Standing in the parking lot of Groenkloof, a nature reserve tucked in Tshwane’s heart, you can spy a white box mounted on a tall pole. Emblazoned on its front is ‘Project Isizwe’, the public WiFi project launched in 2013. It claims to be the first free public WiFi project rolled out in a local metro. This is not entirely true (particularly since Isizwe’s roots trace to Stellenbosch in 2012), but that would be splitting hairs. Isizwe was certainly the first such rollout in a major local city.
Isizwe is the visible tip to a growing iceberg of metro connectivity. It already registers over 170 000 daily connections, totalling 111 million sessions since its launch. In the Western Cape, WiFi spots launched earlier this year accrued 37 000 devices and over 1.7 terabytes of free data usage in five months. Cape Town’s underlying fibre backbone is over 800km long, Johannesburg’s equivalent over 900km.
There are multiple public networks either installed or planned for cities across the country, as well as private fibre networks and a burgeoning number of mobile and microwave networks. City connectivity is here.
The connected city
Many components build a smart city, as summarised in the first part of this series. But connectivity is the keystone. It’s the vascular system that connects the different parts of tomorrow’s metros and keeps those parts alive on their own accord. Be it a citizen accessing their rates or a security camera spying criminal activity, all feed through networks and are enhanced when they overlap. Yet even the most isolated smart project still relies on some species of network, without which it has no hope of reaching across the cityscape.
“A smart city’s telecommunications infrastructure forms the heart of its architecture,” says Juanita Clark, CEO of the FTTH Council Africa. “This network must be built on high-capacity broadband networks such as optical communications infrastructure. It becomes the basis for all government-to-government, government-to-citizen, government-to-businesses, and businesses/citizen-to-citizen communications.”
Connectivity is the litmus test for a city’s smart readiness. The picture is encouraging: Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and several smaller metros such as Nelson Mandela Bay have municipal fibre networks. These deployments vary radically both in maturity and business models: Cape Town has always maintained tight control, Tshwane leans heavily on private sector partnerships, and Johannesburg recently turned its network into a municipal entity after establishing it through a controversial outsourced project. They all articulate high-speed, future-proof networks that carry (and ultimately pool) the data of the city.
These networks are unlike similar public infrastructure. Most public technology infrastructure is conceived under national government policy - in this case SA Connect, which seeks to drive broadband across South Africa. But municipal networks operate with more autonomy.
“It is our view that the smart city evolution must be led by the leadership of the Metro,” says Mboneli Ndlangisa, deputy CEO of the South African State Information Technology Agency (Sita). “Sita’s role will be to provide the necessary services and solutions to enable the road to a smart city.”
Both referee and player
Opinions on implementation vary. Some feel that creating municipal networks can be redundant and the ample number of private fibre networks ought to be harnessed for public services. Says Clark: “All local government initiatives should ensure close engagement with the private sector when developing a broadband strategy to ensure that duplication is minimised. It is critical that government focus on providing universal access and that it does not try to compete with the private sector.”
Spiwe Chireka, independent Comms Media and Technology industry expert, agrees: “The key thing is ‘inefficient replication’ of infrastructure rollout. This is common in most major urban metros/areas where the private sector has and continues to invest significantly in fibre. Once you have municipalities and other players trenching in areas that we know are already covered, it becomes a problem.”
She adds that municipal networks effectively compete against private networks, rendering the authorities `both referee and player and something that has become a thorn in the side of operators’.
There is much to be gained for all parties, especially as digital services grow on these networks. The private sector opportunity will be to digitise the infrastructure and services of government, says Chireka.
In some cases, this is happening organically. Fibre network provider Vuma altruistically connects any school nearby its network, aiming to do so for over 60 schools within the next few months, touching, by its own estimate, the lives of over 50 000 students.
There are also examples of formal public/private partnerships: Neotel with the Western Cape government, while MTN is said to be involved in Johannesburg’s smart city ambitions.
Yet private sector goals are not always in step with public sector cadence. According to Gartner, the former tends to wait for opportunities, while the latter can’t afford to. Profit motives are ample in dense inner cities and suburbs, but less so among sprawling slums and other poor areas. Part of the City of Cape Town’s network motivation was to bring access to such areas. Although there are private fibre networks running nearby townships such as Orange Farm in Gauteng’s south, even paid public WiFi has yet to follow.
Nonetheless, it is true that public networks create an uncomfortable overlap: both Cape Town and Durban want to open their networks for private ISPs, while public infrastructure such as the Gautrain and Eskom also have fibre networks aching for broader exploitation. The feasibility varies from case to case, but lines are definitely blurring.
We can take heart that the momentum of networks in cities is clearly forward, albeit in a somewhat anarchic fashion. Some quarters feel the national government’s insufficient implementation of SA Connect is partly to blame. Fortunately, the locking gears of bureaucracy have not been able to jam connectivity’s progress.
Tapping into tomorrow
Networks connect the services and citizens that create a cmart city. Not all of these rely exclusively on fibre. For the past several years, the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) has been deploying sim cards into traffic lights to monitor them.
“There have been huge advances made in wireless connectivity (both in speed and coverage) over the past five years,” said Darryll Thomas, head of JRA’s Mobility & Freight Department. “The CoJ currently has a tender out to install 100Mbs broadband city-wide, which will open up the opportunities for using wireless technology.”
Infrastructure monitoring is the twin pillar to that of delivering digital services. Cape Town hopes to leverage its assets to improve city analytics.
“So far, (analytics) have been used to track the usage and usefulness of the WiFi service itself,” says Leon van Wyk, manager of City of Cape Town’s Telecommunications IS & T. “The distribution of the WiFi zones is not yet wide enough to generate useful comparative analytics that could be used by planners and managers, but this will come as the footprint of the WiFi service expands. The City is working with the University of the Western Cape to analyse the data we get from the WiFi service analytics to see how we can make better use of it.”
Connectivity in metros appears to be moving in the right direction. But it is just a catalyst. By gathering and pooling behavioural data from various sources, cities are able to gain unprecedented insight for planning. In next month’s article, we will visit the state of data collection and use in our cities.