The Rural Community that Built a Network

Tue, 30/04/2019 - 11:21

In a series of 12 small villages in the Eastern Cape, residents are showing the world how access to cost-effective wireless communication network can be achieved. Read more here about this incredible achievement.

Mankosi, a remote rural community in the Eastern Cape, is home to almost 6 000 people. The nearest city is Mthatha, about 60 kilometres away, as the crow flies. Most homes in the villages are not connected to the electricity grid and residents charge their cellphones at a local shop or shebeen, for which they must pay.

The biggest problem though was that both data and airtime for those phones came at an exorbitant cost, with villagers spending up to 22% of their income on telecommunications. This all started to change seven years ago when a research team from the University of the Western Cape started working with residents to develop a solar-powered wireless community network.

The Zenzeleni Networks project was South Africa’s first Internet Service Provider (ISP) owned and run by a rural cooperative. Zenzeleni installs and maintains telecommunications infrastructure and also sells telecommunications services like voice and data.

Zuko Tshitshi, a resident, was previously unemployed but grasped the opportunity to learn a new skill and is now a technician responsible for maintaining the network’s hardware.

Notsokolo Sigcau, an elder of one of the villages, is responsible for selling vouchers to the villagers to provide uncapped Wi-Fi for just R25 a month.

This is incredible, given the fact that data in South Africa is amongst the most expensive on the continent, with 1 Gigabyte selling for almost seven times less in Egypt. The money from the vouchers is used to fund community projects, creating a win-win all round.

So why is data so cheap? Mankosi uses a mesh network with the cheap, low-energy system comprising scattered devices that communicate with one another.

While the University of the Western Cape played a large role in sourcing the required technology and helping to educate and train the local residents on the implementation and use of the network, Zenzeleni is all about communities doing it for themselves.

With the local authority’s permission, a cooperative comprising ten local and respected people was formed. This group designed the network layout, and built and installed a dozen solar-powered mesh network stations. These are mounted on and inside houses around Mankosi and Wi-Fi stations cover an area of 30 km2.

Zenzeleni constitutes a fully-fledged Internet Service Provider (ISP), equipped with an Internet and Voice-over-Internet Protocol gateway, and a billing system in isiXhosa run by community managers.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), which grants licences to ISPs and collects fees where necessary, granted Zenzeleni a licence exemption; so it costs Zenzeleni nothing in fees to operate infrastructure and sell services. The community only has to pay for the backhaul Internet connectivity, which they can get at wholesale prices from companies like EastTel and OpenServe, and for educational use from TENET.

There are two dedicated wireless connections to Point of Presence (PoP) fibre in Mthatha. Zenzeleni’s voice calls and data costs are much cheaper than what’s offered by the big mobile operators. For example, voice calls can cost 20c a minute rather than the standard R1.50 or more while data costs can be between 20 and 40 times cheaper.

Watch the video made by BBC on the Mankosi project