On a commanding hill with a majestic view of the South African capital there is a castle. It’s a real castle, complete with turrets and spires. At first glance, it appears to be some grandiose folly, especially when you discover it has been recently rebuilt. But this castle is intentional.
And it has a history. Inside it there is a possible future, that is already an everyday occurrence for some 700 000 Tshwane (known as Pretoria until it was renamed a few years ago) residents who use this remarkable service. This castle is the home to Project Isizwe, a brilliant example of how it’s possible for a city to give its residents free Wi-Fi. The final product is as grand as the project’s intentions. And jubilantly uplifting.
And, because irony loves a joke, the epicentre of this free Wi-Fi revolution is good old Pretoria, the largest small town in South Africa. Some 55km north of South Africa’s economic capital, Johannesburg, Tshwane has an estimated three million residents. It is named after Andries Pretorius, a leader of the Voortrekkers, a group of Dutch immigrants who would become the Afrikaans nation, speaking a branched version of Dutch. Pretoria was founded in 1855 by Pretorius’s son Marthinus, in recognition of his father’s defeat of the Zulu nation in the Battle of Blood River in 1838. It would become the capital of the Boer Republic, which fought two wars against the British Empire, winning the first and losing the second. A young British journalist called Winston Churchill was imprisoned in Pretoria during the Second Boer War (1899 to 1902), before he escaped to neighbouring Mozambique. His account of this daring night-time escape is often included in collections of timeless journalism. Tshwane’s history has always been contentious.
Once an Afrikaaner sanctum that usually produced bulking rugby players, it is also, quite coincidentally, birthplace to Elon Musk. Although widely considered the next Steve Jobs, Musk is more of a Thomas Edison figure. Jobs gave us computers and smartphones, but Edison gave us lights, electricity, and lightbulbs. Musk’s contributions seem likely to contribute to society and change it more dramatically than new products do. And now, from his former hometown, we have the wonder of free Wi-Fi. The irony is delightful.
So, this castle that looks as first glance like some big architectural mistake – or the indulgence of a rich kid who won’t grow up – serves a purpose. Wireless networks are all about the “high site”, as the excitable Project Isizwe CEO Alan Knott-Craig Jnr explains it. Isizwe is Zulu for “nation”.
Arguably the most impressive thing about this project is not the project itself, but the fortitude of the entrepreneur behind it. First known as the son of the Vodacom-founding father of the same name, Knott-Craig Jnr began making his own mark as CEO of a wireless broadband provider iBurst (in which Vodacom had a shareholding). This was soon eclipsed by his stellar rise to prominence as CEO of one of South Africa’s best ever (software) inventions, instant messaging service Mxit. Knott-Craig Jnr amassed a substantial war chest through his investment and holding company, World of Avatar, and set about building a digital empire in that sleepy little town that’s become the hub of South Africa’s technology community, Stellenbosch.
As it happens, Stellenbosch’s concentration of resourceful and entrepreneurial people is extremely high, even more so than that of the nearby San Francisco-esque city of Cape Town. Mxit, now pivoting to an education platform since rival messaging apps have finally caught up and eroded its competitive advantage, is based there; as is payment app SnapScan (recently acquired by Standard Bank, Africa’s largest lender) and countless others.
Knott-Craig’s resignation from Mxit in October 2012 – prompted by a dispute with shareholders about the company’s strategy, that sadly for the company he appears to have won in retrospect – was like a death in the family for the tech industry in South Africa. The affable, down-to-earth, T-shirt-wearing Knott-Craig was (and is now again) the golden child of an industry that prizes “failing fast” and serial attempts at success. And, it’s no mean feat. This industry has big local stars already (in Elon Musk, Mark Shuttleworth and Vinny Lingham; and the lesser-known Donovan Neale-May, Chris Pinkham, Willem Van Biljon, and Gareth Knight) but Knott-Craig is still a homeboy. He’s still slugging it out in the home trenches. Still saying it like it is, with his trademark candour and quick-witted humour. He’s the real deal. And he’s proven it again.
Stellenbosch is also Knott-Craig’s home, and hosted the first free Wi-Fi site that Project Isizwe provided. Next came Tshwane (the municipality that’s home to the city of Pretoria), and it is an impressive operation. Wander the streets and there it is, free Wi-Fi, as if you were in San Francisco or near Google’s complexes.
Free Wi-Fi. Only outside of the broadband-rich United States does it have the word “free” in front of it. The feeder networks to the eventual college kids who think up new apps (that is the towns and schools all across the country, the shopping malls, and train stations) all offer free wifi. Silicon Valley has a ready army of kids who have done their 10,000 hours of being an internet user, and can then start to find the new things we’ll need.
