Library internet service let-down

Lauren O’Connor-May

Thousands of people rely on the free internet service at municipal libraries, but how accessible is the service really?

The City of Cape Town recently issued a statement to say three libraries, including Tafelsig library, were without internet access, due to cable theft, and when the Plainsman visited Lentegeur library, the only library which offers free wi-fi in Mitchell’s Plain, the connection was very weak.

Last year, the City launched its trial Digital Inclusion Project at 61 buildings across the metro. Of these buildings, 24 were libraries. The trial has since concluded and the only free wi-fi now available is at libraries.

When the Plainsman visited Lentegeur library, the wi-fi signal was found to have a very narrow range. It was only accessible within the reference section and then only sporadically. Curiously, most of the patrons at the library were completely unaware that there was free wi-fi available.

Darren Joubert was the exception. Mr Joubert, 20, a Princeton High School matriculant, used to be a frequent Lentegeur library wi-fi user but rarely uses it now.

“Before, if you wanted to use the wi-fi, you just typed in your number and pressed ‘accept’. Now you have to get a PIN first,” he said.

What Mr Joubert is referring to is the termination of the trial by providers Orange, MWeb and Internet solutions. Patrons typed in their cellphone numbers for access but since the service was terminated the only wi-fi connection offered is by Smartcape, which sometimes requires a PIN.

“It’s a great benefit because sometimes the (Smartcape) computers are full, and then I used my phone to get information for school projects.”

But at least Lentegeur library’s Smartcape computers are working. Patrons at Tafelsig library have had no internet for nearly a year because of copper cable theft.

Verusha Askon, 12, used the service to do research for a history project. While she is unfazed by the library’s disconnection because she has internet access on her phone, Lucretia Thomas, 24, said the disruption had hamstrung her job hunting.

“Most of the time I came here,” she said, “because at other places you have to pay.”

Glendale High School pupil, Ruwayda Clarke, 16, regularly used the service for school projects, but on the day the Plainsman visited the library, she left in disappointment with her unfinished school work under her arm.

“I must do a project on tourism, but the internet is down,” she said. When asked how she would get the information she needed, she said: “I don’t know.”

Dalecia Philips, an LLB student, said the service had always been available when she had used it in the past but she hadn’t needed to use it in a while because her family had an internet connection at home.

“I used it for some of my assignments, and the service was always very good,” she said.

Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for corporate services and compliance, said: “The system is reliant on Telkom infrastructure, and, as such, when cables are stolen we need to wait for them to be replaced.

“Currently, 14 libraries have wi-fi, and it is accessible to any person inside the library with a personal wi-fi capable device. We are in the process off rolling out public wi-fi to 24 additional libraries.”

Telkom’s Pynee Chetty said the stolen cables were routinely replaced, but did not solve the problem as they were stolen repeatedly.

Ms Limberg confirmed this.

“As a result of the number of times that Telkom has had to replace these copper cables over the past months, the speed at which they are able to replace the lines is diminishing. This, in turn, impacts the City’s ability to run our digital inclusion projects in these areas, which currently run off of the existing telephone lines.”

Mr Chetty said it took longer to replace the cables each time because of damage to the infrastructure.

“(The time it takes to replace cables) will depend on how much is stolen and how much civil work is required. Do we have to lay pipes? Do we have to replace poles? It varies.”

And switching to fibre optic cables is not always a solution either. “If the equipment works with copper access, it cannot just be replaced with fibre optic cables,” Mr Chetty said, adding that sometimes the fibre optics were stolen as well.