|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2006|
|Topic:||Triple play in Africa – a pipe dream?|
|Author:||Desi Lopez Fafié|
|Title:||Managing Director of African Operations|
Desi Lopez Fafié is the Managing Director of African Operations for Oracle Corporation. He has held a variety of key positions at Oracle before his appointment to his current position. For the last 19 years, he has been working in the IT industry, at MSA (later Dun & Bradstreet Software) prior to joining Oracle. Desi Lopez Fafié, an auditor by profession, educated in Europe, has held several positions in auditing firms and finance, including as Director of Finance at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Mr Fafié speaks six European languages and one Asian language.
Considering the way people are accustomed to interact, the way business is commonly conducted and the way services are traditionally delivered, triple play, the delivery of Internet, video and telephony using a common protocol and transmission channels, is a disruptive technology that will change each of these activities profoundly. For Africa, early commitment to broadband and triple play is a way to cost-effectively and quickly bring its people many of the economic, educational, health and leisure benefits found in highly developed regions.
A young Rwandan student at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa was relating his experiences as a refugee from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, in 1994, fleeing the military forces that were slaughtering Africans by their hundreds of thousands. “I was 13 years old and my most precious possession was a radio,” he said. “Even when we were in the middle of the Congolese jungle hundreds of kilometres from any settlement, we could pick up reports of troop activity on the radio, and that information saved our lives.” Like water, electricity and water-borne sewerage systems, that radio was a lifesaver. Not only was it a lifesaver, it was an inexpensive lifesaver. The broadcast infrastructure introduced to Africa during colonial times was rapidly extended to cover the entire continent; now, nearly all countries possess fairly good medium and shortwave coverage. Communications obviously also falls into the category of essential infrastructure. Unlike broadcasting, communications infrastructure development lagged, and the costs of telecommunications have remained high. Access, until recently, was restricted due to cost and availability. Pervasive technologies built on common standards tend to become more affordable as they mature The huge demand for cellular telephony services, Internet access and television in Africa has highlighted the need to extend these services beyond urban areas and into the larger part of rural Africa, and make them affordable for more people. A lower-cost, pervasive telephone, Internet or digital broadcast system would certainly contribute towards accelerating socio-economic development. Government commitment African countries have recognised that if they lag in making broadband available, Africa will once again fall behind in its development. It is testimony to the recognition those governments have given to the new trend in communications that they began discussions with each other and have been planning for broadband for some years now. As recently as May this year, the West African Telecommunications Regulators’ Assembly, WATRO, consisting of the ECOWAS, Economic Community of West African States, countries, agreed to create a common regulatory environment for the region that would foster more rapid and cost effective telecommunications infrastructure. Just as importantly, WATRO agreed to encourage the separation of policy-makers, regulators and service providers to ensure that competition and cost efficiency would drive infrastructure into rural areas. According to WATRO’s previsions, each nation’s legal framework should incorporate these regulations by the end of 2007. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, NEPAD, ICT Infrastructure Programme – again, an initiative driven through co-operation among countries – has seen the birth of a massive broadband ICT network initiative. The NEPAD initiative consists of two projects – the East African and SADC, South African Development Community, countries, and the West and North African countries -working together, co-operating, to implement a network that will span the entire continent. What happens when you take three pervasive technologies, and roll them into one? Enter triple play, a catchy title given to the delivery of video, Internet and telephony across a standard protocol, and on a choice of devices from television to mobile phone to computer. It seems like an uncomfortable relationship, considering they tend to use different technologies for delivery, different standards, and deliver different products. Looking at the latest triple play products that won awards from the International Engineering Consortium at the Broadband World Forum Asia 2006, this relationship is not (yet) a seamless one. The award-winning products were television-based, but still needed a PC and a telephone handset to get a complete service. In addition, the products were clearly for entertainment – a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential tool. What, therefore, is its relevance to Africa, where fibre optic and even copper infrastructure is restricted mainly to cities? Without even the basic infrastructure to support pervasive Internet access, the idea of triple play on broadband could really be regarded as a pipe dream. The infrastructure, though, is already beginning to take shape before commercially viable products have even come to market. Africa has jumped in early. Once commercially viable triple play products come to market, there may well be a full, Africa-wide broadband network to deliver them. Application Even if the products were available and the network in place, one could still question the relevance of triple play. With the technology available today you can create your own mini-broadcast network over the Internet – one that links your TV with those of your friends – so you can all watch the same movie and post comments to each other on-screen. Still, apart from the novelty, this is not a compelling value proposition. Personally, I would rather have friends arrive at my house with a bag of snacks and a couple of drinks so we could all watch TV together and talk to each other in the old-fashioned way. The NEPAD E-Schools Demonstration Project brought the real potential of triple play home to me. The demonstration project called for a group of companies to co-operate to provide an e-learning programme to rural schools in Africa. This learning programme delivers an educational experience using computers, Internet access, television, and on-line interaction with other schools. In addition, a school administration system gives teachers the ability to manage the students’ performance and curriculum content. Satellite-connected Internet, digital satellite television, and a host of online content support the program. A consortium that counts upon some of the biggest names in the ICT and allied sectors leads the effort to implement a demonstration e-learning project in seven African countries. The consortium members are Oracle, Cambridge-Hitachi, CompuTrainer, DHL, Evalunet, Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Intel, Learnthings, Markbook, Multichoice Africa, Mecer, Sentech, SES Astra and Xerox. Each of these companies contributes a critical piece of the solution. Although the consortium members provide the connectivity and equipment, the schools, the local communities or governments still have to create rooms and libraries to accommodate the equipment. The television might reside in the library, the server computers should be located in a specially fitted out computer-room, and other computers are located in the administrative offices – there is a great deal of hardware, software and connectivity that has to go into supporting the project. Triple play products, potentially running off a single console, would reduce the logistical challenge of rolling out this type of infrastructure to the whole of Africa. In addition, by enhancing the interactivity still more, children could watch a documentary on the Discovery Channel, switch to the Internet to do some research, and then chat to their cyber-friends in the next country about what they are learning – all through the television set. Triple play is a powerful tool for development. This type of innovation is disruptive; it challenges the traditional educational methods and processes – it changes the way children learn and it changes the way teachers teach. Even without triple play, we have already seen how teachers in African countries, at schools which implemented the NEPAD E-Schools Demonstration Project, were changing their methods to take full advantage of the new learning material and access to information. If one extends this experience into the commercial market, the potential is enormous. That potential, though, can only be reached if a standard combining Internet, telephony – both fixed line and wireless -and broadcast services can be agreed upon to create a common working interface that ensures the seamless delivery of services. This highlights the importance of African countries agreeing on a common regulatory environment for communications. Many major industry players have committed to the J2EE open standard for the development of a telecommunications service delivery platform to support new services such as voice over IP, mobile and real-time applications. Companies can launch triple-play products – with huge commercial potential – using this service delivery platform. Africa is responding more swiftly to broadband, implementing it faster, than it has ever done with any technology since colonial days when a broadcast network was regarded as essential to the well-being of the African countries’ occupiers. Given the success already achieved through regional co-operation by groups such a WATRO and NEPAD, I am optimistic that broadband will penetrate Africa faster than we expect. Better still, broadband will bring with it market-relevant triple play products and will allow countries to accelerate essential services, development such as education, healthcare and citizen services. Significantly, triple play brings a completely new way for people to do business and an important new way to drive regional development.