(Published - 7 April 2020)
In response to COVID-19 South Africa’s first community-owned Internet Service Provider has zero-rated access to dozens of essential health and education sites, including all university and TVET college sites.
“In times like these, access to information is more critical than ever,” says Zenzeleni Community Network project manager Sol Luca de Tena.”Telecommunications is considered a critical service because we need to know how to stay safe, how to keep the curve low, and how to keep others from contracting or passing on the virus. For those that can’t afford connectivity now, it’s not just that they can’t afford to go on social media - it’s a matter of life and death.”
In the Eastern Cape villages of Mankosi and Zithulele for R25, a user can enjoy unlimited WiFi data valid for 32 days, with a download speed of 2Mbps. And on 2 April 2020, data fell even more, as the network launched its free Community Notice Board and zero-rated access to Resources on Health & Education
The award-winning Zenzeleni Project comprises a 5GHz WiFi backbone consisting of more than 40 point-to-point radios, which can carry above 200Mbps. This wireless backbone interconnects two rural villages, together with a data centre hosted in Mthatha. There are almost 70 community hotspots throughout Zithulele and Mankosi, and over 14 dedicated access points (in private homes or local business/ NGOs), allowing users to access high-quality connectivity through purchasing a Zenzeleni data voucher, sold directly by cooperative members.
“Zenzeleni is doing its bit for the rural communities it serves,” notes Professor Shaun Pather, Chair of Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). “In this time of self-isolation and lockdown, people need to stay connected with family, work and their communities. They also need access to information - to stay updated, and get the latest in terms of health updates, and how to stay safe. We’re doing what we can to help.”
Anybody with a WiFi device that goes onto the network coverage can access these resources, free of charge - it’s not limited to Zenzeleni customers.
“Part of what makes Zenzeleni different is that it’s a quality and affordable network where other operators don’t normally get to,” De Tena explains. “But our actions now will determine the outcome of COVID-19 for all of us. Together, we can beat this virus - and we’re just helping people do that.”
The list of zero-rated websites already extends into the dozens - and the team is updating and translating new resources, and has invited users to send more relevant resources to email@example.com.
The Zenzeleni implementation team started discussions as soon as President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the national state of disaster.
At the same time, universities were closed, and students were sent home, with the plan to transition to online education. At UWC, Prof Pather undertook a campus-wide survey, and the data was clear: a fair proportion of students could not engage in e-learning because they could not afford data.
“We were aware that students from all higher education institutes would be returning to their rural homes during the lockdown – it only made sense that we had to support them. So we asked the project team to extend the zero rating to all university and TVET sites,” Prof Pather says.
It’s not just about access to information - it’s about empowering the community to find their way in uncertain times, and access the resources they need to stay safe, keep connected, and plan for the future.
“A community network has two aspects,” de Tena says. “One is the technical network, but the other, equally important, is the human network. We’ve used the technical network to provide the resources, make them free - but we’ve also mobilised our human network, to spread the word, and make people aware of how they can keep safe. We’re spreading facts, not fears.”