“Every African will have free WiFi within walking distance” says Alan Knott-Craig Jnr

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“I’m confident that within my lifetime there will be free WiFi within walking distane of every African citizen.”

That’s the bold claim from Project Isizwe founder Alan Knott-Craig Jnr that continues today’s blogging from TEDxJohannesburg at the Soweto Theatre.

It’s been a really impressive morning, with a powerful line-up of speakers. We’ve heard from the creator of the solar powered South African flag which will be seen from space and had an exceptional talk from SA author Lauren Beukes on the importance of stories, and how some of the horrors she’s seen find their way into her books as a way of dealing with them.

lauren beukes tedxjohannesburg

From a tech angle, though, it’s been Knott-Craig espousing his vision for the future of the internet in South Africa and the continent beyond, along with some of the economics underlying the model, which has really stood out.

The City of Tshwane, Knott-Craig says, invests about 0.5% of its total budget into free WiFi via Project Isizwe. According to the well known findings of the World Bank, universal access to the internet increases GDP by 1% – so the theory goes that the increased tax revenues from treating broadband as a commodity will more than pay for it.

“Plus,” Knott-Craig explained, “We’re turned children into debt collectors. When their daily bundle runs out, they will be able to their ratepayer number and double the cap. If the account is in arrears, they don’t.”

Yes, Tshwane is planning to turn kids into debt collecting WiFi addicts to collect its unpaid bills.

Knott-Craig, who has recently left Isizwe for Herotel, says two things influenced his decision to lobby for free WiFi. The birth of his daughter inspired him to do good in the world, as it does many of us, but also his experience as head of Mxit taught him that when kids have access to the internet they really did use it for drugs counselling, pregnancy advice, extra maths lessons and so on.

Ultimately, though, he says its the ease with which free WiFi can be delivered that makes it unstoppable.

“It can cost up to R300 to download a seven second video clip on a mobile connection,” he says, “Our costs are just 20c per gigabyte… we can tap into the unused fibre in the ground. I’d be surprised if more than 1% of the fibre in the ground is being used. The secret sauce is to get the public sector to work with the private sector and [get access to it].”

Looking to the future, Knott-Craig rounded off by using the example of water supply. Straight after 1994 it was argued it would be impossible to supply water for free. Today around 45% of the population qualifies for it – and water is hard to deliver with expensive infrastructure that’s expensive to build and maintain. WiFi is cheap, unregulated and makes use of excess network capacity.

“The question is, why don’t more cities adopt this?”

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.