Tshwane mulls ‘wall-to-wall’ fibre coverage for smart city future

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Having wall-to-wall broadband coverage is key among the City of Tshwane’s future plans to establish itself as a smart city.

This is according to Musa Khumalo, group head for shared services in the city, commenting on the city’s smart initiatives on discussion platform Future Cities Africa (FCA).

FCA describes itself as a knowledge platform, hosting digital discussions with thought leaders and experts at the forefront of major trends, projects, innovations, challenges and opportunities impacting the future of African cities.

Khumalo explained the city has implemented a few initiatives in its quest to becoming smart, most notably its flagship platform e-Tshwane, its WiFi programme and more recently a WhatsApp chat service.

However, there are some initiatives that are still in the pipeline that await resolution from the courts, like the broadband project, he stated.

“The vision is around seeing if it is possible to have wall-to-wall coverage of fibre in the city that is of carrier-grade quality,” he says. “Our thinking is around the fact that studies show investment in IT has proven to have a very strong correlation to economic growth and increased economic activity – that’s the idea around all these IT initiatives that are public-facing.”

Tshwane’s broadband project has been the subject of much contention.

Before the broadband tender was approved, National Treasury raised concerns about the project in February 2016.

In April 2016, city officials put forward a request to the council to approve the contract for broadband rollout for a period of 18 years, which includes three years to build the network and 15 years to operate it.

The incumbent administration in Tshwane, led by the Democratic Alliance (DA), subjected the multibillion-rand broadband contract to judicial review after discovering what it said were serious irregularities, which “taint the legality of the deal”.

Solly Msimanga, who led the DA administration at the time, contended that “the broadband contract and its procurement are riddled with irregularities and non-compliance”.

Msimanga stated: “Crucial information was also withheld from councillors who voted on the project in April 2016.”

Last July, Altron Nexus lost the court battle launched by the city over its multibillion-rand broadband project.

Altron was given a lifeline last September, when it was granted leave to appeal the judgement that set aside the multibillion-rand contract. In October, the company scored a major victory at the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), receiving unanimous backing of the court over the city’s broadband network contract.

The court found there was no basis for finding any possible maladministration or mismanagement, and the SCA ruled the city and its officials were solely to blame for its predicament.

Altron Nexus holds a jointly controlled interest in Thobela Telecoms, a special purpose vehicle through which the city contracted for the procurement and installation of the fibre broadband network in 2016.

An always-on city

For Khumalo, a smart city is one that is able to interact better with customers.

“A traditional city is one that will operate from 9am to 4pm, if you are lucky. A traditional city runs in a very analogue way, with paper-based systems and lengthy approval processes.

“In contrast, a smart city must interface better with citizens at any time of the day in different channels that citizens want to access government,” he states. “It must be a city that is built for the future because with 4IR [the fourth industrial revolution] and so forth, cities will compete on things such as technology-base. The ability to attract investment will largely be on how a city accommodates things such as 5G networks and infrastructure, and so on.”

Unpacking some of the smart city initiatives in place, Khumalo explained e-Tshwane counts 300 000 residents as its users, adding 4 000 new users on average per month.

e-Tshwane is a free online citizen engagement platform that was launched in partnership with Interfile. It allows residents, companies, property managing agents, and tenants to engage with the city electronically.

Once registered, users can upload meter readings, pay traffic fines, lodge queries, and apply for clearance certificates as well as other services, such as electricity and water connections. Users can also view statements, and make payments for accounts from the comfort of their homes or offices.

Khumalo says: “We have between 27 000 to 29 000 payments that run through the system, multiple payments that run through the month, on average about R80 million collected through the system.

“We also have about 68 000 meter readings whereby people upload their own meter readings. The target is still to increase that.”

According to Khumalo, Tshwane’s free WiFi programme is one of its popular smart city initiatives. “The city runs about 1 100 hotspots around the city and our citizens can get up to 1GB of free data per day. It’s a service that is available for people to access Internet via a service that is free.

“People can apply for jobs and access opportunities that would have been otherwise at a cost. There is also a lot of online learning, so it has been able to be an alternative to buying data.”

Turning to the city’s WhatsApp chat service, Khumalo indicates it is part of extending the services on the e-Tshwane platform.

Through WhatsApp chat, ratepayers can view and pay their bills via the platform, request application forms for a number of services, access specific links and obtain contact information.

In addition, users are able to view and apply for jobs through the e-recruitment link and get a summary of their utility accounts.

“We looked at whether we needed a different app, and what we’ve seen is that research suggests on a normal smartphone people have a least 70 to 80 apps,” states Khumalo. “There’s not always an appetite for people to download another application, especially if they are just using it to interact with government.

“The WhatsApp channel allows for viewing of statements and accessing electronic forms. The aim is to grow it and replicate some of the services that are on e-Tshwane for the WhatsApp channel.”

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