South African Free-Wifi Hero Calls for #Internet4all

Alan Knott-Craig Jnr, Founder of Hero Telecoms

Alan Knott-Craig Jnr, Founder of Hero Telecoms

“Should internet access be a basic right?” Alan Knott-Craig Jnr asks in response to whether or not he believes in the notion of #internet4all in Africa. The serial telecomms entrepreneur laughs out loud, and then asks: “What do you think?”

For the past four years, Knott-Craig Jnr’s key purpose has been all about trying to realise the dream that everyone in this country has a basic right to access an internet connection that is affordable, reliable and of good quality.

 It started in 2012 when he was the CEO of Mxit, and made a deal with the Stellenbosch municipality to enable free WiFi access in public spaces. The effort was organised under the moniker ‘Project Isizwe’, and its biggest installation today, has been in Tshwane, although Knott-Craig reveals that Johannesburg is next. 

 “In the last two years, Tshwane has become the continent’s biggest free public WiFi network,” Knott-Craig Jnr says. “I believe that internet access should be a basic right, it should be viewed as another utility, much the same as water, or electricity.”

 “There are so very many reasons internet access should be a basic right, but aside from education, healthcare or finding out what the Guptas are up to, for me the most compelling motivation for #internet4all in South Africa is economic development,” he says.

 “We see it in all the roll-outs we’ve done. Free or affordable access to the internet sparks economic development. Whether it’s as simple as someone going online to look for a job to start earning money, or listing their newly opened hair salon on Gumtree, people use the internet to access the economy. There’s a WiFi spot in Pretoria that now has a guy selling hot dogs alongside it, the free internet access brings loads of footfall, and the guy sells his buns with viennas in,” Knott-Craig Jnr says with a laugh.

 “There’s a much cited statistic that was put out by the World Bank about the growth effect of broadband, and I’ve seen it in Tshwane. Enable the access and everything flows from there,” he says. That frequently referenced World Bank study found that for each 10% increase in broadband penetration in low and middle-income countries, there was a GDP rise of 1.38%. 

 Knott-Craig Jnr’s call, for internet access to be considered a basic right in South Africa, follows the advocacy by Elsie Kanza, Head of Africa and Member of the Executive Committee for the World Economic Forum who is championing internet for all on the continent.

 “Technology has already helped to bring about vast improvements in the way the region governs, feeds, lives, educates, trades and interacts with itself,” said Kanza. 

Over 1,000 Global Shapers in 94 cities across Africa have joined the  an #internet4all in Africa campaign to advocate for internet access as a basic right at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2016, taking place in Kigali, Rwanda, from May 11 to 13. “We believe that, in the 21st century, this essential infrastructure should be available to everybody,” Kanza says, adding: “All Africans want is the chance to create for themselves the future that they deserve.”

“The reason I approached the government and asked them to start rolling out free WiFi in public spaces and poor communities, is because the telcos are never going to make internet access free. It is not their game, and they’ll never make it cheap enough for someone to not worry about how much they’re spending on data. It’s just not going to happen,” Knott-Craig Jnr says.

In Tshwane the Free Public WiFi project, Knott-Craig Jnr says, was driven by the metro’s mayor, Kgosientso Ramokgopa. “He pushed for the idea that the internet should be a basic service like water and electricity. Ramokgopa and his team are the people who made it happen.” The statistics of the Tshwane network point to its pervasive popularity.

The Jacaranda city’s free public WiFi network has had 1.4 million unique devices connected to it, with average speeds of some 15Mb per second. “It’s not like crappy dial-up -- it sometimes bursts to 30 Mbps,” Knott-Craig Jnr says. The network has 776 sites in public spaces and is available 24/7.

“If you drive to some of the installations in Tshwane, you’ll see people randomly standing in parking lots staring at their smartphone, or sitting in a park, eyes fixed on their laptop screen. The city people who use it call it Sputla WiFi after the mayor, his name is Kgosientso ‘Sputla’ Ramokgopa, Sputla is his nickname,” Knott-Craig Jnr explains, and adds: “The youth love it. It’s a major political win, particularly in a local government election year.”

The feedback from ‘Sputla’ WiFi users is that they now refuse to go to town hall meetings to see how city administration is going down. The Mayor has obliged with an offering called WiFi TV, where once a week a young journalist in Mamelodi interviews His Worship with questions the mod squad have submitted during the week.

And then there’s the narrative of the people who use the service. Mrs Mabhena, a librarian at Eldoraigne Community Library in Pretoria, says people sit outside the library premises for hours. “There is this particular old lady who comes to use the Free WiFi to call her
daughter in Australia,” Mabhena says, adding: “With access to information, anybody can become anything.”

This is true for 21-year-old Mukundwa Ratshikhopa from Rooihuiskraal, Centurion who started his own business on the back of the free WiFi. Mukundwa has an emerging branding company and uses the access for downloading and uploading images, and to update software programs. 

Then there’s Ikageng Mashaba from Itsoseng who is starting out in the music industry as a composer and producer. “I’m always uploading my tracks on iTunes, YouTube and other platforms. I have my own record label so I use WiFi for admin and I communicate with artists and co-workers. Tshwane Free WiFi has been very helpful.”
Jerry Matabula promotes his beauty business, the New Deal JR Salon, while 20-something Nosi Nukwa uses the service to supplement her learning. A poignant story comes from Molebogeng, who is unemployed and used to have to save R100 to go to an internet cafe to browse online and try to find a job. Now he’s at the public WiFi daily to look for opportunities.

For Knott-Craig Jnr the big dream is to put internet access within walking distance of everyone who needs it. In Tshwane that dream is becoming real. “The idea is this -- if you can’t afford to get on the internet, we’re not going to put fibre or copper into your house, but we’ll make sure you can walk from your house to the nearest WiFi zone. By 2018 our promise is that every citizen in Tshwane will be in walking distance of free WiFi. Today we already have 23.4% of the buildings within walking distance of free wifi. Pretty cool, eh?”

Pretty cool indeed. Pervasive, free WiFi in public areas for people who need it the most is a no brainer, particularly when one looks at SA’s economic outlook and unemployment figures. 

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Sign the Project Isizwe petition to call on government to provide free WiFi access in public spaces: http://petition.isizwe.com/

Do you think #internet4all would change your life, your work, or the lives of the people on this continent? Support the idea of #internet4all in Africa by taking to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube and motivating why #internet4all needs to be on the development agenda. Follow @Internet_4All