Zimbabwe's Silent Revolution: Public Wi-Fi

Zimbabwe's Silent Revolution: Public Wi-Fi

People take selfie-pictures with Zimbabwean Defence Force soldiers during a march in the streets of Harare, on November 18, 2017 to demand to the 93 year-old Zimbabwe's president to step down. Zimbabwe's president clings to office, the military is in power and the much-feared ZANU-PF party still rules -- but Zimbabweans put such issues aside on November 18, 2017 to happily embrace what they hope is a new era for the country.

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Why you should care

Because access to the internet has sparked change in multiple countries. Zimbabwe could be next.

Thulani Nenji had stopped his car at a traffic signal in the central business district of Harare on a Tuesday last July, when a Wi-Fi–enabled commuter omnibus pulled up next to his vehicle. Nenji’s mobile data was running low, so he haggled with the bus driver to let him use the Wi-Fi. The driver agreed, and Nenji trailed the bus while he needed the internet.

U.S. President Donald Trump may have referred to African nations as “shitholes” — if reports he has only half-heartedly denied are accurate — but in Zimbabwe, a public Wi-Fi revolution is quietly challenging stereotypes the country and the region have long had to fight. Zimbabwe is grappling with a tense political transition following the soft coup that led to the removal of Robert Mugabe, who was prime minister from 1980 to 1987 and then president until his removal in November 2017. But while the country’s political future may hinge on national elections scheduled for later this year, a technology transition enveloping Zimbabwe isn’t waiting for that outcome.

We have plans to roll out even more zones

Angeline Vere, chief executive officer, Telecel, Zimbabwe

Econet Zimbabwe, the country’s leading telecom provider, has set up free-access Wi-Fi routers in 240 of the omnibuses — known in Zimbabwe as kombis — that are ubiquitous on the streets of the nation’s cities. Apart from Harare, Wi-Fi in kombis can be found in cities such as Bulawayo, Gweru, Mutare and Masvingo, among others. NetOne, Zimbabwe’s second-largest telecom provider, is offering portable Wi-Fi routers that up to 32 devices can use at a time. And all three major Zimbabwean providers — Econet, NetOne and their emerging competitor, Telecel Zimbabwe — are launching public Wi-Fi zones across the country. Telecel has already set up 70 Wi-Fi zones in Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, Chitungwiza, Gweru and the town of Victoria Falls.

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Schoolgirls take part in a small street carnival along the streets of downtown Harare, Zimbabwe.

Source Mary Turner/Getty

“We have plans to roll out even more zones,” says Telecel’s chief executive officer, Angeline Vere.

The spread of public Wi-Fi comes at a time internet penetration is increasing — active internet subscriptions increased by 1.9 percent over the third quarter of 2017, according to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe — but half the country still doesn’t have regular access to the internet. On the other hand, the number of mobile phones in the country exceeds its population, making public Wi-Fi services that can be accessed on mobile phones a particularly attractive proposition for both consumers and companies looking to expand their base. With millions of people relying on 60,000 kombis, according to 2016 statistics from the Greater Harare Association of Commuter Omnibus Operators, these buses are a natural choice for public Wi-Fi spots.

“With the majority of the Zimbabwean population using commuter minibuses to get from one place to another, it is a brilliant move to add Wi-Fi into the mix,” says Zimbabwe Information and Communication Technologies chairperson Jacob Mutisi.

The service on the kombis is targeted at existing Econet customers — those already subscribed to the company’s existing mobile data services and bundles — says the firm’s media relations and analytics executive, Fungai Mandiveyi. Already, the buses are contributing “between 5 and 10 percent of our Wi-Fi traffic per month,” says Mandiveyi. “On average, our daily unique users are about 40,000 depending on the time of month.”

Toyota commuter omnibus harare (11761304886)

A commuter omnibus that is part of Harare’s bus transport system, which is adopting the mobile Wi-Fi facility.

Source Bob Adams/CC

But the Wi-Fi on the kombis isn’t free, strictly speaking. Whenever an Econet subscriber buys a data package, they are granted a matching amount of data for Wi-Fi use. So a user cannot get access to the Wi-Fi unless they have bought a data package; the same goes for the straight-up Wi-Fi packages. The other two providers operate similarly: People can buy mobile data from NetOne or Telecel to use the public Wi-Fi spots or just buy Wi-Fi packages. “We look forward to the day where the local authority will provide free Wi-Fi for local residents through their clinics, hospitals, sports facilities, libraries, etc.,” Mutisi says.

None of that is stopping the spread of Wi-Fi use in public spots. Statistics show that commuters use the Wi-Fi in kombis to check Google Maps and emails; chat with family, friends or colleagues and use applications like WhatsApp. Many use it for Instagram and Facebook, and some even stream music or video content for entertainment. And companies like NetOne are working on multiple other initiatives. “There are so many initiatives we seek to undertake to promote internet connectivity,” says NetOne acting chief executive officer Brian Mutandiro.

Zimbabwe’s economy remains in a crisis, suffering from years of arbitrary policies undertaken by Mugabe that have held the country back. The spread of public Wi-Fi won’t change that. But it offers a glimpse of the alternative future Zimbabweans are dreaming of — a dream they are taking steps to realize.

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