Going Where the Money Isn’t: Wi-Fi for South African Townships
Note from the author: For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been spending time informally in Africa, where I have a chance to visit with government officials, non-government organizations and residents of towns, settlements and cities. This is part two of an occasional series; in my previous post, I wrote about disrupting payments, Africa style.
Spending time in Africa, one is always awestruck. The continent has so much to offer, from sands to rain forests, from apes to zebras, from Afrikaans to Zulu. More than 1.1 billion people, 53 countries and at least 2,000 different spoken languages make for amazing diversity and energy.
Yet even while spending just a little time, you quickly see the economic challenges faced by many — slums, townships, settlements and the poverty they represent are seen too frequently. The contrast with the developing world is immense. As a visitor, you’re not particularly surprised to find the difficulties in staying connected to wireless services that you’ve become reliant upon.
We hear about the mobile revolution in Africa all the time. Today, this is a revolution in voice and text on feature phones and increasingly on smartphones, phablets and small tablets. Smartphones are making a rapid rise in use, if for no other reason than they have become inexpensive and ubiquitous on the world stage, and also thanks, in part, to reselling of used phones from developed markets.
But keeping smartphones connected to the Internet is straining the spectrum in most countries, and is certainly straining the connectivity infrastructure. Africa, for the most part, will “skip over” PCs, as hundreds of millions of people connect to the Internet exclusively by phones and tablets. But there’s an acute need for improved connectivity.
The problem is that, even in the most developed areas of Africa, the deployment of strong and fast 3G and 4G coverage is lagging, and the capital that is available will flow to build out areas where there are paying customers. That means that the outlying areas, where a lot of people live, will continue to be underserved for quite some time.
Alan Knott-Craig, an experienced South African entrepreneur who is setting out to bring connectivity via Wi-Fi across his homeland, knows that Internet access is transformative to those in slums and townships. His previous company, Mxit, where he was CEO, developed a wildly popular social network for feature phones. It delivered a vast array of services, from education to community to commerce, and is in use by tens of millions.
Given the challenges of connectivity in Africa, you often find yourself searching for a Wi-Fi connection for any substantial browsing or app usage. The best case — except for a couple of markets and capital cities — is that you will get a strong 3G and occasional 4G that is highly dependent on carrier and location. It is not uncommon for folks to have smartphones that are used for voice and text when on the network, and apps that are used only when there is Wi-Fi. It’s not just a way to save money or avoid your data cap — Wi-Fi is a necessity.
“Going where the money isn’t”
One can imagine there’s a big business to be had building out the Wi-Fi hotspot infrastructure in the country. Knott-Craig recognized this as he began to explore how to bring connectivity to more people.
Having grown up in South Africa and deeply committed to both the social and business needs of the country, Knott-Craig has also dedicated his businesses to those who are least well served and would benefit the most. Over the past 20 years, the improvements in service delivery to the slums and townships of South Africa have improved immensely, reducing what once seemed like an insurmountable gap. While there is clearly a long way to go, progress is being made.
The transformation that mobile is bringing to townships is almost beyond words to those who are deeply familiar with the challenges. Talking and texting with family and friends are great and valuable. A mobile phone brings empowerment and identity (a phone number is the most reliable form of identity for many) in ways that no other service has been able to. Access to information, education and community all come from mobile phones. Mobile is a massive accelerator when it comes to closing economic divides.
All too often in business, the path is to build a business around where the money is. Knott-Craig’s deep experience in mobile communications told him that the major carriers will address connectivity in the cities and where there is already money. So, in his words, he set out to improve mobile connectivity by “going where the money isn’t.”
It was obvious to Alan that setting up Wi-Fi access would be transformative. The question was really how to go about it.
Time and again, one lesson from philanthropy is that the solutions that work and endure are the ones that enroll the local community. Services that are created by partnerships between the residents of townships, the government and business are the only way to build sustainable programs. The implication is that rolling into town with a bunch of access points and Internet access sounds like a good idea — who wouldn’t want connectivity? — but in practice would be met with resistance from all sides.
