Free Wi-Fi ‘too expensive’

Lack of money, infrastructure
Augetto Graig and Irene-Mari van der Walt
Member of Parliament Modestus Amutse, as chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on information and communication technology, on Monday opened the meeting on free public Wi-Fi.
This follows a motion he brought to the National Assembly (NA) earlier this year, which was referred to his committee.
“I am confident that if we have the courage, Namibia as a country can identify critical areas such as schools, public transport, tertiary institutions and public places, where free Wi-Fi can be successfully provided through public-private partnerships,” he said in his opening speech.
The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, the Internet Association of Namibia, the Namibia Institute of Democracy, as well as Telecom Namibia, MTC, Paratus Namibia and the Windhoek Municipality made presentations.
Plans by the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) to make free internet more accessible through the Universal Access Fund (USF) in the 2022-23 financial year, have been waylaid by the fact that there is no money in the fund.
According to CRAN’s chief executive, Emilia Nghikembua, “the high propensity for litigation” has crippled the fund. “We cannot continue after the court decision,” adding that “we were in the last stages of application”.
Her comments come after the High Court ruled that the 1.5% levy that CRAN levied providers of telecommunications gross revenue was illegal.
“... there is no connection between the regulatory authority and the charges which are regulated on a percentage basis and without actual or properly estimated costs,” the Supreme Court's papers in 2018 said about the High Court's decision.
CRAN appealed but in November last year the Supreme Court agreed with the High Court's ruling and the levy was scrapped.
Initial contribution
Amutse said that the parties involved are still negotiating and it is being looked at whether government itself cannot make an initial contribution with which the fund can be established.
Part of CRAN’s preparation for the expected levy was to research the gaps in Wi-Fi coverage nationwide.
CRAN determined that 122 Radio Access Networks (RAN) towers must be upgraded to provide Wi-Fi to 227 schools and clinics, while another 36 must be built to provide the same service to an additional 49 institutions.
Each tower costs between N$3 million to N$4 million to erect.
The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology confirmed that the implementation and maintenance costs will amount to approximately N$25 million.
CRAN devised plans to cover schools and clinics first and establish them as core customers so that a new tower would be profitable within seven years. The fund would then transfer ownership of towers built with the USF's money to relevant telecommunications service providers.
CRAN’s head of research and economics, Helene Vosloo, says internet access for around 3 000 people can make a tower profitable in seven years.
Infrastructural deficiencies
However, the plan must examine infrastructural deficiencies at schools.
MTC's research indicates that only 500 out of 1 800 public schools have access to basic technological infrastructure, while 32% (or 614 schools) have no telecommunications connections. Furthermore, 346 (about 18%) of government schools are without electricity, while 13% or about 250 schools do not even have adequate sewage infrastructure.
“Yes, we will have to see what we can do. The government and the private sector are positive about cooperation. There are schools that are already connected to the network, such as in Tsumkwe, where Paratus and not the government, did it,” Amutse said.
He encouraged Namibian businesses to offer internet access to customers.
Further obstacles for CRAN include high taxes, high data costs and high-cost devices.
Amutse said taxes can be adjusted and the government realizes that educated and informed citizens mean better income.
“There must be a way to reduce costs of devices, internet access and data,” he said.