Can you use 2.4 and 5.8GHz home Wi-Fi routers to provide Internet connectivity to a few people?
In short, no, it’s illegal, and you will be caught. But, that said, there are legal ways to provide connectivity. It is also legal to put Wi-Fi across your own property but that changes if you cross a public space. You’re also not allowed to share your Internet link according to the contracts you sign for connectivity.
This question of sharing Wi-Fi, or broadband connectivity of any type, is as old as broadband Internet in South Africa. It likely originated with the gaming community, who are an innovative, tech-savvy crowd known for their ability to make a plan. They had to, right?
Back when South Africans were shifting from 56k dial-up to ADSL, there wasn’t much broadband, pings were terrible, and the few broadband lines there were, were expensive. Not good news for gamers and tech-heads looking to shift a ton of data fast. They were known for throwing Ethernet cables over garden walls to hook up a pal next door or shuttling short-distance radio signals between roof-mounted antennae and dishes.
(But) The Law Won
But things changed in 2006. The Electronic Communications (ECT) Act provides regulations for managing the provision of Internet and other digital communications. Basically, since 2008 you need a licence to provide a connectivity service and a different licence to build and operate a network. We’ll get to more detail about that in a minute.
Why it’s a Very Bad Idea
The reason why we’re such strong advocates for adhering to this legislative framework is today we have a ton of signal congestion. Most connectivity is wireless, and the airwaves are super cluttered. People trying to beam signals from one property to another using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) Wi-Fi routers like the kind we use in our homes not only add to the problem, it doesn’t work very well – because of the aforementioned airwave congestion. All those radio signals competing for space interfere with one another and degrade the strength of the signal. That slows down the speed of connectivity and it often drops altogether. (Think about how many wireless devices you have, how many people have wireless routers, how many CCTV cameras are going up that all use wireless, watches, cellphones, TVs, Apple TV, media, and Alexa devices – you get the picture).
There’s another reason this is a bad idea. ISPs have terms and conditions of using their service and they stipulate that aggregation is not allowed (it’s the law, they have to). But they’re also incentivised to stop it because it messes with their network traffic management and costs them revenues in what are already tight markets. So, they have specialised software and trained people who look for precisely this type of connectivity sharing – called aggregation.
But the dodgier operators among us humans have seldom idly allowed legislation to restrain their efforts to cut costs and shave corners. Years ago, they came up with a plan to trick the software and the trained operators into thinking that their aggregated connections were being used by only one old honest Internet user.
Using things called IRON servers (interior routing overlay network), they do a lot of technical wizardry to spoof the watchers. But, just like Russia and America during the cold war, when one side creates a more effective weapon, their opposite creates a better defence. And so, the watchers have improved their systems, processes and training, and they continue to routinely sniff out the signal smugglers.
The Fine Print
The upshot is you’ll get caught even if you manage to get it working. When they catch you, at the very least, they shut you down. ICASA stipulates fines of between R2,500 and R100,000 and maybe jail time. (For more on fines and regulations check out the ICASA website here).
If you want to provide wireless Internet connectivity then we have a great guide here. It spells out the legislation and licencing requirements. In short, small operations need a Class ECS licence if you white label services and invoice your own clients. Resellers on commission do not require Class ECS licences. As of May 2021, Class ECS licences cost R13,721 initially and R6,861 for annual renewals thereafter. But read our guide to learn more about the fees for the different types of licences and check out legal firm Ellipsis’s website here for the updated figures. ICASA’s website is out of date at the time we posted this article.
Providing Internet via Wi-Fi on your own property is exempt from licence requirements until the moment you cross a public space at which point you require a Class ECNS licences as well.
At the end of the day, trying to help your mate, residents on your property, a neighbour, or some other deserving soul may seem like a noble gesture. And you may ask yourself, who does it hurt? But the truth of it is that it’s illegal, with good reason (because it ends up causing several kinds of harm). And, as the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”