The first free public Wi-Fi internet access in Nelson Mandela Bay was unveiled in Port Elizabeth’s Northern Areas on Wednesday.
Gelvandale residents will now be able to access the internet at their local community centre for free in two computer laboratories that were set up by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in 2015 to assist the local youth, but it were not connected to the internet.
The project is actually a joint initiative driven by the NMMU’s Centre for Community Technologies (CCT) and the office of the Deputy Minister of Telecommunications, Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize. The project is also part of government’s national broadband roll-out initiative.
“People from poor areas, informal settlements and rural areas should also have access to information.
“We are creating an information society,” described Prof Mkhize at the launch.
“But it’s not information for social clubs and night clubs, its really information for improving the quality of life. To make sure that people learn more about educational opportunities among other things.”
Speaking at the same event, CCT head, Prof Darelle van Greuren, said the free Wi-Fi would also enable local residents to access information on healthcare, which together with education, are two critical areas in the Eastern Cape.
“By introducing technology and internet access, we are opening doors and new opportunities for people,” she said.
The computer labs form part of Gelvandale’s FamHealth Medipark, which provides a range of medical services to the community, trains community health care workers, and runs youth training programmes through its NMMU-FamHealth Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) for Grade 11 learners. The labs, which were established a year ago, are also open to the public, and are used particularly by learners.
The YLA programme, which targets “at-risk youth” and this year has 97 Grade 11 learners, is now in its fifth year. The teenagers are given training in technology, leadership, entrepreneurship and many other life skills they will need to become successful adults.
Prof van Greunen said Gelvandale had become a suburb where children were no longer seen on the streets and neighbours were reluctant to visit each other, for fear of being caught in gang wars – but the free Wi-Fi would enable community members to connect with each other online.
The computer labs have 25 computers and 10 tablets, but the community will also be able to utilise the free Wi-Fi on their own phones and other devices.
She said the next phase of the project would be to partner with industry and the Metro to bring free Wi-Fi to underprivileged schools in the Northern Areas and townships – and then later to schools in deep rural Eastern Cape areas.
“Where schools already have computers, we can assist them to connect to the Internet. If there are no computers, they will still be able to connect using tablets and cell phones, enabling the learners to carry out research for school projects … In 2011, the United Nations declared Internet access a basic human right. That is part of what I’d like to achieve, not just in Nelson Mandela Bay but throughout the Eastern Cape.”
In the rural areas, Van Greunen is hoping to target schools at deep rural villages in the Willowvale area of the Transkei, which are under the Chieftainship of Chief Ngwenyathi Dumalisile, with whom NMMU has a Memorandum of Understanding, and which has led to the establishment of an ICT Resource Centre.
“I want to see how we can expand this Free Wi-Fi project to connect six of the schools in the immediate area. One school has been without maths and science teachers for nearly two years.”
She also hopes to expand the free Wi-Fi project to the nearby Donald Woods Foundation (DWF), which is the hub of Hobeni village, near Elliotdale. “If we can create public access to Wi-Fi there, we can connect 15 schools and eight health care clinics.” CCT already works closely with the DWF, in terms of rolling out ICT health care solutions to improve health care delivery.
Van Greunen has been invited to speak about the project at Unesco’s Tech4Dev 2016 international conference in Geneva, Switzerland in early May.
Main image: Peter Melo of DTPS explaining the SA Connect Policy and the targets at the Government Connectivity Project in Port Elizabeth.