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 Thursday, August 29, 2013
The nation’s capital has joined Cape Town and Stellenbosch in the race to roll out fast internet to the public, to the especial benefit of the poor, in a move that signals a newfound understanding of ‘digital rights’.

The idea that access to the internet is something other than a cutting-edge luxury has been slow to filter into South African discourse. Yet the evidence shows that access to the Internet is far from a luxury for the poor. It is better understood as an enabler of existing rights on a large scale, as well as the most powerful means of job creation and business creation currently known. The poor are least likely to receive government services timeously and fully, but also least able to complain about it and hold those responsible accountable. In a South African context in which one’s likelihood of receiving the services one is entitled to, rises exponentially with one’s ability to punish the officials concerned when they fail to provide the services, giving the poor access to advanced information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure can change lives.

Even where this rationale is not understood or accepted, the business case for free public wifi more than stands on its own, and some of the nation’s leading municipalities have duly set about making digital rights real.

The City of Tshwane aims to roll out free wifi to poor neighbourhoods, built-up areas and major centres of learning as early as November this year. The first phase will encompass the venerable Church Square, the University of Pretoria in Hatfield, the Tshwane University of Technology’s Soshanguve campus, a community centre in Mamelodi, one of the nation’s largest townships, and another college.

Next year, Phase Two will focus on schools, with the total connectivity of all government schools and higher learning centres by 2016. This builds on the success of the city’s push to connect 100 municipal offices, libraries, and contact centres, now complete. Most hearteningly, the city’s approach is enlightened about the intersection between public investments and grassroots entrepreneurship: spare capacity on the city network will be sold to private service providers, who will be providing a fast internet service to parts of the city in which there is very little choice in internet provider – or no internet service at all.

(Source: The South African)