V-NET: Bringing Internet Connectivity into Low-Income Areas

We are living in a time of rapid technological advancement globally. We are experiencing growing importance of internet access in our everyday lives.

In countries like South Africa, many poorer communities and people simply do not have access to an affordable and quality internet connection. This type of internet connection is mainly available through copper infrastructure or fibre, services enjoyed in wealthier areas. This is contributing to a new digital divide between the well off and the poor.

Without affordable alternatives, many South Africans rely heavily on mobile data, just to stay connected. With the high cost of data in South Africa, this expense can add up to a significant amount of one’s income. With no price drops soon, mobile data connectivity thus does not provide a sustainable solution to internet connectivity.

At VPUU, we have been working on ways of bridging this digital divide and improving quality of life. This is how the idea of V-NET was born.

What is V-NET?

V-NET is a mesh network bringing internet connectivity into the areas VPUU serves. It is envisioned as a partnership between VPUU, local communities, and the city of Cape Town. VPUU is collaborating with Wakoma Incorporated and Man Make Machine to co-design and deploy V-NET.

Initially, it will mainly provide support for our various VPUU programmes. Once successfully established, however, we are intending to introduce it as a community network to bring affordable access to the internet and offline services into low-income areas in Cape Town.

At its core, V-NET will have a server supporting a locally developed platform that provides free local services and content. From the server, the network will branch out through a “mesh” of Wi-Fi access points (APs). To date, we have erected APs at various VPUU offices in Khayelitsha. These APs create the network backbone and allow signal to be sent over long distances (backhaul) to create a network of connectivity.

V-NET network backbone Aerial view of the VPUU offices connected to V-NET

A V-NET lightbeam installed at Kwamfundo in Khayelitsha A V-NET lightbeam installed at Kwamfundo in Khayelitsha

Once established, any user connected to an access point can communicate with other connected users. Users will also be able to access the internet as well as offline content or services running on the server.

Affordability & Local Economic Development

There are many potential benefits of V-NET, particularly is its affordability in relation to other existing options out there. Local ISPs, government departments, businesses and schools could also benefit from V-NET, paying market-related rates to cover the running costs.

The long-term aim is to create a local ISP (internet service provider) and encourage local community retailers to sell internet access to users through a voucher-based system. We believe that this has the added potential to create local economic development and opportunities. Thus, introducing affordable, quality internet connection through V-NET has the potential to cut local costs as well as initiate an upswing in the local economy.

Revenue from voucher sales will go into maintaining the network as well as supplementing VPUU’s development projects. VPUU’s Community Information Offices (formerly known as CROs) as well as our various community-run projects, involved with delivering education safety, basic services, tenure and local economic development, will all benefit from the increased internet access.

Community Involvement

In line with VPUU’s core principles, community participation and involvement is essential to V-NET’s sustainability. As such, we have held several information sessions in the earmarked communities, encouraging local residents to ask questions and #getinvolved.

V-NET information workshop V-NET information workshop for local community members at Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha

During instalments, we invited local community members to partake. Those who partook learnt how to assemble a lightbeam and splice cables.

V-NET equipment being assembled Phiwe is assembling a lightbeam at Monwabisi Park C Section

V-NET equipment being assembled Phiwe and Pinkie completing the battery connection and installation

Going forward, V-NET will have a strong upskilling component to it. VPUU will train a core team of local residents to install and maintain the network as well as monitor and respond to network issues that may arise.

V-NET also holds the promise of enabling innovative and interactive local tech projects, trainings and events. With a network to support them, holding regular hackathons in the community will be quite possible (hyperlink Dhena’s Raspberry Pi Jam video here).

Offline Content & Educational Resources

When users connect to V-NET, they will have access to some free, offline and open source services, such as chat, social networking, career development, video streaming, and file sharing. V-NET will also have offline educational content such as Khan Academy, TED talks, eBooks, African Storybook Project, WordPress, Moodle and several Wiki services available (including the entire Wikipedia in multiple languages).

V-NET offline content

Bridging Local-Global content gap

Another vision driving V-NET is that of bridging the gap between local and global content. The ease of access will enable global content to become more locally accessible and equally encourage the creation of local content to become globally accessible. It has the potential of allowing consumers of web content to become active producers of their own web content. Local users will be able to create content relating to their community history and heritage, civic structures and local events. This gives agency to locals to tell their own story, or that of their community, and to make their lived experiences seen and heard on the wider internet.

Long-term Possibilities

V-NET’s strength lies in its quality and affordability in areas without adequate internet access. With affordable internet access as well as offline content, we predict that V-NET will act as an accelerator. It will enable better communication; increased knowledge and content production and sharing; and improved access to educational resources, jobs and networking opportunities. The potential benefit is not limited to a particular age, gender or interest group. V-NET will offer a service that all will benefit from.

We hope that the successful implementation of the initial pilot project in a few communities will inspire and empower adjacent communities to adopt similar solutions. In the long term, we hope that similar networks will be replicated in other townships and make a considerable effort in bridging the digital divide in South Africa.