25 October 2005
Cape Town is on its way to becoming the first city in South Africa to offer free internet access at every public library.
Already, three years since the launch of the city’s groundbreaking Smart Cape access project, the number of residents who have signed on to use this service has topped 26 000.
Five hundred access stations
Smart Cape, which aims to provide computing facilities with free internet access to all the citizens of Cape Town, was launched in July 2002 as a pilot project at six libraries: Wesfleur, Brooklyn, Delft, Grassy Park, Guguletu and Lwandle.
The following year Smart Cape won the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s $1-million Access to Learning award, which has contributed to extending the project.
By the end of 2005, people will be able to connect to the internet at all 99 of the city’s libraries. Each library will have five computers installed, which means there will soon be 500 access stations around Cape Town.
Making a difference
Anyone can use one of the Smart Cape computers; all you need is to be a member of one of the city’s public library. And to be a member of a library you need only be a resident of the city.
Mymoena Sharif, the city’s e-governance manager, says people are using the computers for a variety of tasks – not just to surf the web. They type letters, write up their CVs, work on admin for their businesses and do research for school projects. And, of course, they send e-mail: all users are given an “@smartcape.org.za” address.
She says the PCs have made a real difference to each library’s community and that the impact is still being monitored.
Ultimately, one of the aims is to close the “digital divide” that separates people who have access to computers, technology and the internet, and all the benefits and opportunities that go with that, from those who have no such access.
That’s quite a challenge, given the size of the gap that exists in South Africa and in other developing countries. In 2002 the city undertook an assessment of the digital divide in Cape Town, which revealed that 67% of the people who were interviewed had never used a computer.
As Sharif says: “If the city wants to succeed in offering people internet access, it must be offered free. Citizens, especially previously disadvantaged citizens, are not going to spend R10 for 30 minutes at an internet cafe when that money is needed to put bread on the table.”
She says the city is determined to close the gap and bring information technology to all. This is a quest that makes her particularly enthusiastic about Smart Cape’s use of open source software, a remarkable feature of the project and one that is allowing the city to reach many more people.
Open source software brings many benefits – one of them being that it is free or at least much cheaper than commercial, proprietary software. For example, the Smart Cape access stations use a Linux-based operating system as opposed to proprietary software, which would have come with costly licensing fees.
The city’s use of open source software has saved it a lot of money. But, unfortunately, the most frustrating expense – and one that lies outside the city’s control – is that of connectivity; in other words, Telkom charges.
This is one of the challenges facing Cape Town in its quest to become a truly “smart city”. But it is already the home of a rapidly growing technology industry, and there has been a conscious decision to position the city as South Africa’s IT hub.