Arthur Goldstuck

What digital cities need

2008-01-16 08:23

Arthur Goldstuck

The very name sounds like a science fiction vision come true: the digital city.

A digital city is a metropolitan area that provides full connectivity to the internet wherever the user is in the city. It means that all libraries, educational institutions, public services and utilities are fully integrated into the internet, allowing free and unlimited access to their users and customers. It means that inhabitants of the city can connect to the internet at low cost from their homes, places of work or places of entertainment.

This, in turn, means that the city becomes a more attractive place in which to live, and more competitive in terms of attracting business.

So much for the vision. The reality is a little different.

Take that cool and futuristic term: "digital city". But let's turn it inside out for a moment, and describe it for the way it really is constructed in South Africa: "municipal wireless broadband".

Suddenly it isn't so cool or futuristic anymore. Broadband provided by a municipality? That can barely maintain its parks? That cannot provide adequate billing resolution services for such mundane services as lights and water?

Suddenly, municipal broadband has the whiff of the old-style, old-fashioned command and control economy. It has an aura of backwardness, and it appears deeply inappropriate.

Loophole

The best argument for municipal broadband is that a loophole in the law allows municipalities to roll out their own communications infrastructure, and thus provides competition to Telkom. But this really highlights the weakness of the law rather than the opportunity it provides: by allowing Telkom to maintain a stranglehold on connectivity, the law has created a situation in which a concept as improbable as municipal broadband can be seen as a boon to internet users.

Even more surprising is the fact that most telecommunications providers, who have been fighting for a piece of the broadband action for years, are not objecting to municipal broadband. In some cases, the reason is obvious: they hope to be stakeholders in the infrastructure or services that the municipalities roll out.

Among the very few prominent players who have been willing to declare that this broadband emperor wears no clothes is Mike van den Bergh, chief operating officer of Gateway Communications, which provides communications services across Africa. He told a conference in 2006 that municipalities have no place in telecommunications, and that municipalities should be playing an enabling role, not one of service-provider, in telecoms.

"The objective of a city's governors should be to ensure that their city is the best place to live and the most attractive to invest in," he argued at the Convergence Broadcast and Telecommunications Summit. "In this, telecoms, and broadband especially, is a key enabler, but this does not mean that municipalities have to become telecoms operators. Instead, municipalities should be creating enabling environments and letting the private sector run with it."

Failure

In the United States, several municipal wireless projects have failed. The much-vaunted Wireless Philadelphia project has seen its original cost estimates skyrocket. The cost of connecting a customer for free has been said to be four times as much as a normal commercial rate. San Francisco, Houston, Chicago and St Louis have canned plans for free wireless networks.

Municipalities generally do not operate in a competitive environment, and it is little wonder that they were unable to topple the highly competitive telcos who wanted the same customer bases. For that very reason, the US telocs have been more vocal in their opposition.

Walter White, vice president state and local government for Verizon Communications in the USA, confirmed that the company was highly sceptical about municipal wireless networks.

"From our perspective, taxpayers should ask hard questions about whether pouring money into muni Wi-Fi is a good use of scarce resources. There are several reasons it almost certainly is not.

"First, this isn't Field of Dreams - even if you build it, often they don't come. The city of Orlando shut down its system, having logged an average 27 visitors a day. Other muni Wi-Fi systems are also struggling. While some may succeed, the many that ultimately fail will leave the taxpayers holding the bill. If a private company risks capital, private investors foot the bill, not taxpayers. From our vantage point, that's a better way to go - let the private sector take the risk."

Innovative project

So far, the fall-out from the emperor's state of undress in South Africa has been twofold: on the one hand, there have been the inevitable legal challenges from both those who have not been favoured by the tender procedure, and from Telkom, trying to protect its patch; and on the other hand, municipal efficiency has been shown to be no more remarkable when applied to hi-tech as when displayed in the queues at municipal offices.

Knysna was the first municipality in South Africa to go wireless for its residents, but the pricing was not attractive enough to expand access beyond those who could already afford it.

While free wireless internet access is already offered in all 85 libraries in the eThekwini municipality, the metro is still wrestling with issues of how to be a service provider, and what business models to use. But it has taken a step forward: awarding a R10m tender for a wireless network to cover 2 400 square kilometres.

Tshwane has rolled out a variety of innovative projects, including power line connectivity and a wireless system called a mesh network, but the former has yet to be rolled out on a metro-wide basis, and the trial of the latter was suspended in December. On top of all that, the mastermind of the Tshwane broadband project, Charles Kuun, has left the municipality, leaving the initiative rudderless.

The same has happened in Johannesburg, where Douglas Cohen, the driving force behind the Johannesburg digital city project, also recently resigned. The Cape Town wireless project has stalled due to legal challenges after a tender was awarded.

Why isn't it all working yet?

The answer is simple, once we get around the emperor's fashion challenge: the real digital city is the city of wireless and broadband choice, competition, access and affordability. It is a city in which we can choose our service provider based both on our needs and on the quality and range of service being offered. The digital city as we know it in 2008 is none of the above.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is an award-winning author and journalist, and is managing director of World Wide Worx, which leads research into Internet and mobile communications in South Africa. Visit his urban legends blog at thoselegends.blogspot.comand his business blog at www.thebigchange.com

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