Knysna is poised to become the first South African town to become fully WiFi connected, with the signing of five-year deal with wireless ISP UniNet. UniNet chief executive office David Jarvis told ITWeb at the African WiFi Summit 2005 in Cape Town yesterday that his company had signed a contract, worth an initial R2.5 million, with the Southern Cape town.

Sixty-two municipal offices, up to a distance of 40kms of Knysna, will be linked. This will include substantial rural coverage, including that of many of the informal settlements that dot the landscape.

"Our contract means that the Knysna municipality essentially becomes the anchor client and that a number of its services, plus e-government services and certain educational services will be accessible free by all those who live within the area," Jarvis says.

He estimates the installation could easily save the Knysna municipality about R4 million in Telkom fees alone over the five-year period.

Knysna has a big disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots". Jarvis points out that the wireless service should make communication available to the poorest residents.

"This services will mean that a poor person living in one of the informal settlements can buy a WiFi enabled phone (often at a lower cost than a normal cell phone) and make free calls to anyone who is also connected to the network," Jarvis says.

He says many informal and township dwellers have to use cell phones to call each other within the same area, a relatively expensive method, because they have no alternative. Part of the project will be the training of 30 people to become WiFi pre-paid vendors.

UniNet, a small ISP headquartered in Cape Town, beat several other larger players in a competitive bid process conducted by the municipality. The opposition included AST, Internet Solutions, Business Connexion and SourceCom.

Jarvis says the first phase of the project, to connect the municipal offices, would start at the beginning of August and should be completed by end September.

Jarvis believes this is just the beginning for small towns to find a cost effective alternative to the incumbent telecommunications operators including Telkom and the cellular networks.

"We have about another 15 municipalities lined up for proposals from us and we are being contacted by an average of three a week," he says.