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The Internet as Human Right

Why private companies and nonprofits are racing to link all of Africa to free WiFi

Installing a WiFi antenna in Cameroon. Photo by Flicker user Bill Zimmerman.

This summer, within the space of a few weeks, Coca Cola and Facebook both announced seemingly out-of-left-field projects aimed at bringing internet access to underserved African communities. In the small city of Bushbuckridge and the town of Qunu, Coke is installing new vending machines with free and open-access WiFi, ostensibly to help students and businesspeople work as they enjoy a cold beverage. While Coke hopes to scale up soon, Facebook has it beat in scope, offering free access to Google search, job information sites, UNICEF, weather pages, and women’s health portals for free on any internet-capable phone through local Zambian provider Airtel. These two projects, so close together, are just the latest in a growing movement to bring free internet to Africa that has, after many duds and false starts, taken off over the past year—with the potential to unlock a massive spurt of growth in the continent’s collective economy.

Free WiFi isn’t an entirely new project. Coke may have lifted its idea from a much more limited project by Japanese soft drink giant Asahi, who in 2011 plopped down hundreds of WiFi-equipped vending machines in tourist hubs with a fifty-meter signal and thirty-minute access limit. Nor is it entirely altruistic when corporations lead it. Coke probably hopes that clustering people around its machines will give it a nice PR and sales boost. And Facebook, which is trying to work out deals similar to the Zambia plan in dozens of countries, wants new users worldwide; meanwhile the local service and phone providers who jump on and pay the bills want to entice users to buy access to the rest of the internet, beyond this first taste.

But no matter the motives or origins, these services are extremely useful in Africa, which lags far behind the world averages for internet accessibility. Continent-wide, internet penetration is only 26.5 percent, compared to a 42.3 percent rate worldwide. Given the increasing consensus that the internet is a necessity for competing in the global business and educational world—some even consider accessibility a human right—it’s easy to see how this disparity is only widening the gap between rural and poor Africans and the rest of the world. And it’s even easier to understand why even limited first steps towards greater accessibility are worthwhile. But these two projects only scratch the surface of much more ambitious plans for the net in these communities.

Industrialists and philanthropists have recognized the potential of internet access in Africa for years. As early as 2010, flight search engine co-founder Paul English, who’d launched minor accessibility projects in isolated villages, announced that he wanted to link all of Africa to a massive new and free network, although little came of this boast. In 2013, Google jumped onto the global internet connectivity bandwagon by launching Loon, a roving network of blimps, balloons, and satellites beaming internet to everyone, with initial tests run in Cape Town, South Africa. But just last month a sheep herder in South Africa’s Karoo desert found one of the Loon balloons crashed in his pasture (not long after a San Fancisco test balloon crashed in Nevada), suggesting the project’s probably a ways away from solving Africa’s connectivity woes.

Alongside these global projects, a few major programs, like South African telecoms provider BT’s Connecting Africa project, hooked up locations like children’s schools. But for the most part these connections were limited to particular uses or communities rather than, as English and his aspirational ilk envisioned, open to whole communities for varied and individualized uses.

Then along came Project Isizwe. The Xhosa word for a nation and the notion of bringing people together, Isizwe is a South African venture, piloted over the past year across the city of Tshwane, bringing free internet to every public space in the country as a not-for-profit, requiring no login, tying into no advertising, and putting only a light data cap on the connection to deter network hogs. A year into the project, the massive connectivity project appears to be a smashing success, prompting Isizwe to consider expanding its model throughout the country and hopefully beyond.

Many other free internet projects were underway as Isizwe got up and running, like the 2013 Smart Kigali Initiative in Rwanda. But the South African project and its assistance on other connectivity bids, like the free WiFi project in Stellenbosch, South Africa, seem to have galvanized others to move on their own ambitious projects. In early spring of this year, Cape Town introduced free WiFi to four of its suburbs, hoping to launch its own citywide grid. And, soon after, companies like Coke—including Orange mobile and Craigslist-equivalent Gumtree—have rolled out their own programs, likely hoping to earn image points by being a part of the future.

Yet aside from Rwanda, most of these projects have popped up in South Africa, which is hardly representative of the whole continent. Part of this may reflect the nudge Isizwe has given to the movement there, and part of it may reflect the fact that, with the fifth highest African penetration (but still only the ninety-second highest worldwide), South Africa just has better infrastructure to use as a launching pad and testing ground for accessibility systems. A similar program managed by the government in Nakuru County, Kenya this year flopped hard due to technical failures before correcting and re-launching. But the system apparently still suffers from glitches and complaints—and that’s not a particularly disconnected country itself.

But the hope is that, as Isizwe and its successor projects take off, it will lead the way for expansion and imitation elsewhere on the continent using proven, successful models. And with private companies joining in on the frenzy, it’s all the more likely that less than ideal but still useful projects and infrastructure will start popping up in many countries as these businesses look to snare future customers and equate themselves with a new era of connectivity.

If these projects do succeed, they’ll have the power to transform the continent’s economy for the better. World Bank estimates claim that, for every ten percent increase in broadband penetration, a country’s GDP tends to rise by 1.3 percent—a massive jump. And, in a report released this year by McKinsey, the prominent consultancy claims that if internet spreads in Africa as quickly as mobile phones did in the 2000s, this access will bring $300 billion to the continent’s economy.

Educational and informational benefits aside, that’s a massive bump in pure, cold economic terms, and well worth the investment by any company or government. So all the incentives and promises are there. And now that we have good examples of successful projects popping up left and right, hopefully we’ll see that potential realized in a decade’s time.

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