Throughout South Africa, high mobile data costs keep millions of would-be users offline. Communities in South Africa are responding to this barrier to access by developing new solutions to circumvent the prohibitive cost of connecting to wireless broadband and/or mobile internet.
The cost of an internet connection is currently a high-profile issue in South Africa, as highlighted by the recent #datamustfall campaign. Sparked by an online campaign aimed at challenging service providers to drive down the price of data, activists and advocacy organisations — including A4AI — made submissions to Parliament to explore why data prices remain so high and what we can do to reduce the cost to connect.
Research from our 2015-16 Affordability Report indicates that in South Africa, the average income is US $6800. However, the reality is that 60% of the population earn less than half of that amount. This means that for almost half of the South African population, just 500MB of mobile data (priced at about 1.5% of an “average” monthly income) can actually cost anywhere between 7-15% of their income. It’s important to keep in mind that this cost is to get just 500MB of data — enough to watch two minutes of high quality video, but not enough to access regular use of health, education and other online tools and information. An average household is likely to go through much more than just 500MB of data in a month and so may end up spending much more to connect each month than these estimates suggest.
These high costs have led both researchers and communities in South Africa to investigate ways to supplement the access offered by service providers. The following projects are just two examples of a number of exciting and emerging community-based initiatives to expand affordable access.
Shika Moto (a Swahili phrase meaning “to catch fire”) is a community-based, wireless network operating in Villa Liza, Daveyton and Mogoba — three communities of the East Rand, outside of Johannesburg. The local WiFi network allows for free communications within the community, via access to WiFi-based messaging and file sharing applications. Community members are able to access these apps without purchasing mobile data or airtime. Members of the community host the WiFi network, and are trained to monitor and administer the network.
The network — developed by a company called Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) using an open source software designed to bring WiFi into war zones — is able to operate mostly independently of commercial service providers. Two of the Shika Moto communities connect to the internet using mobile dongles, while the third community connects via an existing ADSL connection. MMA allows users on the Shika Moto network to access a limited number of selected websites for no charge (e.g., the MMA website, an MMA-developed site that provides access to census and elections data, the South African Home Affairs website, and the websites of other partner organisations involved with MMA). To access sites outside of this suite, community members must purchase data; data packages are available for purchase through a programme called ShikaShare, in which community members that invest in the purchase of a dongle and data are able to sell data packages back to the community.
Zenzeleni Networks Mankosi
Zenzeleni is an isiXhosa word that translates as “Do it Yourselves!” The Zenzeleni project is a community-led, self-reliant initiative, started by researchers from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in partnership with the Mankosi Community of the Eastern Cape — a rural, impoverished community, where the average take home salary is $60-$150/month. Individuals in the community are dependent on cell phone airtime from South African service providers, which many can not afford.
Using mesh networking, the community has been able to create their own telecoms network, and to bypass the high communication costs determined by South African mobile network operators. Cheap devices called Mesh Potatoes replace expensive central communications beacons and are placed in certain households. The devices communicate with each other from these “base stations” or nodes. Data is transmitted through the nodes to reach the whole mesh.
Members of the community chosen to host base stations are trained to install aerials, solar panels and mesh potatoes to their roofs and to make wooden battery boxes. Once the programme was legally registered as a co-op, it was able to do business with a VoIP company which places calls to other networks (cellular or landline) for 17% of the normal cost; the co-op charges users 50% of the normal price, and uses the revenue to fund the programme’s continued operation. Internet is provided to the local school, small businesses, and NGOs at a low cost — as low as one-tenth of the current market price. From the spare electricity produced, community members can charge their phones for a small fee.
Issues to Consider
The Shika Moto and Zenzeleni projects raise two key issues to consider when developing local, community-based approaches to connectivity:
- It is critical that communities have input in connectivity planning. If communities are to participate or take ownership of core infrastructural issues, they must have a say in what is developed. Simple systems that do not require highly specialised networking skills and large amounts of resources will allow community networks to operate as sustainable models.
- Developing a sustainable model is paramount — and challenging. Both of these projects are sponsored by parties outside of the communities in which they are based — a fact that will challenge long-term sustainability. Zenzeleni offers a promising model; if it makes financial gains, it could eventually become self-sustaining in the long run.
While both programmes face challenges, they represent a positive start to much-needed community access solutions. Communities (particularly those in low-income areas) will continue to need more affordable connectivity options to those offered by established service providers; community networks such as these offer an alternative.
Do you know of other programmes — in South Africa or elsewhere — that are working to develop alternative, community solutions to connectivity challenges? Please share them, as well as your thoughts on the Shika Moto and Zenzeleni models, in the comments below!