In the townships, people pay for Internet access by the minute, by the text and by the megabyte. Rolling out Wi-Fi needed to fit within this model, and not create yet another service to buy. So the first hurdle to address would be to find a way to piggyback on that existing payment infrastructure.
To do this, Knott-Craig worked with carriers in a very smart way. Carriers want their customers on the Internet, and in fact would love to offload customers to Wi-Fi when available. While they can do this in densely populated urban areas where access points can be set up, townships pose a very different environmental challenge, discussed below.
Given the carriers’ openness to offloading customers to Wi-Fi, the project devised a solution based on the latest IEEE standards for automatically signing on to available hotspots (something that we wish we would experience in practice in the U.S.). A customer of one of the major carriers, MTN for example, would initiate a connection to the Isizwe network, and from then on would automatically authenticate and connect using the mobile number and prepaid megabytes, just as though the Wi-Fi were a WWAN connection.
This “Hotspot 2.0″ implementation is amazingly friendly and easy to use. It removes the huge barrier to using Wi-Fi that most experience (the dreaded sign-on page), and that in turn makes the carriers very happy. Because of the value to the carriers, Knott-Craig is working to establish this same billing relationship across carriers, so this works no matter who provides your service.
Of course this doesn’t solve the problem of where the bandwidth comes from in the first place. Since Knott-Craig is all about building bridges and enrolling support across the community, he created unique opportunities for those that already have unused bandwidth to be part of the solution.
Whether it is large corporations or the carriers themselves, Project Isizwe created a wholesale pool of bandwidth by either purchasing outright or using donated bandwidth to create capacity. The donated bandwidth provides a tax deduction benefit at the same time. Everyone wins. Interestingly, the donated bandwidth makes use of off-peak capacity, which is exactly when people in the townships want to spend time on the Internet anyway.
With demand and supply established, the next step is to enroll the government. Here again, the team’s experience in working with local officials comes into play.
As with any market around the world, you can’t just put up public-use infrastructure on public land and start to use it. The same thing is true in the townships of South Africa. In fact, one could imagine an outright rejection of providing this sort of service from a private organization, simply because it competes with the service delivery the government provides.
In addition, the cost factor is always an issue. Too many programs for townships start out free, but end up costing the government money (money they don’t have) over time. It isn’t enough to provide the capital equipment and ask the government to provide operational costs, or vice versa. Project Isizwe is set up to ensure that public free Wi-Fi networks are a sustainable model, but needed government support to do so.
With the enrollment of the carriers and community support, bringing along the government required catering to their needs, as well. One of the biggest challenges in the townships is the rough-and-tumble politics — not unlike local politics in American cities. The challenge that elected officials have is getting their voice heard. Without regular television coverage, and with sporadic or limited print coverage, the Internet has the potential to be a way for the government to reach citizens.
As part of the offering, Knott-Craig and his team devised a platform for elected officials to air their point of view through “over the top” means. Essentially, part of the Wi-Fi service provides access to a public-service “station” filled with information directly from governmental service providers. Because of the nature of the technology, these streams can be cached and provided at an ultra-low cost.
The bottom line for government is that they are in the business of providing basic services for the community. Providing Internet access only adds to the menu of services, including water, electrical, sanitation, police, fire and more. Doing so without a massive new public program of infrastructure is a huge part of what Isizwe did to win over those officials.
With all the parties enrolled, there still needs to be some technology. It should come as no surprise that setting up access points in townships poses some unique challenges: Physical security, long-haul connectivity and power need to be solved.
One of the neat things about the tech startup ecosystem in South Africa is the ability to draw on resources unique to the country. The buildup of military and security technology, particularly in Pretoria, created an ecosystem of companies and talent well-suited to the task. Given the decline of these industries, it turns out that these resources are now readily available to support new private-sector work.
First up was building out the access points themselves. Unlike a coffee shop, where you would just connect an access point to a cable modem and hide it above a ceiling tile, townships have other challenges. Most of the access points are located high up in secured infrastructure, such as water towers. These locations also have reliable power and are already monitored for security.
