Public wi-fi/open access models in developing countries

9 Dec 2016 12:30h - 14:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 11th Internet Governance Forum]

Mr Steve Song, founder of Village Telco, moderated the workshop and started by highlighting the actual slowdown in mobile network’s growth and the challenges faced with extending their business models into rural areas and by making access to communication affordable for all.

He did not limit the discussions to Wi-Fi, but also spoke about TV white space technology, which is a Wi-Fi like technology but operates in unused television frequencies.

For reflexion, Song posed the following questions:

– What is the role that these complementary technologies like Wi-Fi can play?
– If they are relevant, what can we do to promote them?
– One of the key constraints around these networks is the cost to access the backhaul (intermediate communication point), addressed by many governments moving towards open access networks around fiber optic backhaul, but has that actually brought the price down in order to enable the further spread of these initiatives?

Mr Christopher Geerdts, Chief Operating Officer & Board Director at OTEL Communications, reflected on a study he recently conducted on behalf of Research ICT Africa, on public Wi-Fi in South Africa, where they had an initiative offering free Wi-Fi, specifically from the governments.

The study analysed three projects.

The first one in South Africa’, a free Wi-Fi project in the capital city, ran by an NGO and the government. It was oriented at students with a limited amount of Megabytes that once spend, could no longer connect online or afford to buy additional bandwidth.

The second one was in Cape Town run by the city itself, which had a lot more capacity for doing its own project, having implemented its own fiber network already. This focused as a pilot to underserved areas specifically and on residents in general rather than on students. They provided an open network and allowed commercial Internet service providers to provide services on top of that.

And the third case study, which Geerdts found most interesting, is a public private partnership (PPP). The private sector was not interested in rural areas because of the high risk and low returns, so the government reduced the risk via PPP. Geerdts considered this reduction, the most promising, going forward with Wi-Fi. Rather than just providing a free service, the free Wi-Fi service was added as extra on this project, and the government would pay for the Wi-Fi usage on a per megabyte basis.

Mr Moctar Yedaly, Head of the Department of Information Society at African Union Commission, considered that in most countries, the universal access strategy policies have failed, and that is why they started thinking about the way to provide connectivity to those unconnected, linking the initiative with electrical or power projects they have.

He mentioned that the African union has a big project for development in Africa, which has four major components: water, electricity, transport, and specifically ICT.

He said these are the different challenges they face:

  • Although the coverage is there, the access is not provided, either because the devices are expensive or for other reasons.
  • Empowering communities to provide electricity through digital platform, which is a new way of conceiving economy horizontally rather than vertically. Allowing people to produce electricity and sell it to others would be a policy that would be encouraging, not in the big cities but in remote and specific areas. This is one of the biggest concerns.
  • Once the African Union provides online access to the population, who will dictate what the behaviour and contents should be. Their responsibility is to make sure that once access is provided, it is used for the well-being and for socio-economic development of its users.

Mr Carlos Rey Moreno, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of the Western Cape, talked about an African project he has been involved in, for the creation of networks that are owned by the community and ISPs. Because they are working in poor communities, people cannot afford private access to resources. He said the network created with the assistance of the University of the Western Cape is providing services to try to reduce the high cost of communications that according to him can be reduced from 22% to 50%.
He said that nothing has happened until the community takes the matter into their own hands, empowering themselves.  If we are looking beyond affordability and the goal is to take communities outside the cycle of poverty and disempowerment, Rey Moreno considered that a community network seems to be the only solution. 

Mr Erick Huerta, Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad A.C, recounted his experience in developing GSM networks in rural communities. He mentioned some experiences in Mexico, Colombia and Nicaragua, and explained how in Mexico, the connectivity in rural areas is given mostly by satellite.

He said that Mexico has around 30 000 antennas deployed, some of them in rural places, used to provide public access, resulting in a very poor Wi-Fi connectivity.

Huerta signals the regulations in the market as blocking the small companies in making business, instead of the market itself.

Ms Alison Gillwald, Adjunct Professor at University of Cape Town, commented on the importance of optimally using the different existing resources in a resource-constrained environment.

She asked for more engagement for implementing all the ideas and solutions that are discussed each year.

The audience agreed to motivate private operators to provide at least a free Wi-Fi limited text-based service, and then pay for any other superior service needed.

They shared their national experience, where Internet protocol (IP) transit and backhaul costs are increasing.

Some suggestions were given by the moderator, about opening state-owned assets, not only to large mobile network operators, but also to small ones, so that a kind of consortium can be created.

by Wanda Pérez Pena, Internet Society Dominican Republic