Category Archives: World View

The Real Reason Why White Spaces Spectrum Matters

monopoly_just_boardwalkYou may have seen a resurgence of news about “Net Neutrality” in the last few weeks.  This is because a US court recently ruled that the communications regulator (the Federal Communications Commission- FCC) doesn’t have the power to insist that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operate according to anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules that it set down in its Open Internet Order in 2010.  While this is not good news for advocates of Net Neutrality, it happened largely because of a strategic administrative error on the part of the FCC in terms of now to classify ISPs.  It is likely that the FCC will attempt to correct this error of classification in the near future.

In the flurry of news and blogging that followed this decision, one of the most interesting articles I read was by venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures.  He wrote a post imagining VC Pitches In A Year Or Two with a non-neutral Internet.  In that future, anyone who tried to compete with the likes of Spotify, Youtube, Facebook, etc were doomed because they couldn’t afford to subsidize access to their Internet services in the way that the incumbents could.  It pictured a world where the small player just couldn’t get a foot in the door.

It’s a great post and worth the read.  I wanted to cry though when I read it because that possible digital future is our current wireless reality.  As a digital startup, I can spin up a server on a host of cloud platforms at extremely low cost and scale them as I need them.  The same infrastructure that drives giants like Netflix, drives little startups.  This is a world of infinite potential where you ability to create is limited only by your drive and imagination.  Not so in the wireless world where Fred’s dystopian future is already a reality.  Do you have a vision of competing with the likes of Vodafone, MTN, or Airtel to provide affordable access?  Good luck.  In the wireless world, everything comes down to access to wireless spectrum.  And around the world the political and administrative systems for making spectrum available to anyone except an existing wealthy elite are broken.

Today spectrum is a highly valued resource and the most legitimate way that economists and policy-makers can think of disposing of it is through spectrum auctions which now generate billions of dollars in revenue.  The Indian 2G spectrum auction finished today generating nearly ten billion US dollars in revenue for the Indian government.  So in order to become a player in the wireless world, you need millions if not billions of dollars.  It is like playing a game of Monopoly where only the two or three most lucrative spots on the board exist.  Not only is the game no fun any more, it’s not even a game.  It is virtually impossible for a small player to break into the market.  Even in cases where the regulator has created incentives within spectrum auctions to encourage new players, they rarely succeed.

In their book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue the importance of upward mobility.  They illustrate case after case where open markets that nuture and encourage new players and allow them to grow thrive whereas those that allow an elite to sequester advantage and wealth ultimately fail.  They are not alone in this perspective. In Capitalism Redefined, Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer argue that:

Capitalism’s great power in creating prosperity comes from the evolutionary way in which it encourages individuals to explore the almost infinite space of potential solutions to human problems and then scale up and propagate the ideas that work and scale down or discard those that don’t.

This is similar to Stewart Kaufman’s concept of the “adjacent possible” and also resonates with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of antifragility.  The bottom line is that if you don’t give the little guy a means of participating and growing,  you are both stifling growth and creating a system which does not fail gracefully.

So what to do?  Attempts to weight the wireless spectrum game in favour of the little guy tend to fail.  There is every indication that the game of access to spectrum is broken.  Except of course in the little bit of spectrum known as “unlicensed” spectrum or what is more popularly known as Wi-Fi.  I have written at length on the merits of WiFi and its incredible success but ultimately it is a very small amount of spectrum and limited in that respect.  However, the model of dynamic access to spectrum is a success worth building on and that is where “white spaces” spectrum comes in.  It is an attempt to build on the very successful model that has emerged in the unlicensed spectrum bands and expand them into other frequencies, most notably the UHF television frequencies.

Discussions about white spaces spectrum tend to focus on it being a more efficient use of spectrum or on the fact that UHF spectrum has better propagation characteristics.  Both fo those things are interesting and true but the real power of “white spaces” or dynamic approaches to spectrum regulation is the new entrepreneurial business models that could be built on the back of this approach; models that could re-open the wireless spectrum playing board to everyone.

Monopoly board image courtesy elPadawan


Mobile — You Keep Using That Word

You Keep Using That WordIn his predictions for 2014, Google chairman Eric Schmidt boldly states “mobile has won“.  For a man who has made some fairly ambitious predictions in the past,  pundits regarded this prediction as fairly tame, perhaps even self-evident.

Yet lurking beneath this bland platitude is an emerging paradigm change.  Let’s look at what we know about “mobile” technology.  We know that feature phones, smartphones, and tablets are all lumped together under the broad rubric of mobile.  Look closer though.  According to industry analyst Craig Moffett, about 80% of tablets sold are WiFi-only devices.  Of the remaining 20% about half of those are never activated and about half of the people who activate their mobile subscriptions end up cancelling them.  That would make 1 in 20 tablets a “mobile” device.

