Taking public Wifi for a spin: The Western Cape and Neotel Initiative

By Chenai Chair and Enrico Calandro

The Western Cape Government in partnership with Neotel launched 50 of the 384 public wifi hotspots in line with its priority of increasing internet access through affordable means. As part of a study on broader demand side assessment on public access and use of Wi-Fi, Research ICT Africa visited two sites to see how the public Wi-Fi hotspots work – St Agnes Primary School in Woodstock and 148 Long Street site.

Getting set up

Citizens in the Western Cape Province know they have clearly arrived on a Wi-Fi hotspot once they see this sign.

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Public Wi-Fi Sign

The public Wi-Fi zone visited covers an area of 10-20metre radius. At the St Agnes primary school one must enter the church premises next to the school in order to get Neotel Wi-Fi signal. While at the Long Street site, the public Wi-Fi hotspot is an open walk way with the option of sitting across the street on one of the side walk cafes opposite the Ministry of Economic Opportunities.

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Western Cape Government and Neotel landing page

Once you have physically set yourself up and read the how to’s on the sign post you can connect and go to the Wi-Fi hotspot landing page as illustrated above. There are no barriers to entry such as registering or clicking several links to go online. In comparison to sites such as Always On or Telkom Wi-Fi, this is an easier option for internet users- new and old users alike.

The landing page provides information on accessing the internet; on the free data that one has for the day and an explanation for the types of data one can get (i.e. mobile data or Wi-Fi data). The free 300MB of data is for the day to be used with any Western Cape Government and Neotel public hotspot. After your free data cap is reached, one can buy vouchers at  Engen garages or Spar shops and redeem them on the landing page.

Well that all sounds great for the wifi savvy but what about first time Wifi users?  This is where the Internet Champions don their cloaks and come in. We were fortunate enough to see an internet champion at work on the Long Street site,  while we could not find anyone at the St Agnes site.

In this novel initiative to really provide Internet services to all citizen, the Western Cape Government has trained hundreds of Internet Champions to assist in setting up users’ access. From turning on Wi-Fi on their mobile phones to connecting and explaining what anybody can do with the allocated data and where to buy Wi-Fi vouchers, the Internet champions can assist people break through those first stumbling blocks. After a user has been set up, Internet Champions invite users to complete a quiz testing their understanding of the internet including safety issues such as passwords and bank phishing scams to educate people on the importance of security.

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Internet Champion registering and conducting a survey with public Wi-Fi user

The Long Street site had more people than the St Agnes primary school which could be attributed to location. When we arrived at the former, there were four women waiting to be assisted by the internet champion. The use of data allocated is unrestricted in relation to content that users can access as we saw and assisted a woman update her WhatsApp application so she could talk to her son. There are  also free government sites that users can access without using up their free data.

Quality of service:

While we were on site we also tested Wi-Fi broadband speed using MySpeed Test and we were very surprised by the results! Both WiFi hotspots download speed was higher than 1.9Mbps and upload speed was faster than 1.2Mbps. Those are very high performances for public Wi-Fi access points and these speeds allow users to perform any activity online including video and music streaming.

Go citizen access to the super information highway! Our first test drive on the public Wi-Fi ramps was very positive. Both the business model (i.e. public-private partnership which we will deal with in another blog), the pricing structure (300MB for free, and very low vouchers for additional data), the simplicity to connect to the internet (based on a switch-on and play model), and the support of Internet Champions make it a winning initiative to allow anybody with a Wi-Fi enabled device to access and use the internet.

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