Delivering free Internet access to citizens in the City of Tshwane sounds like a wonderful idea, but actually making it work across the entire municipality is a much bigger challenge, according to James Devine, CIO at Project Isizwe.
He says the organisation initially worked with the municipality to test the principle of delivering free WiFi to five disadvantaged areas in the city, with the goal of seeing whether the service would work and whether people would actually use it.
“While it was not difficult to demonstrate the principle behind the concept, by delivering WiFi to these five test areas, everyone was astounded by just how many people made use of the service. ”
“Once we were aware that the appetite existed for free WiFi, the real challenge lay in extending the service to the point where it could be accessed by the majority of citizens in the municipality. Fortunately for us, Neotel came on board as one of our earliest supporters, providing the Internet breakout for the free WiFi service that was then taken across the entire city.”
He points out that logically, a project of this nature meant that every service provider was considered, but that few could offer exactly what the project needed, and even fewer could offer it backed up by the kind of technology Neotel provides.
“The key to success was to make the access affordable while ensuring reasonable quality WiFi. This was the best option not only because the technology is cheap, but also because we needed to target specific areas were other connectivity solutions might not be as easy to install,” says Devine.
“The big challenge for a network of this nature comes with the long haul or Internet breakout services, which can be incredibly expensive.”
Devine says Neotel was a strong and initiating partner for the project, and supplied a NeoInternet 1Gbps line to provide the Internet breakout capability. Over time the project saw the need for a second NeoInternet line to provide both additional capacity and redundancy.
“While ensuring we had the best technology possible was critical to the project, for me the attitude and commitment shown by the management team was simply amazing. People like Dr Martin Schaeffer, who was one of our original supporters, immediately saw the positive impact this project could have on South Africa as whole.”
“Neotel really came to the party. For Neotel, it was about more than just their technology and network - the people behind it were equally critical. They were committed and prepared to work extremely hard to make this project a success,” adds Devine.
As far as customer service goes, Devine says Neotel’s people have been available whenever required, some quite literally on a 24/7/365 basis. “They have gone above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to providing the services needed to keep the free WiFi provisioned, as well as the temporary links for other Isizwe projects, such as providing the free WiFi for the SA Local Government Association conference at Gallagher Estate.
“Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Dr Angus Hay as well – he is very bright, very personable and one of smartest people I know. Moreover, he was also one of our strongest supporters and a driving force behind making the project happen.”
According to Devine, the initial 1Gbps implementation was delivered inside two weeks, which was far quicker than expected. He believes this was due to Project Isizwe’s network being connected to existing fibre infrastructure. Furthermore, he says that even when challenges have arisen, the resolution was quickly found by all parties working together.
“It’s definitely never been an ‘us and them’ situation. In fact, the ties are so close that I have heard some of Neotel’s people being asked which company they actually work for!”
“From my perspective, this approach really is fantastic. There are very few companies like Neotel; ones that take a personal interest in providing the very best, that focus on resolving customer challenges as quickly as possible and that really care about providing an enabling environment to level the playing field for all South Africans. It is the difference between treating the customer like a partner, and seeing them just as another number.”
Project Isizwe has thrived since it launched in 2013. This is largly due to its very stable bandwidth offering. “Stability is always key,” says Devine. “Citizens won’t keep using a service unless it is stable, so this is extremely important for us.”
“Currently, the average speed is around 1.5 Mbps and the project has nearly one million unique users, with a recorded maximum of 80 000 people accessing the network during a single day.”
“We get these speeds for three reasons. Firstly, we are good at what we do, which is the planning, rollout and maintenance of WiFi networks; secondly, we use Tshwane’s own Metro network; and thirdly, we get stable bandwidth from Neotel – take any one of these pillars away and we wouldn’t be able to provide the service we do to close to a million users.”
Looking ahead, Devine says the obvious goal is to wire up the whole of South Africa, but the first step to this is for Project Isizwe to assist the City of Tshwane with its ‘WiFi Everywhere’ project. This ambitious idea will, when complete, provide a free Internet zone within one kilometre of every person inside the city, and within five kilometres of those living in rural areas. “This is no mean feat, since Tshwane is the third largest city in the world by land mass. The project will thus see the implementation of around 2 000 new Internet zones in total.”
So what is his biggest take-away from this unique and intense project?
“I have never before worked with an organisation as technically advanced and socially committed as Neotel. From the technicians through to the executive board members, everyone was available to assist when needed. The support we received as a small nongovernmental organisation (NGO) was the same as one would provide to the CIO of a multinational organisation. Access to the right people at the right time has been fundamental to the success of this project. Without the knowledge, skills and approachability offered by Neotel, I don’t know where we would be today,” he concludes.