When it comes to smartphones, we know that the bulk of smartphone data travels over WiFi networks.  It varies from country to country but across a range of countries that figure is about 75%.  That is an astounding percentage for a “mobile” device.  New hybrid service providers like Republic Wireless in the United States are beginning to push back against this conventional wisdom.  In a recent article, Republic CEO, David Morken held up their flagship Motorola Moto X smartphone, and declared, ”This is a Wi-Fi device.”  That is a pretty big statement but it is reflective of just how successful WiFi has become.  If you read this blog, this will be old news to you.  It’s a drum I bang often.  ”Mobile” devices and mobile networks are not the same thing although the mobile network operators would love you to think so.

So when I saw this pronouncement from Eric Schmidt, I was reminded of Inigo Montoya in the The Princess Bride who finally could not resisting questioning criminal mastermind Vezzini’s use of the word “inconceivable”.  ”You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Does all of that add up to a paradigm shift?  Perhaps not on its own.  WiFi has become a ubiquitous last-inch technology capable of providing access anywhere people congregate, homes, workplaces, cafes, hotels, airports, you name it.  But that is only part of the picture.  Connectivity has to get to the WiFi hotspot.  And that is where we can see the beginning of a real paradigm shift.  When mobile networks first grew, they had to do it all.  They had to build the base-stations, build the backhaul to the base-stations, and provide the handsets.  The growth of national and metro fibre networks is changing all that.

As fibre networks become more pervasive and WiFi technologies (whites spaces technologies too) continue to improve in performance and to become more widespread, they have the potential to offer a complete “mobile” experience on a smartphone or tablet without resorting to mobile networks except when users are in transit between destinations. It increasingly possible to disaggregate the chain of access to the Internet and introduce more competition at every level of access.

The extent to which fibre infrastructure and unlicensed wireless will be a game changer in terms of access in African countries will depend on the leadership in policy and regulatory environments.  The combination of Open Access backbones, metropolitan fibre networks, and unlicensed wireless has the potential to level the playing field in terms of affordable access forcing mobile operators to adapt faster to remain competitive.  Now, wouldn’t that be a good thing?


The Open Data Cart and Twin Horses of Accountability and Innovation


Let me start by saying that the ideals of the Open Data movement: transparency; accountability; and, citizen innovation, are ones that I hold near to my heart.  Further, I admire and respect many of the leaders of the Open Data movement.  However, and it may simply be my own myopia, I have yet to see many voices for caution with respect to Open Data.  In particular, what concerns me most at the moment is the air of euphoria in which Open Government Data in particular is being pitched to the public.  The recent series of articles around the proposed G8 Open Data Charter such as this one by Martin Tisné and this by Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt create an expectation about data that will, at best, be very hard to fulfil and, at worst, actually shift the attention from where it ought to be.  Here are some of the things I worry about.

Data as Fetish

Children’s charity organiser Benita Refson is recently quoted in the Guardian as saying: “If you’re not using data, you’re just another person with an opinion”. Somehow this quotation sums up all of my pent up apprehension about the Open Data movement. Implicit in the above is the assumption that “data”, “facts”, and “truth” are roughly equivalent.  We see this in common expressions like “The data just doesn’t back it up”.  This amounts to a kind of fetishisation of data as having some mystical, immutable truth quality, a quality which of course does not exist.  Data is collected by people.  Even when it is collected by machines, it is collected by machines designed by people.  And this means that data is vulnerable to all of the vagaries that humans are prey to, bias, laziness, hidden purpose, myopia, etc.  We choose what data to collect and how often and where.  We choose what level of quality we would like.  We choose how to represent that data and what story we think the data is backing up.


As more data accumulates our ability to see whatever we want to see increases.  Researcher Kate Crawford and author Nassim Taleb have both eloquently pointed out that with larger amounts of data the ease of coming to a false conclusion only increases.  Taleb says:

big data means anyone can find fake statistical relationships, since the spurious rises to the surface. This is because in large data sets, large deviations are vastly more attributable to variance (or noise) than to information (or signal). It’s a property of sampling: In real life there is no cherry-picking, but on the researcher’s computer, there is.

Researchers ranging from Duncan Watts to Daniel Kahneman have documented our human tendency to apply our expectations and biases to what we see.  The image at the left, which recently became a popular meme on the Internet, illustrates the dangers of what can be done with too much data.

If we allow “data” to retain this mystical aura of “fact”, we run the risk of allowing ourselves to be swayed by the truthiness of the data sources we happen to like.  Far more reassuring for me is the Open Science Data movement which seeks to expose these very issues by allowing other scientists to corroborate or contradict the findings of other researchers using the same data.  The next Open movement I would like to see is one about Open Corroboration where we come up with better means for assessing the validity and meaning of data, news, research, etc.

