KNOWLEDGE WORKERS The GBN project aims to stimulate innovation and knowledge creation Photo: Bloomberg

KNOWLEDGE WORKERS The GBN project aims to stimulate innovation and knowledge creation
Photo: Bloomberg

Gauteng has taken a step towards implementing its so-called “smart province” strategy, with an extensive R1.2-billionbroadband project, designed to promote greater government efficiency, stimulate innovation and knowledge creation and lay the basis for higher levels of economic growth.

Following a review and organisation of the core and access-network dynamics to leverage existing infrastructure, Allied Technologies (Altech) secured a contract in February to roll out the five-year Gauteng Broadband Network (GBN) project.

Before vacating his post, then Gauteng Finance Member of Executive Council (MEC)Mandla Nkomfe told Engineering News that the GBN project had started to gain traction in 2009, when a project management division was established. Barbara Creecy took over as Finance MEC at the end of May after Nkomfe had withdrawn from the African National Congress (ANC) provincial government list – he remains a member of the Gauteng ANC provincial execu- tive committee.

Guided by studies showing the required actions and way forward to boost access to the Internet at a reduced cost, tenders were invited in January 2013 – nearly ten years after the concept was first mooted.

The proposed GBN project, which was initially weighed down by a R7-billion to R10-billion price tag, is expected to be self-funding by the third year, reducing the province’s capital outlay to R510-million, spread over the next two years.

The province, which remains the single largest contributor to South Africa’s economy and home to nearly 13-million people (24% of South Africa’s population), already has somebroadband penetration. However, only 35.2% of its residents currently access the Internet – 8.6% from their homes, 16.3% using their cellphones, 4.7% while at work and 5.6% from elsewhere.

It is hoped these figures will change as the 18-month design and roll-out of the next-genera- tion network and a core network advance. The expectation is that it will provide avirtual private network of converged network services covering 95% of Gauteng’s population.

“Through the broadband network initiative, we want to provide a network that is available everywhere for government, business and citizens, and, subsequently, ensure that government service delivery is improved,” Nkomfe says.

This means linking, among other aspects, provincial government buildings to improve operational efficiency, as well as social facilities, such as clinics and hospitals, to promote service delivery; connecting specific economic centres to enhance efficiency in the provision of business services; reducing the cost of doing business – one of the province’s biggest economic barriers; and stimulating business activity.

Building Blocks
Alcom Matomo, a subsidiary of Altech’s newly formed Altron Telecommunications, Multimedia & Information Technology (TMT) unit, has been tasked with building, ope- rating and maintaining a province- wide broadband network, connecting 316 Gauteng provincial government-owned buildings, 45 identified Thusong centres, 20 priority townships, nine identified economic development zones and six urban-renewal nodes over a five-year period.

Altech partner Chinese global technology giant Huawei will provide a large component of the network equipment, while Dark Fibre Africawill provide the link to the fibre in the ground, incorporating 1 600 km of existing high-speed fibre optics infrastructure.

Eight priority nodes were targeted, including Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, in Soweto; 75 Fox street, which is home to Gauteng’sprovincial finance and infrastructure departments; and Pretoria Academic Hospital, besides others.

The GBN, which will initially provide voice and data services for more than 130 000 government employees, will then be transferred to the Gauteng provincial government, with the training of several entrepreneurs and small, medium-size and microenterprises (SMMEs) under way with a view to taking over after the five-year period.

The GBN will introduce upgradable high- speed fibre-optic transmission speeds, enabling each Gauteng provincial building to access the network at a speed of between 1 Gb/s and 10 Gb/s. That would be about 500 times faster than the current network speeds at some of these facilities, Altron TMT group executive for business development Tim Ellis explains.

Faster speeds are projected to allow the Gauteng provincial government to implement its smart provincial initiatives and facilitate ancillaryprojects such as telemedicine, elearning – a flagship initiative of Gauteng’s information and communication technology (ICT) strategy – egovernment and ehealth, besides others.