The access points are secured in custom-designed enclosures, and use networking equipment sourced from Silicon Valley companies Ruckus Wireless and Ubiquiti Networks, which implement hotspots around the world. This enclosure design and build was done by experienced steel-manufacturing plants in Pretoria. In addition, these enclosures provide two-way security cameras with night vision to monitor things.
This provided for a fun moment the first time someone signed on. A resident had been waiting for the Wi-Fi and was hanging out right below the tower. As soon as they signed on for the first time, back at the operations center they could see this on the dashboard, as well as the camera, and used the two-way loudspeaker to ask, “So how do you like the Wi-Fi?” which was quite a surprise to a guy just checking football scores on his mobile phone.
Along with using engineers from Pretoria to design the enclosure, Isizwe also employed former military engineers to go on-site to install the access points. This work involved two high-risk activities. First, these men needed to climb up some pretty tall structures and install something not previously catered for. Their skills as linemen and soldiers helped here.
More importantly, these were mostly Afrikaner white men venturing into the heart of black townships to do this work. Even though South Africa is years into an integrated and equality-based society, the old emotions are still there, just as has been seen in many other societies.
This would be potentially emotionally charged for these Afrikaners in particular. No only were there no incidents, but the technicians were welcomed with open arms, given the work that they were doing — “We are here to bring you Wi-Fi” — turns out to make it easy to put aside any (wrongly) preconceived notions. In fact, after the job, the installers were quite emotional about how life-changing the experience was for them to go into the townships for the first time and to do good work there.
The absence of underground cabling presents the challenge of getting these access points on the Internet in the first place. To accomplish this, each access point uses a microwave relay to connect back up to a central location, which is then connected over a landline. This is a huge advantage over most Wi-Fi on the African continent, which is generally a high-gain 3G WWAN connection that gets shared over local Wi-Fi.
The service is up and running today as a 1.0 version, in which Wi-Fi is free but limited to 250 megabytes; the billing infrastructure is just a few months away, which will enable pay-as-you-go usage of megabytes. The service will be free when there is capacity going unused.
The cost efficacy of the system is incredible, and that is passed along to individual users. Wi-Fi is provided at about 15 cents (ZAR cents) per gigabyte, which compares to more than 80 cents per megabyte for spotty 3G. That is highly affordable for the target customers.
Because of the limits of physics of Wi-Fi, the system is not set up to allow mass streaming of football, which is in high demand. Mechanisms are in place to create what amounts to over-the-top broadcast by using fixed locations within the community.
The most popular services being accessed are short videos on YouTube, music, news, employment information and educational services like Khan Academy and Wikipedia. The generation growing up in the townships is even more committed to education, so it is no surprise to see such a focus. Another important set of services being accessed are those for faith and religion, particularly Christian gospel content.
The numbers are incredible and growing rapidly, as the Isizwe scales to even more townships. In the middle of the afternoon (when people are at school and working), we pulled up the dashboard and saw some stats:
- 609 people were online right at that moment.
- 4,455 people had already used the service that day.
- 304 people had already reached their daily limit that day.
- More than 70,000 unique users since the system went online with 1.0 in November 2013.
- 208GB transferred since going online
- Most all of the mobile traffic is Android, along with the newest Asha phones from Nokia. Recycled iPhones from the developed market also make a showing.
In terms of physical infrastructure required, it takes about 200 access points to cover a densely populated area of one million residents. This allows about 200,000 simultaneous users overall, with about 50-500 users per access point, depending on usage and congestion.
We talk all the time about the transformational nature of mobile connectivity, and many in the U.S. are deeply committed to getting people connected all around the world. Project Isizwe is an incredible example of the local innovation required to build products and services to deliver on those desires.
The public/private/community partnerships that are the hallmark of Isizwe will scale to many townships across South Africa. Building on this base, there are many exciting information-based services that can be provided. Things are just getting started.