, and enjoys a symmetrical connection of 7Mbps on average.
“That would allow me to work for the entire day if I was sending and receiving normal text e-mail,” says Khan. In fact, about 4 000 users are using the free service in this way, he adds, quite probably using the WiFi to run small businesses.
Of course, in some instances, 250Mb a day isn’t enough, and Khan says Project Isizwe was getting a lot of complaints about the cap from users in schools and libraries.
“We could see that they were using YouTube extensively and running out of bandwidth,” he says. “And we realised that YouTube has become one of the primary educational resources out there.”
Rather than raising the cap, Project Isizwe decided to build a portal for content that could be accessed outside of the cap. The Tobetsa portal now offers a range of useful content as well as e-government services that citizens can use without touching their 250Mb daily allocation.
That the project is addressing a fundamental need is demonstrated by the fact that 85% of users are repeat users.
It’s true that nothing in life is free and, while Project Isizwe offers free WiFi connectivity to citizens, there is a cost to the city.
Khan points out that the costs are dramatically reduced by virtue of using the city’s existing fibre network, but the free WiFi has cost about R180-million so far, with another R500-million budgeted to complete the final phase.
“That’s a total investment of R680-million by the end of the project, to reach 3,5-million citizens in the city of Tshwane,” says Khan. “That works out at a total R194,29 per citizen for 250Mb per day for three years – or R5,40 per citizen per month.”
Once the three years of free service has run its course, the city could either continue to offer free WiFi, or it could opt to commercialise the service.
This will probably happen in 2019, Khan says, since the whole city is scheduled to receive their free WiFi from June 2016.
Over the top services
Tshwane has a very youthful population, with about 60% of its citizens between the ages of 16 and 25, Khan says. With basic WiFi becoming pervasive, Project Isizwe has added a number of services to run on top of the network.
WiFi TV is a very localised service, with five teams of two reporters covering topics and events of interest to the communities in which they operate and broadcasting on five narrow-back channels.
WiFi Chat is a service that allows the city to communicate on any of its initiatives, effectively holding a digital “lekgotla” targeting the youth who are not necessarily comfortable attending town meetings.
E-government services from the City of Tshwane are also available for free.
WiFi Drive-In is a new initiative, probably launching in October, where people can all gather in a particular location and watch movies on their own devices. People would drive to a central location, log in and watch real Hollywood movies at no cost.
“This could become a unique family experience,” says Khan. “Many young people can’t afford to watch the latest movies in a cinema and this will be a great opportunity for them.”
Project Isizwe is best known for its City of Tshwane free WiFi project, but it’s not the only town this team has connected.
It has also worked with the Western Cape government to connect two towns. And there are a number of non-government funded projects under its belt: four sites in the Cape Flats; a couple in Limpopo and more in Eastern Cape.
“Once we’ve shown them what we can do, we hope to get the governments on board,” Khan says.
“Free WiFi means citizens can access the Internet and make their lives easier. So a man can search for a job without having to walk down the mountain, catch a taxi to town and then start asking around for a job.
“The Internet can transform lives. And Project Isizwe can help to bridge the digital divide in South Africa.
“Yes, the country is moving to broadband penetration, but we are still missing the point that it’s not about penetration rates, it’s about connecting people.”