Not to mention the fact that the very representation of data can influence how it is interpreted.  The rise of infographics has made data even more difficult to interrogate and can be used to skew the interpretation of data.  See this article on how the venerable pie chart can be used more to confuse and mislead than inform.

Data and Privacy

Also a key issue for me are the privacy implications of Open Government Data policies.  If the new default for all government data is to be open, then it is inevitable that at some point the Mosaic Effect will come into play.  The Mosaic Effect occurs when the information in an individual dataset, in isolation, may not pose a risk of identifying an individual (or threatening some other important interest such as security), but when combined with other available information, could pose such risk.  A recent US Government policy memo instructed agencies to they must  account for the “mosaic effect” of data aggregation.  This can be quite hard to do and there is concern among the Open Government Data community that such a requirement could be used as an excuse to block the publication of data. A better strategy would be for the Open Government Data community to move towards a more demand-driven approach.  Indeed this is the recommendation of UK researcher Kieran O’Hara in his paper, Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens: A Report on Privacy and Transparency for the Cabinet Office, where he suggests:

In a demand-driven regime, information entrepreneurs would ask for the datasets they felt they needed, or felt that they could use to create value, whether social value or commercial value (profit) for their own firms. This suggests two requirements.
1. Entrepreneurs must know what datasets there are.
2. There must be a screening process to ensure that privacy-threatening releases (and other problematic releases, such as ones which might threaten national security) could be challenged and blocked.

The issue of privacy is not limited to that of personal information.  For instance, what right does an endangered species have to not have its location disclosed.  The impact of making datasets public is hard to predict.  Martin and Prof Shadbolt have done a great job in highlighting the positive but there are negative outcomes as well.  Consider the saga of the map of registered gun owners that was published in the wake of the Newtown shooting.  Patrick Meier has a thoughtful analysis of what happened and its implications.  He ends by drawing on a basic principle from the hippocratic oath, do no harm.  Addressing the “do no harm” standard in some way should be an essential pre-requisite for publishing any dataset.

Data and Complexity

Yet another concern for me is the danger of looking a complex systems in an overly simplistic way.  The fact that we can measure one aspect of a complex system may give us the temptation to intervene without fully understanding the systemic role of the thing we measure.  It may give us a false sense of understanding.  If we have complete scrutiny of government, will that affect the way civil servants and politicians behave in an entirely positive way?  Or will it simply move existing bad behaviour into areas beyond scrutiny.

A top-down, data-driven, supply-side approach to Open Government is also likely to mean a focus on what is available as opposed to what is needed.  As Einstein (and others) famously said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Open Data as Symptom or Cause of an Open Government

Finally, real Open Government is a cultural issue not a data issue.  I worry that the disproportionate focus on datasets will distract from the harder challenge of building a culture of openness.  I can’t help but wonder whether Open Government Data is a symptom of Open Government and not the other way around.  Of course it is a bidirectional relationship but perhaps it only becomes bidirectional when there is a sufficient level of cultural openness in government.

This may be less of a worry in the G8 nations where there is a reasonably robust civil society to advocate for openness but for countries without that luxury, a focus on Open Government Data may not bring about the desired results.

A move towards a more demand-driven approach would have the benefit, not only of allowing due consideration of the merits and impact of releasing specific datasets but would also hopefully catalyse more of a dialogue (as I have argued for previously) between civil society and government.  To paraphrase JFK, ask not what your Open Government can do for you, ask what you can do to open your government!

Prism – A Wake-up Call for South Africa?

Flag_of_South_Africa_questionRichard Poplak wrote a great article earlier today in the Daily Maverick about how the balance between what we can know about government versus what they can know about us has gotten “completely out of whack”.  And while I agreed with most of what he said, I was struck by absence of comment on what this might mean for South Africa.

Never mind whether Edward Snowden is a martyr or a rogue warrior, just know that he is extremely unlikely to ever exist in South Africa thanks to the recently approved “secrecy bill“.  Whistleblowers in the public service in South Africa enjoy some protection if they are disclosing information that reveals criminal activity but what the NSA have been doing with Prism is apparently legal.  The law itself requires review.  In South Africa, the chances of anyone getting that far are slim, not to mention the fear engendered by the current ambiguity around whistleblower protection.

And in South Africa the situation is arguably worse than in the US.  Note that while the big Internet companies have leapt forward to seek permission from the government to be more transparent about what they have shared and how, the reactions from Verizon and AT&T have been “We have no comment”.

