Broadband project connects rural Eastern Cape with rest of world

ADVANCED satellite technology is helping poor rural schoolchildren on the Wild Coast to mouse-click their way to a better future.

From humble beginnings at one Dwesa school seven years ago, the acclaimed Rhodes University Siyakhula Living Lab project has fast become a “broadband island” of hope that now has thousands of students and teachers at 17 other nearby schools reaching for the stars too.

Award-winning computer science expert Professor Alfredo Terzoli – who heads the university’s Telkom Centre of Excellence in Grahamstown – yesterday said the Living Labs project was so successful it was now also being introduced in other parts of the Eastern Cape.

“The project is giving new hope to rural people. As soon as the first few computers arrive, perceptions change and families start to believe that the quality of education at the school has improved.”

A joint project between Rhodes, the University of Fort Hare, business, Telkom and the government, Siyakhula (we are growing together) now provides hope for 9000 students by stemming the migration to schools in urban areas, where many believe their children would receive a better education.

Besides the “deep rural” Dwesa broadband island, the Living Labs project has stretched its resources to the limit by also setting up at schools in mid-rural Keiskammahoek and peri- urban Alice and Grahamstown.

“It is money well spent,” Terzoli explains. “We now have a sustainable model to roll out the project in other areas. It is something viable, an energiser and activator that has fired up and transformed communities by connecting them with the world.”

The project started in Dwesa – which is many kilometres away from Fort Hare and Rhodes – as both institutions have a rich, ongoing research relationship with the community, which saved vital time during the set-up phase.

Besides connecting schools with each other, Living Labs has also connected them with the rest of the world and is also helping tackle social issues like water research.

“We did not want to climb into a community cold,” Terzoli explained.

Schools connect to the internet using high-speed satellite technology and can communicate with each other via video link-up using WiMax to distribute the signal.

Although only three schools have modern 20-seat computer labs – and the rest a single computer – it is hoped more equipment will be provided in the future. The equipment is also being used by adults.

Last week, computer geeks rubbed shoulders with high-ranking government officials, local leaders, businesspeople, students and parents at Dwesa Junior Secondary School after Saab Grintek technologies sponsored connections to 12 schools.

Terzoli, who received the 2012 Department of Trade and Industry technology award for human resource development, said it was hoped the project would be rolled out across the country one day. —

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