The government’s ambitious national broadband rollout initiative, SA Connect, has kicked off in Nelson Mandela Bay.
A community health and business centre in Gelvandale – a beacon of hope in an area affected by gang violence, drug abuse and poverty – is the first to benefit from a free WiFi project in the area.
SA Connect was launched in 2013 with the objective to deliver widespread broadband access to 90% of the country’s population by 2020, and 100% by 2030. Government is working with the metros of Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay, Mangaung, Cape Town and Johannesburg to roll out free WiFi.
The Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, which is overseeing SA Connect, predicts 3 158 government institutions and 4 442 schools will have broadband connectivity over the medium-term.
The Nelson Mandela Bay project – a joint initiative driven by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Centre for Community Technologies (CCT) and the office of deputy telecommunications and postal services minister Hlengiwe Mkhize – was launched this week at the CCT-FamHealth Computer Labs.
The computer labs form part of Gelvandale’s FamHealth Medipark, which provides a range of medical services to the community, trains community healthcare 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.
CCT head professor Darelle van Greunen says 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 WiFi would enable community members to connect with each other online.
“Our vision is to create a connected community in the northern areas that will not only assist in re-establishing the social constructs of this vulnerable community, but also fight substance abuse, gang violence and enhance education.”
The labs have 25 computers and 10 tablets, but the community will also be able to utilise the free WiFi on their own phones and other devices.
“Through the WiFi project, we will now be in a position to connect schools and set up digital libraries and offer access to other programmes, such as vocational programmes, to support the formal education sector.”
Van Greunen adds the next phase of the project would be to partner with industry and the metro to bring free WiFi 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 cellphones, 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 hopes 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 WiFi 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 WiFi project to the nearby Donald Woods Foundation (DWF), which is the hub of Hobeni village, near Elliotdale.
“If we can create public access to WiFi there, we can connect 15 schools and eight healthcare clinics.” CCT already works closely with the DWF, in terms of rolling out ICT healthcare solutions to improve healthcare delivery.
Van Greunen has been invited to speak about the project at Unesco’s Tech4Dev 2016 international conference in Geneva, Switzerland in early May.
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