The project, which emanates from the ICT strategy formulated by the Gauteng provincial government, is intended to transform the province into a “smart province” and a “connected global city region”.

With the delivery of converged services, such as video, voice and data, to the Gauteng provincial government and its entities, public schools, hospitals and social welfare facilities, the province will narrow the digital divide and increase Internet access and uptake.

Nkomfe adds that the job creation prospects of this initiative are immense, as the GBN is expected to create new job opportunities for small businesses in network-building activities, as well as in network support and management services.

Further, the province hopes to reduce the currently high costs of communication, which create a barrier for businesses, particularly SMMEs, and to enable citizens to participate in the knowledge economy.

Gauteng’s ICT strategy points out that increased ICT use by the business community will contribute to efficiencies and lead to higher productivity.

It can also increase “business sophistication” in the SMME sector, which contributes a signifi- cant proportion of Gauteng’s gross domestic product and creates a large number of jobs through easy access to business intelligence and markets.

Two-thirds of the more than one-million SMMEs in the local economy nationwide are engaged in small-scale trading or the sale of goods and are survivalist businesses. ICT can create new opportunities for them.

Further, ICT uptake can lead to new inventions, new and improved goods and services, new processes, new business models and increased competitiveness and flexibility in the economy.

Metro Boost
While Altech has not been tasked with expanding the project to the metropolitans, the GBN project envisages linking all the massbroadband and Wi-Fi initiatives under way in the Tshwane, Ehurkuleni and Johannesburg metropolitans, as well as the eventual initiatives in municipalities, such as Sedibeng and Metsweding, where the digital divide is growing and the population is increasingly excluded from mainstream economic activities, owing to limited or no fixed-line broadband coverage.

Last year, the City of Tshwane, in partnership with nongovernmental organisation Project Isizwe, led by Alan Knott-Craig Jnr, became the first metropolitan to roll out free Wi-Fi to poor communities and edu- cational institutions in the capital.

Tshwane executive mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa says the city will roll out about 600 additional Wi-Fi hot spots throughout Tshwane, prioritising institutions of learning over the next 18 months to mitigate the limitations of the poor to access opportunities, gain basic knowledge and participate in the mainstream economy.

The first phase entailed the provision of Wi-Fi access at Tshwane University of Technology’s Soshanguve campus, the University of Pretoria’s Hatfield campus, Tshwane North College, the Mamelodi Community Centre and Church Square, in the city centre.

The project will extend to more than 200 schools in Soshanguve, Mamelodi and Atteridgeville during 2014, as the parties will also implement free Wi-Fi access in these areas as part of Phase 2 of the Project Isizwe initiative.

Ekurhuleni is also currently rolling out its own Wi-Fi access services network and an ICT operations centre to ensure the fibre and wireless grid is properly connected, maintained and monitored 24/7, says executive mayor Mondli Gungubele.

The network aims to provide Wi-Fi services for the city’s employees, households and businesses by 2016.

Johannesburg executive mayor Mpho Parks Tau states that Wi-Fi has gone live at the Orlando Communal Hall and at the Rea Vaya stations of Orlando Stadium, and the Orlando Police Station, Soccer City, Noordgesig, Joburg Theatre, Park Station, Carlton Centre and Fashion Square, besides others. The City of Johannesburg plans to roll out 1 000 Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the city before the end of his mayoral term.

The city’s network will significantly increase access to the Internet, including open online courses, through libraries. A total of 35 libraries will be connected by June, with the city’s remaining 50 libraries having free Internet access by the end of 2014.

Note: Nkomfe has subsequently withdrawn from the ANC provincial government and stepped down as Finance MEC at the end of his term to focus on other sectors of the ICT sector. He will remain a member of the Gauteng ANC provincial executive committee. Barbara Creecy took over the role of Finance MEC at the end of May.