By giving away the access to the network, users can spend all their time doing things on it, rather than wasting time, energy and money calculating how to get enough airtime to surf the web; which results in trepidation and hesitation about being online. Instead, the youth who experience the internet in all its abundance and speed have a freedom of thought that might allow them to recognise – and maybe even build — the next Instagram.
That US broadband boom was a gift of the Dot Bomb of the early 2000s, when overcapitalised networking companies like Global Crossing and WorldCom went belly up, bequeathing their vast fibre networks at pennies to the dollar to a nation that has gobbled it up. Such riches have given us Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Twitter, cat videos and Reddit. It’s all been possible because of broadband internet access.
Increasingly, through projects like Project Isizwe, Africa is catching up. But on the whole, internet access in Africa is notoriously bad – it’s expensive and sluggish compared to developed markets’ offerings. It’s so bad that Facebook is investigating high-flying solar-powered drones and Google’s Project Loon similarly plans to use balloons to beam internet connectivity to areas with little or no connectivity infrastructure. Yes, that bad. While there has been a surge of undersea cables bringing speedier connections to the heart of the web, Africa lacks significant roll out of fibre-to-the-home networks, which are only now slowly emerging in urban areas in South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere. For a city to provide free Wi-Fi in Africa has, until now, been unthinkable.
Part of the success of Project Isizwe according to Knott-Craig is that the mayor of Tshwane has the vision to see what connectivity can do for the city’s residents, in addition to focusing on the even more pressing services like housing, sanitation and healthcare.
Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa says his vision for the City of Tshwane entails “looking at innovations, looking at smart ways of improving the quality of life of our people, investing in education and making sure that there’s a wide-ranging internet there – connectivity in the city – and also that the poor can afford it”.
The project was inspired by “an appreciation as the public sector that our principal responsibility is to improve the quality of life of our people, make sure that we ameliorate them from conditions of hardship and ensure that those entrepreneurs are able to thrive so that they grow the economy, they are able to expand the revenue base, [and] create new opportunities.”
But it also required “leadership from the city”, because “this is an idea that is ahead of its time. There were people who thought we could make better use of the investment by building roads, providing water, sanitation and electricity and our view was the following: that we need to look at the internet connectivity as a basic municipal service”.
The mayor added: “The World Bank makes the point that the maturity of an internet ecosystem can improve GDP growth”. Indeed, the World Bank’s figure – that a 10% growth in broadband connectivity has a corresponding 1.4% increase in GDP – is widely quoted.
Back inside the castle, the network operation centre (NOC) shows the entire network on 30 massive monitors hung on walls in a room seemingly designed for a medieval ball, but now ideally suited to this incongruous modern use.
Climb the three levels to the top and the view is magnificent. Looking into the distance, Knott-Craig points to far-off Soshanguve. Distributing a wireless signal is always easier (and stronger) if you have height. It’s just physics. The system’s backhaul (how it moves data around, but specifically how the consumer connecting to a hotspot connects to the internet and the rest of the network) uses microwave signals. These are transmitted by big dishes that look like massive drums. Sticking out from the turrets are these large circular, white, speaker-like microwave dishes, like a modern-day weapon in the same spot where once archers would’ve drawn their bows.
In fact, depending on how philosophical you want to get, these microwave transmitters are a kind of weapon, if you define freedom of information (and speech, and access to information) as such. Every day, an average of 700,000 people use Project Isizwe’s network.
So, what’s the story with the castle? Growing up in Pretoria, as it was then called, young Corne de Villiers looked up at the original castle on this hill and told his father that one day he would own it. When he made a lot of money, in the late 1990s, he fulfilled that lifelong dream.
Now De Villiers is Knott-Craig’s partner in Project Isizwe, and the castle’s position makes is an ideal hub for the distribution of the microwave signals to the neighbouring regions of Soshanguve, Bronkhorstspruit, Hammanskraal, and Centurion.
Ramokgopa hopes the the City of Tshwane free Wi-Fi project “will be a template that will be exported across the length and breadth of our country and the continent as a living example of what is happening.
“We are bold enough because we really, genuinely appreciated what the true benefit of this exercise is”. One success story is Tshwane Wi-Fi TV, a free video-streaming service that has had about six million viewers since its launch earlier this year.
But there is also a valuable lesson, Ramokgopa says, in how to cooperate between the private and public sector. “The pubic sector is notorious for moving slowly [and] the bureaucracy, stifling or stunting innovation. I think it’s very useful that the private sector has an appreciation of what the needs of the public sector so that you fit into that realm.”
In a peculiarly South African way, it’s fitting that Tshwane – with its historical political centrality as the capital of the Boer republic and its now-reformed position as the seat of democratic government – is showing how to technologically reinvent itself, and perhaps the rest of the country. It’s even more fitting that it’s Elon Musk’s birthplace.