“Limited access disproportionately affects lower-income, rural customers, small business and the unemployed – a group who, if given complete access, would likely benefit most from being connected.”
Right2Know Campaign (R2K) advocacy group submission to the Competition Commission’s data market inquiry public hearing in 2018
Internet connectivity continues to grow in Southern Africa, reaching 51% in January 2018. While this is notable progress, it also means almost half the population is still without internet access. In developing countries like South Africa, low-income and remote areas are disproportionately affected by this lack of access. This fuels a digital divide and connectivity gap between the connected and the unconnected, the well-off and the poor.
One way to address this problem is by looking to alternative solutions such as wireless community networks (WCNs). WCNs are initiatives that take a participatory and bottom-up approach, providing a viable alternative to commercial internet options.
In South Africa, several such initiatives already exist, such as Zenzeleni.net and iNethi. These networks utilize a wireless mesh network system. This means is that rather than a central mast or beacons these networks use a “mesh” of node devices scattered around an area. Each node in the mesh communicates with nodes nearby, thereby creating a “mesh” and transferring data throughout the broader network.
“South Africa has one of the most expensive data prices in the world, even when adjusted for cost of living. To put this into perspective, India only charges R11 for 1GB, Nigeria charges R22, Ghana R71, Russia R24 and Vodacom in Tanzania charges R98 for 1GB but R149 in South Africa.”
– R2K submission to the Competition Commission, 2018
In South Africa, exorbitantly high mobile data prices (among the most expensive globally) exacerbate the connectivity gap for many. WCNs, in contrast, are more affordable, offering internet services to local communities at a fraction of standard commercial prices. They are also low on energy, which is ideal in areas without a formal electricity supply.
Not only do they offer affordability, but the community network model takes a bottom-up and community centred approach. Local community members are involved in building, maintaining and operating the service, receiving technical skills training in order to do so.
Once set up, community networks have immense potential to bridge the connectivity gap as well as knowledge gaps in low-income and under-served communities. Among the many benefits of WCNs, they are ideal for content caching (storage) and localised services. While users would pay for accessing online content, the mesh network design can also host interesting, educational and useful content and services, locally and essentially “offline”. Users can thus access locally hosted content, as well as share content and communicate with others connected to the network, all at no cost. Local networks can also improve service delivery, inspire the creation of local content, or advertise local business and services.