Why free Wi-Fi is more important than cheap Wi-Fi

When I ran Mxit I saw how it changed peoples lives. The brainchild of some Stellenbosch techies allowed youngsters in the Cape Flats to connect with a world of which they could only dream before. Jobs, education and mostly importantly, social networks were created overnight thanks to cheap messaging that worked on all phones, regardless of whether it was a dumbphone (Nokia 1100), semi-smart phone (Blackberry) or smartphone (Android).

Mxit truly did change the world for millions of people

It also made me see that people need free Internet, not only cheap Internet. There’s only so much that can be communicated in text on a small black and white screen.  The cost of 3G simply makes it unaffordable to transmit images and videos, truly rich media.

3G is expensive, cool, I get it. A 3G network costs a lot of money to build and operate.

But what about the kids in the Cape Flats? How are they going to participate in the richness of the Internet? How will a young girl watch a TED talk that changed her life, or a Khan Academy lecture that gets her an A for math in matric, or a photo of the man of her dreams?

Government subsidised free Wi-Fi is the answer. The economics of Wi-Fi networks make it possible to reduce the cost of data to a fraction to that of 3G. Also, most households already have access to a Wi-Fi enabled device (an old Blackberry, laptop or new Android).

Just like everyone is entitled to a quota of water and electricity, people need a quota of Free Wi-Fi.

Tshwane was the first metro in South Africa to adopt the model of subsidised free Wi-Fi in low-income communities in November 2013. Western Cape is the first provincial administration to announce plans for free Wi-Fi in rural communities.

It’s not a question of if Free Wi-Fi will be a basic human right. It’s a question of when.

Tshwane and Western Cape are pioneering a model that we will one day take for granted. Internet access is a basic service, just like water, electricity and sanitation.