African liveability Economic development

Connecting Cape Town to itself and the world


Imagine never having to wait for a YouTube video to buffer. Or not having to think twice about making a phone call to prospective customers. The city, province and others are working towards flooding the city with broadband.

By 2014 the City of Cape Town intends to put in place around 300 kilometres of fibre-optic cable, and already many kilometres of cable have been laid.

Communication drives innovation

What does this mean? “We need to communicate to innovate,” explains Steve Vosloo, a researcher who looks at the intersection of mobile phones and development in Africa. “When entrepreneurs don’t need to think twice about calling 20 customers in a day, that will open a floodgate. Those accessing the internet off their phones, like informal traders, could really benefit from free, or really cheap, broadband access.

“Lots of innovation is happening totally under the radar – in people’s garages, in backyards, in shacks – but these are all pretty small-scale and the lessons aren’t really communicated out. If you can provide a network to connect these people – help them research what others are doing, find that someone down the street who is working on the same thing – then good ideas can be amplified and businesses scaled up. The glue of it all is cheap, reliable internet access.”

Internet access has become a business-critical service in our modern society. Our local internet prices are among the highest in the world and they are a real barrier to economic growth. To bring down the cost of broadband, three components need to be understood – international bandwidth, national bandwidth, and the last mile link. Currently access to all three components is very expensive, and so the broadband infrastructure project was initiated as the most feasible way for local government to help. The project is implementing an extensive and low-priced fibre-optic network that will function as the last mile link between the 600 government buildings in the city. Key to this is that telecoms providers would then be able to rent surplus capacity on the City fibre network.

The Fringe: connecting to huge bandwidth

Making this extra capacity available for city businesses is vital for economic growth. “We expect to be able to make fibre available to businesses near the end of the year,” says Leon van Wyk, telecommunications manager for the City of Cape Town. “There is quite a significant demand, and it’ll be important for us to make it ready once we can support and maintain it properly.”

What of national and international bandwidth? “To bring the price down on international bandwidth would mean first making it more accessible through undersea fibre cables,” Leon explains. “This is happening already with the SEACOM cable north of Durban and the West Africa Cable System which is set to be live between Yzerfontein and Europe. National bandwidth must become cheaper and the only way of doing this is through competition. At present there are only a handful of national operators but hopefully the burgeoning national fibre networks that are coming online will stimulate some serious competition and drive down prices.”

If communication is vital for innovation, will there be better broadband in The Fringe, Cape Town’s up-and-coming design and innovation district? “The City is looking at the possibility of servicing the area with a concentrated fibre network that may be connected to each and every building in The Fringe,” says Leon.

Chris Vermeulen, general manager of the city’s best-known tech incubator, the Bandwidth Barn, hopes to be based in this innovation district soon. Why? “Connected to the fibre network, The Fringe will be a truly collaborative environment. If it really works out and becomes a highly connected hub, we’ll see a lot of magic happening there. It’s a great idea to set aside somewhere where we can have a lot of collaboration between design and creative innovation. There are so many examples of this kind of development; the world over there are huge success stories. It would be a great boost for entrepreneurs if we produce more success stories and heroes.”

To get connected to The Fringe District community and events see the website:

If you’re interested in setting up shop in the area, contact Yehuda Raff:

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This article first appeared in the November issue of City Views: Cape Town as an innovative design city.

Original photo by Bruce Sutherland, City of Cape Town







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