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What does the future hold for municipal WiFi?

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In the lead up to the 2016 Municipal Elections, terms such as “free WiFi” and broadband access have very much become part of the politician’s lexicon.
BMI-TechKnowledge’s recently-published report “Public and Commercial WiFi in South Africa” points out that in their manifestos, the ANC, Cope and DA have recognised the need for improved broadband access at local government level, all promoting WiFi.
The EFF has called for “Free highspeed WiFi in all public spaces” on its election posters and provided views on how the service should be used. Few of the other parties appear to have taken a stand on WiFi or broadband technology.
BMI-T’s research has found that most of the metros are already delivering free broadband internet access through WiFi hotspots. “There are currently around 2 100 public hotspots, of which nearly 80% are in Gauteng,” says BMI-T director Tim Parle, author of the WiFi report.
“Data allowances vary from 250Mb per month to 500Mb per day, and some networks offer impressive speeds. The business model and approach varies from municipality to municipality,” he adds.
Tshwane has the single largest network and has complemented this with wrap-around value-added services under the brand TshWiFi.
WiFi has become well known to consumers as a low-cost and prevalent high-speed internet access mechanism. According to BMI-T’s analysis of market research data, in South Africa close on 90% of those aged 15 and above have a cellphone, and over half (51%) of these are smartphones and hence are WiFi-enabled.
The research reports on the innovative methods of providing WiFi on many modes of public transport: WiFi services are available in taxis, buses, trains and planes. Most services offer some free access with top-ups available.
“Personal hotspots – or ‘MiFi’ devices – which allow people to share their mobile connections in a portable or nomadic manner, are a strong growth area,” reports Parle. “Residential WiFi will grow slowly as more FTTH is rolled out and subscribers migrate off DSL.”
Different commercial models exist and the jury is out as to which models will be the most sustainable, says Parle. Telkom can lay claim to the most sites served but is challenged in terms of the number of unique access points in the network. Telkom’s growth appears to have stalled, citing over 6 000 hotspots since March 2015.
VAST Networks is the challenger with several large new deployments. iSpot is an innovative company that continues to grow its footprint of hotspots steadily. Some other players that rose to prominence a few years back appear to have retreated or changed their business models away from providing hotspot access.
Vodacom and MTN are yet to show their hand in terms of WiFi strategy; both for consumer services and for carrier off-load. Cell C provides WiFi calling but is not an infrastructure provider or a reseller of Wi-Fi services.