Developing Smart Free Public Wi-Fi in South Africa: Can Public Wi-Fi Help Redress Digital Inequality, and If So, How? Emerging Lessons from South Africa's Diverse Implementations

25 Pages Posted: 29 Sep 2017

See all articles by Christopher Geerdts

Christopher Geerdts


Alison N. Gillwald

Research ICT Africa; University of Cape Town

Date Written: September 27, 2017


Free Public Wi-Fi (FPW) has been deployed in many countries for over a decade for a range of economic and municipal governance reasons. However a literature review found that although previous research on Free Public Wi-Fi (FPW) did exist, it pertained largely to projects initiated in the early 2000’s, the pre-smartphone era and related to wealthier countries, with minimal consideration of socially inclusive access. At that time Wi-Fi was early in its ‘hype cycle’ and no evaluations of current projects were done, meaning that there is no foundation of evaluative methodology on which to build.

The recent increase in smartphone penetration into lower income groups has led to FPW gaining greater traction as a socially inclusive solution to broadband access. Many municipalities in South Africa (SA) have embarked on FPW projects. The main challenge, as with all infrastructure initiatives, is that projects require upfront and ongoing financial investment and management commitment in the face of stark alternative demands and therefore policy decisions must be well-informed to maximise return on investment and ensure project success.

SA’ two major metros, Johannesburg and Cape Town, used different funding approaches to their FPW, providing a natural experiment from which there are significant learnings which, although context specific, will provide insights for the extension of FPW into smaller towns and less developed towns. It should also have wider application for other developing counties. There is no clear winner and loser arising from the experiment, with the different approaches and funding models producing various positive and negative outcomes across the two projects. The paper does however distill some factors for success relating to cost, funding, deployment, the user experience and project replicability and sustainability for policy makers in developing countries.

Wi-Fi is never ‘free’ and a basic taxonomy is suggested based on who pays for the service (typically the end-customer, government, advertisers or owners of the site being covered) and what parties stand to gain. Only one of the projects studied aimed at full government sponsorship, a situation which the municipality is reviewing. This paper suggest what has worked abut each approach, although emphasising that different contexts call for different solutions.

The well-funded, government sponsored FPW was able to evolve more quickly and have more people on line with better services than the mixed commercial and government funded model. However the first is highly dependent on political will and leadership, making its long terms sustainability and potentially its scalability more susceptible to risk than project that result from innovative public private interplays that are self-funding.

The study found that projects are best imbedded in a wider broadband strategy (rather than standalone), including government fibre connectivity projects, content and applications. Government buildings are an ideal starting point, as connectivity, power and security are already budgeted for. Educational institutions should be prioritised, as they are numerous, well positioned within populations, provide broadband for learning, and target age groups most likely to adopt broadband. Libraries, health facilities, museums and public open spaces have also been targeted. Open access Wi-Fi networks have the advantage of allowing competition by internet service providers but require more costly equipment to facilitate than projects involving one exclusive service provider.

The findings inform the concluding set of recommendations to policy makers and municipal decision makers.

Suggested Citation

Geerdts, Christopher and Gillwald, Alison Norah, Developing Smart Free Public Wi-Fi in South Africa: Can Public Wi-Fi Help Redress Digital Inequality, and If So, How? Emerging Lessons from South Africa's Diverse Implementations (September 27, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Christopher Geerdts (Contact Author)

Christech ( email )

Aspen House
Cape Town
South Africa

Alison Norah Gillwald

Research ICT Africa ( email )

414 The Studios, Old Castle Brewery
6 Beach Road
Cape Town, 7925
South Africa

University of Cape Town ( email )

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Western Cape
+27214476332 (Phone)
+0866707594 (Fax)


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