Bridging the digital divide with affordable high speed Internet in Cape Town townshipsAuthor: email@example.com
South Africans are acutely aware of the alarming disparity in our society between the haves and have-nots. It permeates into almost every aspect of our everyday reality, from education, health care and housing to connectivity.
Over the past decade, connecting to the Internet has become an essential part of daily modern life. We depend on it for everything from communication, education, work, news and entertainment to searching for jobs, friends, love and directions.
Yet in South Africa, low-income people living in under-served communities pay more for data than those in the leafy suburbs. Not only do people in townships pay more per gigabyte, they also pay a larger percentage of their income towards it. On average, people in the townships pay up to R200 per gigabyte of data depending on the data bundles they buy. At these rates, Internet access makes up 18% to 28% of many people’s daily income. Meanwhile, the middle-class pays an average of R2 per gigabyte of data, which constitutes an average of 0,15% of their income.
The main reason for this divide is lack of access to affordable Internet from home or safe spaces nearby. In its absence, people access the Internet through their phones on the GSM network (3G and 4G primarily), thereby incurring the much higher rates of the limited mobile operators.
This has been an issue for years, but COVID has put a spotlight on the stark daily contrast between those who can afford monthly contracts - with the savings you get when buying data in bulk - and those who have to access the Internet from their phones. The digital divide, separating kids who have access to wifi and devices they need to study online from those who don’t, has become vast and entrenches our overwhelming inequality. A recent Nids/Cram study estimates that 750 000 children have been lost from the school system during the pandemic. This is because (states the Daily Maverick article) “our pre-existing inequalities and digital divides put blended and online learning out of reach for the majority.” The negative implications for the future of these children and their children are profound.
A Cape Town-based Internet Service Provider, TooMuchWifi, is bringing affordable Internet to these under-serviced areas. Although they started before COVID, the pandemic has accelerated the need for this essential service. CEO, Ian Thomson, says, “When my co-founder realised what his township-based domestic worker and millions of other South Africans were paying for Internet access compared to him, we decided to do something about it at scale.” They started TooMuchWifi with a mission to bring fast and affordable Internet to under-serviced, densely populated areas, like townships. Fast forward and the company has brought down the monthly spend for many of their customers to less than 2%. People can now access the Internet at under R4/gb. This is up to 20 times the value of mobile network operator data.
TooMuchWifi provides fibre-backed Internet connection, which is especially important for High Definition (HD) video and other applications that consume a lot of bandwidth, (like the Zoom calls we’ve all become so familiar with over the last 18 months). Customers can get 4Mbps and 10Mbps line home connections, which are fast enough to stream a movie without buffering. It also offers a 20Mbps line, which large corporates often require for their customer service staff to work from home. “Our customers are blown away the first time they go online at such high speeds from their homes because fast, affordable Internet in the townships is so uncommon,“ Thomson says.
“We remove another typical barrier to entry for many by not requiring contracts or long-term commitments. People can pay month-to-month and even pause their fixed line fees. When someone can’t afford to pay their monthly bill, their WiFi turns into a home-based hotspot that themselves, their neighbours and their community can access by buying vouchers at any denomination they can afford. When they pay the fixed line fee again, it reverts back to being their personal, uncapped at-home WiFi,” he says.
“Users can also buy vouchers to access hotspots we’ve set up in public spaces like spaza shops and shebeens,” says Thomson. “Our customers often don’t have more than a few rands to spend at a time and buy data in R5 or R10 vouchers. Traditionally, accessing the Internet using such small denominations has meant paying extremely inflated costs per actual gigabyte. Our service cuts that cost dramatically. Hotspot users typically pay less than R10 per GB on TooMuchWifi,” he says.
“To date, TooMuchWifi has saved people in Cape Town townships R340 million in data costs. We have trained and employed more than 215 previously-unemployed people from the communities we serve,” Thomson says, “We are working to bridge the ‘digital divide’ playing field by providing a reliable and affordable data service to the townships. We believe that one of the steps we can take towards a more equitable future is to ensure that all South Africans have access to fast Internet for school, work and entertainment.”