DST, EU connect rural SA

Johannesburg, 21 Sep 2010
Read time 6min 30sec

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched its Innovation for Poverty Alleviation Programme (IPAP), which will see, among other things, rural districts getting broadband connectivity through wireless networks.

Speaking at the launch of the programme, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor explained that it is a partnership between the department and the European Union (EU), which is worth EUR30 million, according to EU ambassador Lodewijk Briet.

The partnership's first project is now being piloted in Mpumalanga and seeks to bring broadband connectivity to rural communities using a wireless mesh network (WMN).

Keep it up

“The wireless mesh network project's use of science and technology to reduce the impact of poverty in rural communities is in part a response to one of the government's key strategic priorities - rural development,” says Pandor.

She explains that, traditionally, telecommunications infrastructure could be set up by only a select few national or large regional telecommunications operators, mainly because they were the only ones that had the financial muscle, access to specialised expertise, and licences.

“However, as a result of technological advances in the field of wireless technology - WiFi - it is now possible for anyone with a bit of technical know-how to create direct wireless connections between devices such as computers.”

The project is currently in a trial phase in the Siyabuswa, Verena, Moutse and Kwaggafontein areas, according to the DST. The target is to have an end-to-end Internet uptime of 95%.

Three phases

Pandor adds that the project has a three-phase design. In the first phase, the connectivity technology is tested and demonstrated.

“The second phase involves the creation of new innovations in services and applications using the connectivity infrastructure, and the third phase entails testing the replication of business models and approaches, working towards a model that allows small new rural businesses to raise funding on the basis of what has been learnt.”

She adds that, by the end of the project, the partnership hopes to have established 45 small enterprises run by local operators (also known as village operators), and provided Internet access and voice over Internet protocol to 450 government sites (mostly schools).

Among other things, this will enable the schools within the wireless mesh network to cut down on their telephone bills, she adds. “The intention is to establish a new line of local telephone PABX [private automatic branch exchange] soft switch manufacturing, and a production line for wide area wireless networking equipment.”

National expansion

Pandor says there are currently 180 schools in the Nkangala District Municipality that have been connected to the wireless mesh network.

Of these, 114 have been connected to the Internet. “We have also been able to train and set up 19 village operators, and have given technical training in wireless mesh network technology to a further 50 young people,” she adds.

Pandor says the project will be implemented at a municipal ward level in the Nkangala Municipal District, in Mpumalanga; the Sekhukhune Municipal District, in Limpopo; and the JT Gaetsewe Municipal District, in the Northern Cape.

“We hope to expand it gradually to other parts of the country that have similar broadband and Internet connectivity challenges.

“In the long-term, we hope that the project will result in the establishment of a number of interdependent building blocks to create an alternative telecommunications system that will enable the new village operators to flourish.”

The DST adds that, in the initial phase of the project, a number of community facilities are being connected, including schools, clinics, libraries, and other similar facilities.

“Joining the network, they receive free broadband and only pay the service fee charged by the local village operator. The broader community, therefore, benefit from improved access at these facilities, and in later phases of the project, will be able to connect individually to the mesh networks.”

Economic impact

Pandor says this project will stimulate sustainable rural economic development through local enterprise development in broadband infrastructure and services, using community wireless mesh networks and free and open source software.

“Its direct economic impact will be felt in the connectivity costs saved at municipal ward level, new revenues flowing into the community as a result of services offered by small local businesses established under the project, and revenues flowing into the community as a result of other services and businesses.”

She adds that the direct social impact of the project will be local capacity creation, improved government service delivery and broader public access to ICT.

Another part of the capacity development programme will focus on local manufacturing, reducing the need to import technology in the telecommunications equipment field, according to Pandor.

MEC for public roads and transport in Mpumalanga Dr Clifford Mkasi says the hope is that the WMN project will empower SMEs and bring in skills that will provide an economic boost.

Key economic development

“The typical set-up and three-year operational cost for connecting a village with 20 schools and one village operator with broadband connectivity is in the order of R350 000 to R750 000, with an expected monthly fee of between R500 and R1 000 per month per school after the three-year project period,” says the DST.

It adds that schools are not expected to pay during the network set-up and trial phases, and the bandwidth between schools inside the village is a minimum of uncapped 10Mbps.

“All the users in a village share the backhaul bandwidth that is provided to the village operator, which depends on the business model still being developed. It is planned to start at a minimum of 2Mbps per village operator, and will increase as the demand from the community and affordability of backhaul bandwidth improves.”

Essential broadband

The global community must ensure that every individual has access to basic broadband connectivity, according to Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation CEO Ekwow Spio-Garbrah.

“In an era where access to information and connectivity is of paramount importance to help bridge the north-south divide and urban-rural economic disparities, the global community must work in greater concert to ensure every individual has access to basic broadband connectivity for purposes of improved literacy, education, knowledge, commercial and business opportunities, and self-empowerment.”

He also pointed out that broadband connectivity is the surest and cheapest way to integrate disadvantaged communities into the global village. “It is our duty to work together to ensure that those deprived of this basic tool, especially in the under-served regions, are provided this important link to communicate with the outside world.”

In the 21st century, affordable, ubiquitous broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water and power, according to Hamadoun Tour'e, secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union.

He advises governments to view broadband networks as basic national infrastructure. “Not only does broadband deliver benefits across every sector of society, but it also helps promote social and economic development, and will be key in helping the UN to get the Millennium Development Goals back on track.”

See also