The network will be owned and controlled by the residents of Ocean View, like high school learner Joshua van Rooyen, who is involved in the pilot programme.
For most residents of Ocean View, internet access is unaffordable. There’s no public Wi-Fi and school internet is not available at night or on the weekend. But now that’s all set to change, thanks to a collaboration between University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers, iNethi Technologies and Ammbr Research Labs (ARL South Africa).
The UCT team in the Centre in Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D), iNethi and ARL South Africa are conducting a pilot programme which they hope will, by the end of the year, connect the Ocean View community to a host of opportunities through localised services and internet access.
Ammbr mesh routers, combined with open-cellular base stations, will be used to overcome the high costs of access to content.
Residents will be able to share their music, videos, news and learning materials for free within the community. They’ll also be able to connect with each other through a chat service similar to WhatsApp. Access to the internet will be offered in time, at a much cheaper rate than current options.
Members of the 25 000-strong Ocean View community will decide what they’d like to post on the network. They’re already brimming with ideas, from sharing hip-hop videos they’ve filmed and produced to posting recipes and community events. They also want a channel through which they can report crime anonymously.
“The producers of content in this community are very creative,” said Dr Melissa Densmore, who heads ICT4D.
“An open cellular system, which is far cheaper than standard technologies, will help us to promote a rich and diverse platform, eventually run and owned by the people,” she added.
“An open cellular system, which is far cheaper than standard technologies, will help us to promote a rich and diverse platform, eventually run and owned by the people.”
Locally hosted apps and services
The project was given the green light when Densmore and Dr David Johnson, head of Ammbr Research Labs (ARL) and an adjunct senior lecturer at UCT, were awarded the OpenCellular Grant by the Facebook Telecom Infra Project.
PhD student Richard Maliwatu, centre, with (from left) Fadiel Davis, Marius Waries, Joshua van Rooyen, Nathan Marinus and Patrick Cameron. They each have a role in setting up the project.
“The deal struck with OpenCellular shows that Facebook believes in the capability of this team to show high impact,” said Johnson, who is also a director at iNethi.
“It’s so expensive for people to buy data, and the poor suffer the most. This innovation is a way of trying to take back connectivity and get ownership back into the hands of communities.”
Users will interact with the iNethi platform through open-source software, using a web browser or mobile apps. Community members will also be able to build their own locally-hosted apps and services.
The free local services will include Owncloud, a file-sharing service to share music, videos and documents; Rocket Chat, similar to WhatsApp, to chat to friends in the community; and Diaspora, a social networking service similar to Facebook.
“If we want an internet that is rich and diverse, we need to promote local content, creation and sharing. This becomes much more relevant to the people,” said Densmore.
“As much as people want access to the internet and global stuff, their natural communication is internal. Research has shown that 60% of traffic is within a community.”
Looking to the future
Currently, the iNethi platform doesnʼt offer internet access through the Wi-Fi network, but this will be offered in future.
“People will be able to message, voice, chat and video locally in iNethi for free. Real-time communication to users outside iNethi, such as dial-out, will be a monetised service but will be much more affordable than using mobile data packages,” said Densmore.
A non-profit, iNethi Ocean View, will be formed and community members will be able to apply for permission to resell internet services.
Enthusiastic school pupils and residents of Ocean View have gathered for computer literacy workshops, during which they have also learnt how to maintain and operate the network and its services.
Several of them have already been volunteering their services at the iLearning centre at Ocean View Preparatory School. It’s become a safe haven for learners within the community, who live their lives amid gangsterism which is rife in the area.
“We are very excited about this,” said Marius Waries, the centre manager for iLearning and chairperson for the iNethi platform.
“Our people will be able to connect with each other without using their data. They will also be able to get cheaper Wi-Fi through the platform.”
“Data is so expensive, so this will help us a lot. Our people will be able to connect with each other without using their data. They will also be able to get cheaper Wi-Fi through the platform. This has inspired me to help young people here even more. We can really make a difference in our community,” he said.
PhD student Hafeni Mthoko has gone door to door in Ocean View to learn about how residents access their information.
Access and communication
UCT postdoctoral researcher Hafeni Mthoko has been going door to door to gauge people’s interest in the project.
“I’ve been asking people how they know about what’s happening in the community. Up until now the only way has been to go to the library to see if there are any notices on the noticeboard, or children may hear about things at school assemblies.
“Now everyone will be able to share their news and their stories,” she said.
The platform will be a significant step forward for the people of Ocean View, according to Fadiel Davis, a volunteer who repairs computers at the school and the iLearning Centre.
“I’ve dreamt of a network like this for a long time, where the people own it and control it. We’ve been living in the dark ages for too long. Most people have cellphones, but they don’t have money for data,” he said.
“We also want to bring access and education to the people ... We want the channel to focus on learning as well, and help the next generation.”
Story: Kim Cloete
Photos: Michael Hammond
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