Stellenbosch: How a small university town is giving everyone free Wi-Fi

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The small Western Cape student town of Stellenbosch is perhaps best known for the wineries that surround it. But now it’s looking to become one of the most connected places in South Africa by offering free, universal Wi-Fi internet access.

The initiative is reportedly a partnership between Stellenbosch, the University of Stellenbosch, and popular instant messaging platform MXit.

According to MyBroadband, the service will be available to anyone without registration. The only activity prohibited on the network will be large downloads.

A trial area for the network will reportedly go live on Friday, before being extended to the rest of Stellenbosch (including outlying rural areas) within the next six months.

While it may seem like a fast roll out and a logistical nightmare, there is already a core network in place, which is currently used for fielding municipality calls.

According to CEO Alan Knott-Craig Jr, MXit’s involvement in the project came at the behest of Stellenbosch mayor Conrad Sidego.

“We are psyched to help promote Stellenbosch as the true tech capital of Africa. Although free Wi-Fi can never compete in performance with paid-for services, it does provide a magnet for creativity and engineers,” said Knott-Craig.

“Our primary value-add is the unused bandwidth coming into our data centre (770-million messages a day requires a fair amount of capacity),” he added.

The hope is that MXit’s bandwidth will serve the initiative’s early needs, although Stellenbosch University and SEACOM may be called in to provide extra if and when it is needed.

In order not to compete with existing private 3G and wireless broadband providers the service will be capped at 1Mbps.

That might sound fairly low, but it’s worth bearing in mind that South Africa’s average broadband download speed is only 2.89Mbps and its upload speed is 1.15Mbps.

Stellenbosch’s announcement comes just days after Western Cape premier and national opposition leader Helen Zille announced plans to give the whole of the Cape Town Metropolitan area 100Mbps connections by 2020.

Zille announced the plans during her state of the province address, stating that it would be achieved through partnerships “with a number of potential stakeholders, including licensed telecoms service providers, commercial banks, the IDC [Industrial Development Corporation] and the DBSA [Development Bank of South Africa]“.

The premier outlined some of the expected benefits of having the whole city connected:

“The real benefit of a connected environment is that it becomes an attractive destination for businesses, conventions, tourists and the like. By providing the foundations on which all business communications is now premised, and on which all consumer communications will be based in the future, a project of this nature allows for a level of economic growth that leverages the efforts of all, instead of being fragmented and isolated.”

Online connections are powerful. The World Bank reckons that a 10% increase in internet penetration resulted in a 1.3% increase in economic growth.

Stellenbosch’s free Wi-Fi network and Zille’s broadband plans represent two different visions of connectivity.

The former wants to fulfil the basic promise of having everyone connected and it wants it now. The latter is illustrative of careful planning for future growth.

Both are necessary and illustrate a willingness in the most southerly of South Africa’s provinces to embrace technology as a means of encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.

It’s not called the Silicon Cape for nothing.

Image: kristinmarshall

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