There is a lot of talk about mobile penetration in Africa. Even if you dissect the stats down to the number of unique subscribers, there is no doubt that mobile has had, and continues to have, a huge role on the continent.
But what about data?
Or more specifically, what about the cost of data? It’s no good if everyone on the continent has access to a mobile phone but cannot afford the cost of bandwidth. Is mobile really enabling as many people as it could then?
South Africa has notoriously high data rates, with costs ranging from 10 cents (US$0.01) to as high as R2 per megabyte (US$0.2). For a lot of people in low-income areas across the country, and even the continent, this is simply too expensive.
With so many startups and services emerging that seek to offer solutions to problems such as education, employment, even entertainment, all provided through mobile phones, there appears to be a disconnect between what is on offer (and will be on offer in the next few years), and the ability for users to actually afford access to those services — no matter how much they might benefit from them.
This is where Project Isizwe comes in — an initiative from former Mxit CEO Alan Knott-Craig Jr to provide the continent with access to the internet in the form of free wi-fi, an alternative medium of connecting people to the internet.
It’s an infrastructural solution, one that Project Isizwe claims is both easy to deploy and cost-effective. Here’s the kicker though, the idea is to deploy it in partnership with local municipalities.
So how does it all work?
Working with government municipalities to roll out free wi-fi networks in low-income communities, Project Isizwe has started with an initial rollout in the city of Tshwane. Since launching five live sites in November last year there have been 11 000 unique users accessing the networks, and there are consistently more than 1100 daily visitors.
Municipalities pay Isizwe to roll out the networks and provide support for a few years after completion. For an example of cost, phase 2 of Tshwane costs R53-million, and this includes all equipment, installation, operation and maintenance of over 210 access points (with a capacity of 5 000 users each) for three years. That’s capacity for more than one million people.
It all started with the Stellenbosch Free Wi-Fi project whereby Mxit and the municipality partnered to offer free internet access, specifically in townships. Isizwe is still head-quartered there.
Isizwe recoups ongoing expenses from the municipalities, but it was set up through self-funding by the management. Shareholders include Knott-Craig Jr, Zahir Khan, James Devine, Van Zyl Botha, and Craig Rivett, with over R1-million invested to date.
Between the lines
One could easily dismiss Isizwe as a vanity project, but if you look at it in conjunction with other ventures, especially from Knott-Craig Jr. you’ll see why it could just be a truly brilliant initiative coming out of Africa.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of startups and services appearing that use mobile to deliver educational solutions (something like EDGE Campus, Rethink Education), entertainment solutions (Wabona, Tuluntulu), or employment solutions. But those solutions mean nothing if people can’t afford data to access them — Project Isizwe is the backbone upon which such services can jump onto, and will potentially be reliant upon.
From a business perspective Knott-Craig Jr. and the other shareholders could launch their own products and services delivered through mobile, such as Knott-Craig Jr’s Ever Africa which is a mobile-first gaming, ecommerce, education and media platform. So even if Project Isizwe is not for profit, it enables other ventures to have a wider reach, thus making them more profitable.
What it does mean though, is that Isizwe is up against the likes of Google and Facebook. Both companies have launched initiatives to connect the next few billion people to the internet through Project Loon and Internet.org repectively. Just like Google created the infrastructural service first (Google search) and launched services later (Gmail, Google Plus, Drive), so you could see Isizwe in the same light. But those are some big players to go up against.
Isizwe has no immediate expansion plans outside of South Africa, but English-speaking southern African countries would be the first port of call. Working with government municipalities throughout Africa is going to be a challenge for Isizwe, and the project says that raising awareness that it is possible to roll-out free Wi-fi networks is one of the challenges ahead.
Big play for smaller players
Project Isizwe is a big play. Essentially it is about changing mindsets, especially those of key players in government. For Knott-Craig Jr. it’s about getting the government onboard to treat Wi-fi as a basic service, like water and electricity. Viewing it as such “allows for independence from foreign companies/interests, whilst ensuring sustainability.”
Free wi-fi throughout the continent will function as an enabler, there is no doubt about that, but there are many people who have vested interests to not have free wi-fi rolled out. Just ask Vodacom or MTN if they’d like to lose a large chunk of their mobile data income? It could have a positive competitive result though by forcing big telecom companies to slash their data rates. There’s also the challenge of signal blocks and stability in remote regions.
Project Isizwe is a worthwhile initiative to get behind. Not only because it is an idealistic scenario for the continent to be connected, and a great example of government working with a non-profit — hey that’s good PR right? But there are a lot of challenges ahead.
Hopefully smaller SMEs, especially those forging mobile solutions, can also show their support for Project Isizwe, because their products and services are the ones that would benefit most from free wi-fi access across the continent.
If not only government, but also SMEs, and the media can get behind the initiative, then perhaps Isizwe can overcome the giants it is up against.
Check out the Project Isizwe website for more information.