Executive mayor Solly Msimanga. File picture: Thobile Mathonsi/Independent Media
Tshwane – Tshwane Mayor Solly Msimanga’s recent remarks, stating that the city cannot afford the continued supply of the flagship free wi-fi service – dubbed the TshWi-Fi – has sparked anxiety and uncertainty amongst Tshwane residents, particularly the internet savvy youth and university students, who believe the service was crucial.

“Already, we can see that the wi-fi service has already become highly undependable and unpredictable. Suddenly, Msimanga has decided to negate one of his major electoral promises. He told us when he was campaigning at [the Tshwane University of Technology] TUT that the free wi-fi introduced by [former Tshwane Mayor Kgosientso] Ramokgopa will continue. From last year, you can see that the numbers of people gathering at public hotspots, including the Union Buildings, have dwindled significantly. It’s not rocket science,” said engineering student Derrick Mabasa.

“For more than a year, coming to the Union Buildings to connect had been my daily routine. I could use other hotspots in the city when my varsity schedule doesn’t allow me to be around [the] Union Buildings, but now things have changed. You can spend your whole day trying to connect. You can connect today but tomorrow the service is unavailable. We have loads of assignments and research to do, using the wi-fi. At least if the new mayor [Msimanga] can be frank with us. We need answers.”

At another TshWi-Fi hotspot, the Magnolia Dell municipal park situated a few meters from Pretoria CBD, a group of matric students were frantically trying to connect to the famed internet service.

“Now it seems like you need to have luck on your side to be able to connect to the free wi-fi. Earlier today when we arrived, I could connect but after a few minutes the service has become non-existent. It has become the norm. It’s very sad because my parents cannot afford to buy data bundles for me every time. The free wi-fi was filling the gap for me,” said Thandiswa Malinga.

Last week, Msimanga sounded the alarm bells when he told a media briefing that the city cannot afford the service anymore.

“The TshWi-fi has been receiving awards and is greatly beneficial but is in desperate need of private-public partnership because the city cannot afford to foot the bill for this wi-fi. As such we have begun encouraging the private sector to assist us in this regard in order to make our provision of wi-fi sustainable and competitive,” said Msimanga. Contacted for comment, Msimanga’s spokesperson Samkelo Mgobozi said Tshwane was not aware of disruptions to the flagship service.

“The service is operating as it always has with only standard site outages and responses and repairs within the agreed Service Level Agreement. There is nothing out of the ordinary from what we see over the networks. There has not been any interruption in service outside of standard operating downtime,” said Mgobozi.

“There are currently 1 050 live hotspots across the city and all are operational. The only unavailability of hotspots relates to outages due to power failure, fibre breaks or equipment faults and these are all responded to and repaired within agreed service levels.

"The current network operational uptime is above the 95 percent agreed service levels and is maintained at around 98 percent availability. While some sites may experience long outages due to fibre breaks that could take a few days to repair, the majority of sites remain consistently active and serving almost 300 000 daily connections across the city.”

Mgobozi said Msimanga was fully cognisant of the role played by the free wi-fi service in a city with arguably the largest number of schools, universities and numerous other tertiary education institutions.

“The hotspots deployed outside universities, colleges and schools across the city are the highest utilised sites on a daily basis. As the service is central to empowering the students and learners with access to information for furthering their opportunities to learn, these sites are treated with high priority to ensure that the city continues with the provision of wi-fi for the betterment of our youth and their future,” said Mgobozi.

“The city engages with all citizens on a regular basis and there has not been any direct concerns raised about the availability of the wi-fi service to students and learners. This is due to the availability of hotspots being within the acceptable service levels. The TshWi-Fi service will continue to provide access to the internet for our residents regardless of their personal circumstances and this has been reiterated by the city on several occasions.”

Mgobozi said the inception of the award-winning, internationally acclaimed wi-fi project, Tshwane has used R245 million for all wi-fi hotspots, “inclusive of deployment and all operational costs”.

“The city is currently engaging with the private sector on mechanisms to reduce the costs of the service with a view to create a sustainable approach to delivering the wi-fi service to citizens and ultimately make it more affordable. The executive mayor [Msimanga] has reiterated on numerous occasions that the TshWi-Fi service is here to stay,” said Mgobozi.

But during a media briefing this week, the man who initiated the TshWi-Fi project when he was at the helm of the city, Ramokgopa told journalists that his administration, which ceded power to the Democratic Alliance after the August 3 municipal elections, had budgeted for the provision of free wi-fi as a minimum basic service in the city.

“We are advised that they [Msimanga’s administration] has already begun to curtail the service. Remember we are still in the budget that was approved by our administration. All this was budgeted for and we had made provision for the wi-fi. The argument that there is no more doesn’t hold, unless they have misdirected the money somewhere. There is money until the end of June, minimally. When we do the next budget cycle, they can argue that there is no money,” said Ramokgopa.

The African National Congress Youth League in Tshwane said a discontinuation of the wi-fi service will spark resistance.

“It is becoming apparent that Mr Msimanga’s mayorship is odiously intended to cater to a few already privileged communities and has less regard to the welfare and development of the black child within the arena of technological advancement such that they too will be able to compete with their white counterparts without the creation of artificial barriers stifling their potential of technologically supported growth,” said ANCYL Greater Tshwane deputy regional chairperson Ezra Letsoalo.