|Africa and the Middle East 2005
|What rural telephony means to Africa
Boaz Fletcher is the General Manager of Equatel Limited, an innovator of fixed-cellular technologies and products. Mr Fletcher has held senior technical, marketing and management positions in a number of leading technology start-ups in the fields of banking software, commerce, Internet services and technologies, mobile communication technologies and hardware. Mr Fletcher is also the founder and Chairman of StartUps, Inc, a consulting firm to early stage start-up companies. Mr Fletcher holds a Bachelor of Science (BSc, Hons) from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Half the world’s population has never made a phone call. Investing in telecommunications for such as these is necessary, but building advanced communications systems as a first step may be missing the mark. Voice communication is the essential; it preserves social bonds and facilitates business in the largely illiterate rural world. Mobile, Wi-Max and fixed services all have a place in a well-conceived rural network strategy. With planning, advanced services can be added as the need, and the market, develops.
Jonathan Mbenge makes the best skin drums anyone has ever heard. They have perfect pitch and resonance, they are flawless, yet they each have their own character. Jonathan spends two weeks on each one, selecting the right kinds of wood from the forest near his village in the Congo, drying it and shaping it to just the ideal curve. He tans and stretches antelope hides to make the drum skins and the ties to keep the skin taught. He paints each one with colours and pigments he makes himself from plant extracts that only he really understands. Too bad no one will find out about Jonathan’s perfect drums Jonathan lives in the middle of nowhere, or, it could be, anywhere. What typifies Jonathan, though, and his story is that at the beginning of the 21st century there are still many places on this green earth that have never even heard of the “Internet bubble”, much less lost piles of money on some fashionable Internet start-up – although maybe that is a good thing… Technology just has not reached them, and by them, I mean about two billion – with a capital “B” – of our fellows. The things that the readers of this article take for granted, free-flowing A/C current, satellite television, mobile phones, WAP, Wi-Fi, laptops, the Internet, email and very good cappuccino, are things they don’t have, but they dream of them, maybe not cappuccino, but definitely the others. What Jonathan Mbenge and his fellow villagers need is a way to get their story out to the world, and a way to get the world to notice them, their skills, their products. The nearest town is more than a day’s travel away. Jonathan has never been there. Jonathan has never seen a wall plug, a satellite dish, a mobile handset, Java games, Google, Hotmail or a steaming coffee machine. If only Jonathan could make one phone call, he could save himself two days’ journey. There are many great and wonderful, well-meaning and conscientious technology-driven social initiatives out there. Building communications centres filled with satellite phones, Internet stations, faxes and the diesel generator to run them all shows the world that someone cares. It is also imposing a solution upon rural Africans that may not be what they really need. To my knowledge, no one takes driving lessons in a Ferrari. I may be wrong about this, never having been to Italy, but the old adage about one learning to walk before one runs is valid. So should it be with communications technology. Begin with the basics, the most rudimentary form of human communication, voice – some of you may have wanted to say “rude hand gestures”, but again, I have never been to Italy. Voice is what singularly identifies each of us as individuals, and the nuances of the spoken word can convey much more than written language alone. Voice communication is the essential tool for preserving social bonds and doing business in the rural world where illiteracy is the norm. Now let us put our heads together to try to help Jonathan and the whole Mbenge clan. Clearly, we need to keep our potential user’s needs in perspective or any service or technology we implement will be nothing but a wasted investment. Yet, the ultimate responsibility as those who run companies is creating better shareholder value in their respective lines of business. In order to meet business goals we need to identify the targets that advance our interests and find a sound strategy that the market can bear. The theme of this issue of Connect World is IP – Intelligent Positioning for growth, and we should take this piece of good advice to heart, or better yet, to the Board of Directors. In the simplest terms: give the people what they need, they will very quickly learn what they want. We are steering into uncharted territory when we discuss bringing IP-based voice services into the remote regions of the developing nations; uncharted, because these populations have no prior exposure to telecom. However, investing in telecommunications infrastructure in Africa and other developing regions could not be more timely. We are on the cusp of a revolution in personal communications, all brought about by the Internet Protocol and packet-based networks. It is this first step that will bring about major changes in the lives of those who live even in the most remote pockets of the developing world. I remember a phrase from my introductory university biology course: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. Do not go rushing for the dictionary, I will explain – as best as I remember developmental biology. During maturation, embryonic animals follow the same developmental path as the theory of evolution says their ancestors followed since rising from the primordial slime. In the case of humans, our foetuses have little tails, lots of hair and maybe a hankering for bananas. In