An ambitious plan to cover Johannesburg with a broadband voice and data network is taking shape, with hi-tech companies attending a briefing session next week to help thrash out the services that citizens could be offered.

The council wants to develop a Jo'burg broadband network project to cut its telecommunications costs and improve service delivery in everything from traffic control to library services. Free public internet zones could be created, and spare capacity on the network could be sold to residents for cheaper phone calls and fast internet access.

Overall, the network could cut the cost of running businesses by making it cheaper to communicate. It would also be essential to handle the increased voice and data traffic generated by the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the council believes.

"Cities around the world are increasing the availability of telecommunications to improve service delivery, education and economic development," said Douglas Cohen of the city's economic development department.

Short-listed candidates will have to build demonstration networks to show off their technologies and project management skills. The bad news is they will also have to "bring the required funding" as well as the skills to manage the infrastructure.

That is because the city expects the private partners to make money from the project, possibly by charging the council to use the network, and certainly by selling its spare capacity to businesses and consumers.

"They are getting access to start a new network -- they could become a wholesaler of lower-cost telephony and data and they will have the city as an anchor client," Cohen said.

He expects the fixed and mobile network operators and large information technology companies to bid. Smaller IT companies are also likely to be interested, perhaps in partnership with foreign investors.

Because the city is so enormous, the contract may be divided between more than one bidder and a variety of technologies are likely to be needed for different areas. "The city is huge, and technology-wise we are not sure if one provider can provide the necessary technology solutions to support the different needs of the market," Cohen said. Johannesburg covers 1644km', and is the country's most densely populated area.

Cohen hopes to have short-listed bidders running demonstration networks in May and June. A full tender could be issued by October and the network could go live by the beginning of next year. The project is backed by City Power, as the technologies are likely to include adapting the existing power cables to carry telecoms traffic too.

Several other councils are already exploring similar schemes to cut their communications costs and provide their citizens with cheaper voice and data services. Knysna has created a network using Wi-Fi technology to provide free internet access to residents, and Tshwane is running a pilot project to offer cheap phone calls and internet access. The eThekwini authority is also making exploratory moves.

A similar project in Cape Town, awarded to MTN and Cornastone, has been challenged by Telkom, which is questioning the transparency of the process after it failed to make the short list.

Business Day