Begun in 2010, Soweto Wireless User Group (SOWUG), is a nonprofit organization based in Johannesburg, South Africa, that is working to erode the digital divide in Africa. Their initiatives include digital literacy training as well as the deployment of wireless hotspots. As of 2017, more than 1,000 people, including 50 youth, and 10 businesses have received digital literacy training. The SOWUG has also deployed upwards of 20 free, public hotspots. SOWUG is an example of a solution for accessibility and ICT familiarity in underserviced communities that is constrained by funding.
Soweto, originally a collection of settlements on Johannesburg’s outskirts, is now a township with a population of almost 1.3 million. Internet access in the province is uneven. While the province is home to 80% of South Africa’s 2,100 Wi-Fi hotspots, these are located within Johannesburg and not in Soweto – even though it is one of the most densely populated areas in the whole country.
The cost effectiveness of cellular data sees the majority of households using mobile devices to connect to the Internet. Broadband penetration is low due to higher costs than in other developing countries, where it stands at 5.3 subscriptions per 100 people. The price points for mobile service are also not commensurate with the offered speeds either.
With an eye toward developing better broadband infrastructure, the government’s “South Africa Connect” project has set two target goals: 90 percent of the South African population should receive Internet at 5 megabits per second (Mbps) and 50 percent of the country’s population should connect at average speeds of almost 100 Mbps. The Municipality of Johannesburg has plans to install 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots and is contemplating a 900-kilometer-wide network for households. This deployment will not necessarily aid those in rural areas, however.
|Johannesburg, South Africa
||Fixed broadband subscriptions (%)
|Population density (people per sq.km)
||Mobile cellular subscriptions (%)
|Median household income
||Individuals using the Internet (%)
(Mean years of schooling) (UNDP, 2013)
||Individuals using the Internet by Gender (%) (ITU, 2016)
Since 2010, SOWUG has been working on various projects with the goal of increasing access, digital literacy, and familiarity with information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the Soweto region of South Africa. Because much of their constituency was digitally illiterate, their first objective was to offer ICT trainings. Their first activity involved creating a two-month course via Internet modules that individuals could engage with at a public library. However, the SOWUG noticed that retention rates for the program were a problem, as many people dropped out.
In 2015, SOWUG was able to obtain an office where it began offering grassroots trainings, which have been extremely successful. They have trained more than 1,000 individuals and groups, including 10 businesses, 10 households, and 50 youth.
In addition to digital literacy, SOWUG also focuses on deploying Wi-Fi hotspots in Soweto. Using a fiber-connected high-site tower, SOWUG uses point-to-point 5.8 gigahertz (GHz) radio to provide Internet connectivity to almost 30 hotspots. For backhaul, Dark Fiber Africa paid the initial setup fee of 12,000 rand ($858.90) and the monthly fee of 6,500 rand. In 2014, the Foundation for Internet Development provided backhaul support for a year. In addition, the Internet Society (ISOC) donated 100,000 rand that SOWUG has used for cybersecurity.
Maintenance of the network costs around 25,000 rand a month, and SOWUG estimates that 2 million rand more is necessary to extend the network. They have plans to rollout 100 Wi-Fi sites in Soweto and have entered into a partnership with the government of Johannesburg to implement this plan.
Even with the high costs, SOWUG provides users with 500 megabytes (MB) of data per month for free. All that is required is that the user set up a profile and log in.
||28 wireless hotspots
||10 local businesses, 10 households, and 50 youth community members have been trained on digital literacy
|Year of connectivity
||Cost to users
||500 megabytes per month for free
||Total cost of infrastructure
||$22,000 ISOC grant for 1 tower
12,000 rand ($858.90 for the initial backhaul set up fee by Dark Fiber Africa
6,500 rand monthly backhaul fee
1,000 devices with 150 simultaneous daily connections
||Dark Fiber Africa
Foundation for Internet Development
Quick Wireless Connect
The hotspots provided by SOWUG service approximately 1,000 devices with 150 simultaneous daily connections. In terms of accessing the Wi-Fi, many users employ multiple devices. Ninety-three percent of users have utilized the hotspots over computer, 52 percent have used the network on their mobile phones, and 25 percent of users have connected on tablets.
SOWUG has provided digital literacy training to more than 1,000 individuals, which includes 10 businesses, 10 households, and 50 youth community members. Users at the SOWUG office use the Internet for a variety of tasks, such as writing a résumé, job searching, email, research, taking webinars, and viewing talks by distinguished individuals. They also take full advantage of social media.
Lack of equipment – SOWUG’s endeavors are impeded by a lack of access to equipment. The radios that SOWUG relies on for their deployment are not available locally either since the nearest retailer is more than 60 km away.
Regulatory hurdles – South African government regulations require SOWUG to obtain a “public license” for their network. This license costs 30,000 rand, and it must be regularly renewed.
Prohibitive costs – In addition to the expensive licensing requirements, other costs also make network expansion difficult. The rents for the deployment locations, for instance, are constantly rising, and the Internet in the area is extremely expensive. Prices currently stand at approximately 150 rand for 1 gigabyte (GB). Finally, SOWUG is not available to use all the bandwidth that has been donated, as they cannot currently afford more access points.
Lack of skills – Because of the low penetration of relevant ICT and technical skills available locally, SOWUG is heavily reliant on outsourced labor. On the user side, digital literacy was so low that SOWUG needed to provide training before the hotspots would be useful to the end users.