It offers too little data—and, with a completion date of 2030, too late.
The race to provide universal, free Wi-Fi to residents of Cape Town is officially underway. Two mid-size cities in Western Cape Province, of which Cape Town is the capital, saw the installation of public Wi-Fi hotspots earlier this week. This is just the beginning of a rollout program that won’t be complete until 2030. By then, all residents of Cape Town, along with the entire province it governs, are intended to have universal Wi-Fi access—at no cost. “By 2030 all households in high, medium, and low-priority wards should have access to the Internet by means of various technologies such as public Wi-Fi access, and/or mobile network connectivity,” a cabinet official was quoted as saying by the South African media.
It’s an ambitious endeavor. Ensuring that each of Cape Town’s 3 million-plus residents have round-the-clock, complimentary Wi-Fi will require the installation of hundreds of Internet hotspots. Yet the economic and social benefits could be huge: Cape Town, like much of South Africa, remains highly unequal in terms income and access. Nonetheless, the horizontal nature of this initiative should trigger some benefits across the city’s disparate classes, given that many do have access to mobile devices. Moreover, the World Bank estimates that every 10 percent increase in Internet connectivity yields a 1.3 percent increase in GDP. Free, citywide Internet will almost surely boost the rate of net connectivity.
But the rollout may not be ambitious enough. If current regulations stick, Wi-Fi users will likely be bumped from the internet in only a matter of minutes.
According to South African news site BusinessDay Live, each Wi-Fi user will likely be restricted to 150 megabytes of free data per day. After that, you’re cut off. That’s OK if you’re looking to hop on to shoot off some emails. You could even browse the web for a while under those restrictions. But use your smartphone to stream a 3-minute video on YouTube? Good luck. You'd be lucky to get through half of Taylor Swift’s latest music video before your free access is exhausted. That's a major concern given the shifting mobile habits of South Africans—and the broader world. The networking corporation Cisco estimates that video will make up 78 percent of South African mobile data usage by 2018, up from a current rate of 50 percent.
Cape Town should be commended for prioritizing universal wireless access; it's indicative of a city thinking ahead. But the project should either go big or go home. Barely anyone owned a mobile phone 16 years ago. Back then, we could never have foreseen the capacity of today's mobile devices. To expect 150 megabytes of free data to be sufficient 16 years from now is equally unimaginable.