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Last Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Bridging an African digital divide
By Marc Cieslak
Reporter, BBC Click

Many of us take the internet for granted, but what about locations that are too remote or economically impoverished to enjoy the hi-tech benefits of the developed world?

Using wi-fi in Knysna
Knysna is South Africa's first fully enabled wi-fi town

The coastal town of Knysna in South Africa was one such place. But now it is the largest wi-fi enabled area on the African continent.

Working in conjunction with the town's local authorities, internet provider UniNet has set up a system of base stations which spread wi-fi around the town.

"UniNet was founded on some principles which we derived from the South African government's green paper on telecommunications," said the company's David Jarvis.

"Our goal is largely to see our technologies and our services bridging the divide between rural and urban areas."

Community access

Computers with wi-fi connections can be expensive, and not everybody in the poorer areas of Knysna can afford a wireless enabled device. So the municipal authorities installed computers in places the whole community has access to.

The wi-fi network in Knysna covers 90% of the town

"Masifunde library is one of many libraries in the area. The municipality took the initiative to populate these libraries with computers," Mr Jarvis said.

"The computers were meant to provide internet access, but unfortunately the cost limitations meant that many of them didn't.

"As part of our project we connected them with the internet. This has allowed the community to come in and, for 45 minutes, be able to use the terminals for free."

Xola Frans, library manager said: "It has actually opened doors to information, because we live in this global village in a sense.

"Knysna's become a global village because it doesn't matter where you live, you can actually have access to information. Whether you come from the rich or you come from the poor community, the facilities are the same."

Smutsville Primary school
Children at Smutsville Primary have access to the web at school

Most of the town's schools have also signed up to the wi-fi initiative, including Smutsville Primary school.

"For my school, especially with the assignments which our kids are getting, it's really a stimulating source," said school principal Stephanus Dogh.

"They don't need to walk 1.5 km to the town in order to go on and do research work.

"It's really an asset for each and every kid to make contact with this type of technology. Wherever you go, the quest is you must be computer literate. The smaller they start the better for them."

UniNet's David Jarvis added: "It is an example of a school that has just been deployed in an under-serviced area that desperately needed connectivity. It's in a poor community and it's exciting to see the way it has been embraced by the community in that area."

A new approach

Wi-fi enabling a town like Knysna was not as simple as applying the same techniques and equipment that are used in big cities.

"The technology deployed is very different to technology that is deployed in developed world countries," Mr Jarvis said.

South Africa map

"We developed a system which is largely a cellular system, where you have repeaters, a bit like cell-phone masts, and you have customers who connect via fixed terminals, not wi-fi devices inside your laptop, and they get the service down a network cable. It's actually like a cable service which happens to work over wireless."

The company starts off with a repeater on a mountain which gives it coverage of an area with a 16km radius that has a few wi-fi access points.

The numbers of access points grow along with the customers, with enough customers the whole area will be covered.

Said Mr Jarvis: "It's a very different paradigm from a traditional, mesh network model that the developed world has developed."

A municipal wi-fi solution to internet connectivity could prove useful in the future.

Potential users might not own a computer but there are other devices which can take advantage of this town's wi-fi hot spots.

"I think initiatives like the libraries are very important in allowing access in areas where devices don't exist," said Mr Jarvis.

"Forty percent of the community in Knysna have cell-phone devices and use them for voice.

"If they have a device which can be used for voice and for free internet services then it will be a start of a real explosion in breaking down the barriers of the digital divide."

Q&A: Wi-fi explained
08 Mar 06 |  Technology
How to make the web go worldwide
02 Nov 06 |  Technology
Country profile: South Africa
21 May 07 |  Country profiles

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