Thousands of township residents to lose internet access at midnight

29 April 2020 - 07:22 By Guy Rogers and Nomazima Nkosi
Almost 150,000 residents in Nelson Mandela Bay townships will lose their free internet access at midnight on Wednesday. File photo.
Almost 150,000 residents in Nelson Mandela Bay townships will lose their free internet access at midnight on Wednesday. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/iStockphoto

Almost 150,000 residents in Nelson Mandela Bay townships will lose their free internet access at midnight on Wednesday, with the city’s contract with the service provider having ended — and the metro saying the grant funding had dried up.

HeraldLIVE reports that Express Broadband Technologies was the service provider and after the city failed to renew the contract, which ended in December, it has decided to cut the connection.

CEO Morne Viljoen said

the project started six years ago and initially offered one gig of data per user but “when the Covid-19 disaster hit, we took a decision to open up so no registration was needed and there was no limit on data”.

He said the project was part of the smart grid programme which Express Broadband Technologies had been expanding and operating for the metro’s electricity and energy directorate.

The project was funded by various international grant initiatives.

“The smart grid programme, among other services, operates 122 CCTV cameras in township areas and delivers internet services to in excess of 130,000 residents, mainly in townships but also in areas frequented by students and tourists, and in areas around the city hall,” Viljoen said.

Since the announcement of the Covid-19 national disaster there had been a surge in data usage, he said, with YouTube activity increasing 1,380%, Facebook 571% and world wide web activity by 194%.

Content downloads had spiked 707%, WhatsApp usage 215%, e-mails 372%, Twitter 592% and Instagram 682%.

Activity on the Nelsonmandelabay.gov.za COVID19 emergency page had increased 1,966%.

Metro spokesperson Mthubanzi Mniki acknowledged on Tuesday that the project had run into problems.

“It was funded through grant funding, which has run out,” he said.

“Attempts to proceed with the project within the municipal budget and supply chain processes have hit a snag.

“Until such issues are dealt with, the municipality will revisit projects of a similar nature.”

Viljoen said city officials had been made aware of the huge data demand spike since the lockdown started.

He believed there was  a risk that, should the service be suspended, residents would flock to whatever little remaining internet access existed, which would be counterproductive to the national lockdown aimed at curbing transmission of the novel coronavirus.

“Despite multiple efforts to engage with city officials on an interim plan to ensure continuity of service to the affected areas, no responses or acknowledgment of communication were received.

“Express Broadband Technologies has been rendering services at its own cost for more than four months and, with the increase in demand, can no longer sustain the services.

“In the absence of any correspondence, Express Broadband Technologies is left with no alternative  but to, unfortunately, suspend services,” Viljoen said.

New Brighton’s Ward 17 councillor, Ncediso Captain, said losing the service would be a blow for many residents.

He said officials should never have allowed the contract to expire and should have extended or signed a new agreement and sped up supply chain processes.

“This is disadvantaging people who are already disadvantaged.

“Even though there were those who said it didn’t work, others said it did.

“This will cut people off from access to information they need.”

The Ward 43 councillor in KwaNobuhle,  Simphiwe Ntshiza, said the free internet service assisted schoolchildren to access study material and was proving especially important during the lockdown.

“Not all parents can afford to buy data for their children to access school work,” Ntshiza said.

“This was very helpful for them.

“It’s really bad that the contract has expired because some children will not be able to continue with their school work.”

DA councillor Masixole Zinto said the infrastructure and engineering portfolio committee had asked for an oversight visit to get a consolidated report on how the metro was benefiting from the smart grid programme.

“We wanted to see if crime had gone down in the areas with CCTV cameras and that never happened.

“Free internet is well and good, but if a contract has expired the company needs to go through the proper processes,” Zinto said.

A reliable source A source close to the project, who did not want to be named said: said the free internet project had been running for six years. “It has been brilliant.

“Especially in these tough times ... it has been an affordable way to access data and right now, under lockdown, it’s taking seriously heavy traffic.

“The company has been running it for the last while in terms of their social responsibility commitment but they just can’t stretch any further.”

He said the metro had been trying hard for the past two years to straighten out and finalise tender agreements. he said.

“It seems this one has just fallen through in terms of priorities. Possibly the social importance of it was not realised but now it's jumping out.

“The problem now is there are so many Covid-related financial demands from food packs to personal protective equipment so it's going to be difficult to renew this programme now.”

Metro spokesperson Mthubanzi Mnik said Tuesday late afternoon that the project had run into problems.

“It was funded through grant funding which has ran out.

“Attempts to proceed with the project within municipal budget and supply chain processes have hit a snag.

“Until such issues are dealt with, the municipality will revisit projects of similar nature.”


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