the case of telecommunications networks, this would mean implementing telegraph, wireline telephony, first-generation mobile, fibre-optic systems, second-generation mobile, and so on, until we found ourselves with a third-generation mobile network and a large-scale packet-switched telecom network. Fortunately, telecom infrastructure development does not need to follow its own evolutionary path. Looking at today’s existing GSM networks, the migration to IP-based networks does not seem to be a logical progression. However, in places where there is not yet any infrastructure to speak of, there is a great temptation to skip several generations of technology and implement a full-blown Wi-Max network! Is this, though, what these first-time customers really need? Will the return on investment come during our natural lifetimes? The planning of wireless networks calls for, once again, Intelligent Positioning for Growth. There are five critical factors in bringing about a successful rural telephony project: cost, accessibility, level of service, personalisation and future services. 1. Cost is a no-brainer, which is probably why I thought to write it first; 2. Accessibility will determine who can use the telecom services and when; 3. Level of service will determine the perceived level of reliability, which in turn will drive; 4. Personalisation, which is the mechanism for tailoring services at the individual level and in turn driving the desire for; 5. Future (value-added) services, which can be built on top of the existing or new infrastructure when one has the advantage of running an already-profitable venture. That is the business analysis of implementing a rural telephony network, but it is unfair to look at it that way. I have had the privilege of demonstrating rural telephony technology for both the decision makers and for the common man of the (dusty) African street. Without exception, their eyes sparkle when they realise the opportunities that telecom can bring. They can taste the improvements in every aspect of the lives of villagers and nomads alike. Telecom provides a community service. Where previously villagers lived in relative isolation, with the introduction of simple communications they can learn of opportunities, have access to better health care and become better educated. Universal telephony strengthens social bonds, by providing callers the opportunity to stay in touch with family and friends, make new connections and participate in all manner of events. Fixed wireless telephony will connect remote locations to enlarge communities. Several villages can be connected to form a larger “entity”, fostering greater security, business and work opportunities, and exact better governance. Through his personal mobile telephone, the nomad can remain flexible and mobile, able to explore new opportunities, contact and be contacted, collect and store information, even run his own business. The newly initiated can bootstrap businesses through the potential of telecom. They can, if the appropriate communications services are available, open their own calling shops or export locally produced goods to an eager world market. There are advantages, as well, for governments and mobile service operators. While much cheaper and quicker to build than wireline networks, there is nevertheless a cost to creating or extending a wireless network, but the typically quick growth in the number of users tends to amortise the investment quickly. Sizeable mobile user-bases increase spectrum license fees and, as well, stimulate more economic activity. In turn, the greater flow of goods and services creates taxable events and broadens the taxation base. A properly thought-out implementation of rural telephony will take the five critical factors into account. The first four (cost, accessibility, level of service, personalisation) determine the implementation parameters for the system at time of roll-out, and if not studied studiously beforehand could result in creating a system that may grab headlines, but not add phone lines. It is therefore the “intelligent positioning” of the offering, which includes choosing the proper market and marketing strategy, that will determine its initial acceptance and set its rate of growth. Growth, now that we’ve come to that issue, will be led by the operator’s ability to offer future services in keeping with what he has learned from his rural telephony clients as they migrate, not physically but financially, to higher income levels and have the ability to spend more on the liberating technology that is communications. Once rural Africans, or Asians and South Americans, have made their first phone call and have discovered that there is a vast world out there, they will want to explore it to its four corners. At that time, they will seek the same level of electronic services that we enjoy today. At that point, the operator will be able to offer IP-based value-added services directly over wireless that many in the “West” would envy. This will be possible because the new systems in emerging regions will not be dragging aging technology, legacy systems, behind them, so users will be able to call up Wi-Max VoIP services at the press of a button. They will be able to send faxes, surf the Internet, send email and beam their business cards to one another, or to you and me. Their choice of hot beverage, however, will remain strictly a matter of personal taste. The ability to make a simple phone call has so far been denied to about 50 per cent of the world’s population. Forty per cent live two hours or more from the nearest telephone. The time has come to make this change and urge governments, operators, and entrepreneurs alike to take up the challenge of modernisation and implement meaningful, well-thought-out rural telephony projects. I am looking forward to the day, sometime very soon, when I can call Jonathan Mbenge to order one of his very special drums. Now, if only he spoke English…