This post originally appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations Net Politics Blog and is written by Chenai Chair and Broc Rademan, researchers at Research ICT Africa, a public-interest research organization that examines information and communication technology policy in Africa. You can find them @RIAnetwork.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, roughly 75 percent of Africans are not connected to the internet. This dismal statistic has turned the continent into a laboratory to test innovative public policy- and market-based solutions to improve connectivity. Installing free Wi-Fi hotspots has emerged as a promising solution to overcome the challenges of coverage, cost and network quality in South Africa and other countries across region. However, it will take more than just free Wi-Fi to significantly increase connectivity.
Fixed broadband networks (e.g. laying cable) are too expensive to install and operate for African internet users. Mobile technologies can be deployed more quickly and cheaply and increase mobile phone ownership. However, the cost of communicating is still relatively expensive. A digital readiness assessment study in the Western Cape province found on average citizens spend 20.1 percent of their individual income on mobile service that is voice, SMS, data and any monthly mobile subscriptions.
Unlike data plans, free public Wi-Fi is just that for the end user: free. That makes the provision of public Wi-Fi attractive to public authorities looking to improve internet access, especially given the growing penetration of smartphones across Africa. Data suggests that there were roughly 226 million smartphone users in 2015 and is expected to rise to 720 million by 2020.
Governments have begun to require the provision of Wi-Fi as a condition of public network investment and infrastructure upgrades. For example, the Western Cape government requires Neotel, an internet service provider, set aside a portion of bandwidth to be allocated for a local Wi-Fi hotspot at the public buildings it is contracted to connect. Similarly, the cities of Tshwane (Pretoria) and Cape Town have required that new government buildings establish a functioning Wi-Fi hotspot with free uninhibited access to anyone in the vicinity. In both cities, schools, libraries, health facilities, parks and squares now offer free Wi-Fi.
The business models for free Wi-Fi are varied, but overall, the local authorities end up subsidizing a daily data cap to be used by anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled device to do with as they please.
Having government subsidize internet access is risky. Will people use their newfound access to browse cat videos or something more productive? Recent research we undertook in South Africa suggests that individuals availing themselves of free Wi-Fi were doing so for job seeking, student assignments and information inquiries more than any other activities.
Nevertheless, there are still some problems facing the African users of public Wi-Fi. First, the Wi-Fi is provided in mostly urban areas, and therefore exclude rural populations. Second, many public spaces in urban and peri-urban areas are unsafe at night, making internet access a daytime affair. Third, Wi-Fi-enabled devices are not the most affordable devices on the market, which limits the accessibility of feature phone owners and those who have no device at all. Fourth, the sustainability of publicly-funded Wi-Fi projects is uncertain given the dynamic nature of the sector and budgetary constraints in developing economies. This threatens the longevity of such operators as well as the health and competitiveness of the private sector.
There are also challenges beyond technology that affect internet accessibility and use in Africa. Mozilla recently funded research conducted in Nigeria, Kenya, and Rwanda. According to the study, digital literacy remains a challenge as some individuals, particularly in rural areas, do not have the skills to navigate the internet.
Apart from the lack of devices and digital know-how, public perceptions of the internet also hinder access. Some users shy away from internet use given the nature of some online content, particularly fake news or malicious content. Non-users also express a general mistrust of the internet, which may be attributed to a lack of understanding of what the internet is. Gender disparities can also hinder online participation, especially in rural areas where women have described their partners restricting them from going online.
Providing free public Wi-Fi is an innovative and affordable way to improve connectivity in Africa. However it is by no means a silver bullet. More evidence-based research could identify the full extent of the limitations of free public Wi-Fi and identify strategies to improve internet accessibility in Africa. Some of this research will come later this year, once we complete household and individual surveys in nine African countries to better understand internet usage and accessibility.