Knysna - Africa's first municipal wi-fi broadband network offers VOIP and internet access

Top Story

This week saw BMI-Techknowledge organise an event called Digital Cities in Johannesburg to look at the potential for municipal networks. Several South African municipalities are interested in installing metropolitan area networks, most notably Tshwane and Johannesburg. Tshwane last week announced three proof of concept projects with Storm.

The impetus has been an acknowledgement that a connected city is likely to be more competitive and attractive to its businesses and residents. The role of the municipality is seen as being one of enabler with often a private sector contractor actually delivering the service.

This may be the start of something big if municipalities outside of South Africa can demonstrate that they have both the ambition and the competence to carry through private-public developments of this kind. And it may not just be the big cities. The first practical example is a South African seaside town called Knysna just over 50,000 inhabitants. Russell Southwood spoke to David Jarvis of UniNet, the ISP that is delivering the service.

The whole process started with what Jarvis describes as a “progressive IT Manager in the municipality who had gone over to open source and was already looking at wireless solutions. A company called RedLinx introduced to him and his Finance Manager believed that the local authority could look after communications for the region.”

And as Mayor Dr Joy Cole said in announcing the service:”We firmly believe that this town can only grow and achieve success if we create an environment where we all grow together and have access to technology through which we can have information to grow business, empower ourselves and ultimately become proud citizens of Knysna with one vision.”

Phase one was completed on 14 October and connected all municipal sites. It delivers 18 mbps to the each premises using Wi-Fi equipment operating on the 2.4 ghz spectrum. It has created a VPN that allows Council staff to access the Internet and operate municipal management systems across different sites whilst looking at the same information.

Phase two will be completed shortly on 14 November and will open out the service to include VoIP, pre-paid internet and community internet centres. The implementation is presented as a municipal service and is promoted through Council leaflets to its ratepayers. The base package is free. All residents will have access to toll-free wireless payphone terminals that will allow them to connect directly to municipal offices.

Residents within the coverage area are able to connect to 24-hour, always-on internet at a fixed monthly fee with no limits on downloads through fixed wireless equipment. UniNet claims to have reduced the cost of broadband internet by 50%. Its UniNet Home Packages vary from R250-R799 per month depending on the capacity chosen. No long-term contracts are required. Installation cost R1200 and activation R1250 and the installation amount is refundable if the service is terminated within 6 months.

Predictably incumbent Telkom issued an outraged press release when the service was launched and this has played directly into UniNet’s hands, serving to publicise the service as the “plucky under-dog”. One commentator described it as Telkom’s “Waterloo”.

Are others interested? Jarvis said:”There’s been a lot of demand from other municipalities. Also from regional services like Health.”

But how does UniNet respond to the accusation that its municipal franchise cuts out other ISPs?:”Telkom has a similar problem. In future, we’d like to be an infrastructure provider but the business is currently an ISP. We would like to empower local ISPs to provide services over the network. And there are currently five reasonably sized ISPs.”