[AfrICANN-discuss] South Africa: Wirelessly Connecting Poor and Rural People

LO MAMADOU alfamamadou at hotmail.com
Fri Jul 16 17:46:08 SAST 2010

South Africa: Wirelessly Connecting Poor and Rural People
Kevin O'grady
16 July 2010

LIKE giant octopuses spreading their tentacles, WiFi networks are unfurling across SA's towns and cities.

Thanks to advances in wireless technology and the relatively low cost of the equipment needed to set up or become part of a wireless network, Wugs - or Wireless User Groups - are proliferating across the South African landscape. A Wug is basically a nonprofit community network of people who create wireless networks between each other with standard wireless equipment that operates on radio frequencies that do not require licences.

Currently there are Wugs active to varying degrees in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Kimberley, Port Elizabeth, Polokwane and Klerksdorp, to mention just a few.

To equip yourself to get connected to one of these Wugs, you'll need to fork out about R1600, which is a small price to pay for a connection with no speed limitation or bandwidth cap. You'd think this would be an obvious way to get more people on the internet, which, as we know, is crucial these days when it comes to increasing business productivity and competitiveness. But you'd be wrong, because although it's entirely possible for people to share their internet connections wirelessly in this way, it is illegal.

If you join a Wug, you're essentially joining a wide area network that you can use to play online computer games with other members, or download files from them, but not to connect to the internet, even if you live in an area that is unserviced by Telkom ADSL and the only way you can get online is with a radio link to someone in an area that is. Using equipment that is easily available from a variety of distributors, you could wirelessly share an internet connection with someone 5km away or more, provided there is clear line of sight between you.

But you can't, because not only would most internet service providers forbid you from reselling their bandwidth in this way, but the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) would require you to acquire a rather expensive Electronic Communication Services or Electronic Communication Network Services licence.

Which is not to say it doesn't happen, or even that it shouldn't. Icasa, as is well documented, is a disorganised and largely toothless regulator. Its regulations are as clear as mud and it's as difficult to ascertain which type of activity is governed by which regulation as it is to work out what is legal and what is not. On top of that, Icasa has next to no capacity to police the sector it regulates, which means that if you take it upon yourself to share your internet connection in your neighbourhood, even at a profit, you'll probably get away with it.

I'm not suggesting anyone breaks the law, as sorely tempting as it may be. Rather, I'm suggesting that we may, through excessive regulation, be missing the opportunity to widen access to the internet - and bridge the digital divide - in SA, at great opportunity cost.

Wugs are by no means unique to SA, but the way in which their activities are restricted by regulation appears to be. SoCalFreeNet, for example, is a Wug in southern California that uses WiFi technology and the expertise of its members to install affordable broadband networks in poor communities. Wireless Ghana provides internet access to rural communities in the west African nation that breaks their isolation and makes them more competitive with urban dwellers.

Instead of regulating the airwaves to death, shouldn't we be doing the same?


Source : businessday
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