There is no tradition of openness or transparency for telecommunications operators, not even the pretence.  In South Africa, the communication regulator can’t even get the information they are legally entitled to from the mobile operators in order to better regulate the market.  The culture of secrecy is embedded in telecommunications companies where all attempts at transparency are brushed off as potentially compromising their competitiveness.  I experienced this first hand when trying to get Telkom to release a map of their fibre infrastructure in South Africa.  They responded that they “decline to grant access to the records since they contain financial, commercial, scientific, and/or technical information, other than trade secrets, the disclosure of which is likely to cause harm to the commercial or financial interests of Telkom“.  In the end only public embarrassment forced their hand.

And South Africa, similar to at least 34 other countries in Africa, has enacted legislation to make the registration of mobile sim cards mandatory.   In the security-conscious United States, you can still purchase a pre-paid SIM card without having to register it.  The argument for SIM registration has been that of improved law enforcement though be able to better track criminals yet no evidence has ever been presented that backs up that assertion.  Maintaining a SIM registration database is dangerous to personal privacy.  While there are legal protections against its abuse, you have to be confident that the technology and process safeguards exist to back that up.  When the South African Police Service website was hacked a few weeks ago, they didn’t even know it had happened.

So here are three things I’d like to see in South Africa in the wake of the NSA Prism scandal:

  1. Real whistleblower protection for public service employees. Support the Right2Know campaign!
  2. An end to mandatory SIM card registration until evidence is produced that a) it actually makes a difference; and b) sufficient safeguards are in place around its use.
  3. Tougher rules that oblige better and more consistent transparency on the part of telecommunication operators.


Right Openness If You Meet the Open Guru on the Road, Kill Him

Buddha waiting in trafficLet me start by saying how much I love Open Source software, peer production, the tide that raises all ships, Wikipedia, all things “open”. It is part of how I define myself. I love what happens when people share expertise, resources, their spare time. It makes me feel like I am part of something larger. It makes me feel powerful and creative, only my effort and imagination can hold me back. Yet, for some time, I have felt a growing unease with the “open” movement.

I think it started back in 2006 when the South African government established a policy directing the use of Open Source software within government departments “unless proprietary software is demonstrated to be significantly superior”.

This policy did not achieve its aim of converting government departments to the use of Open Source. If anything it probably alienated civil servants more than it made them converts to Open Source. It made them feel like FOSS was some kind of second class solution they were obliged to use because they couldn’t afford the best. I knew I didn’t like this policy at the time but I couldn’t really put my finger on why except for the basic awareness that nobody likes to be forced to do something, even if its good for them.

Fast forward a year to 2007 and we have Tony Blair saying:

“Open v closed” is as important today in politics as “left v right”. Nations do best when they are prepared to be open to the world. This means open in their economies, eschewing protectionism, welcoming foreign investment, running flexible labour markets. It means also open to the benefit of controlled immigration.

Once again, I respond positively to openness and indeed open vs closed does seem a more practical unit of political analysis than left vs right these days, at least on some levels. However, again I experience a trace of unease and this time I can’t put my finger on it. And in the ensuing 5-6 years we see openness emerging as a western agenda with the implicit assumption that open = good and by extension more open = more good.

I expressed some of my concerns when I wrote about this in 2009. I likened open vs. closed as a kind of yin and yang, two parts that can’t live without each other.  That was close to what I want to say here but I think the problem is bigger now and that analogy misses some critical nuance

More recently I’ve been thinking about “open” in the context of Open Data and how that relates to personal privacy. Clearly more open cannot always equate to more good in this context. If we acknowledge that the need for privacy is contextual, then it is axiomatic that the need for openness is also contextual. The problem with making a virtue of “open” is that it tends to steamroller nuance and context.

I am reminded, as I often am, of the Taoist parable of a farmer and his “good” fortune.  Nothing is inherently good or bad but is defined by the context in which we understand.  The more I think about it, the more I think the crux of the problem lies in an essentially manichean worldview where open is now equated with virtue, where we must fight the forces of closed-ness wherever we find it.

This is wrong in the same way that the Golden Rule is wrong. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What could be simpler? Yet, the angry drunk who enjoys getting into fights in bars has no problem with this rule. It helps him get into more fights. Absolute rules tend not to fair very well in complex environments.

So, let’s consider some other “good” words.  How about “kindness” and “cleanliness”? Any parent or anyone who has been in the wrong relationship knows that you have to be “cruel to be kind” sometimes.  Doing the right thing might actually involve not being “kind”.  So perhaps kindness is not a very good goal.  And cleanliness.  We know it is next to godliness and on the surface of things how could one argue with it.  But a quest for cleanliness actually has led to some surprisingly negative outcomes such as the growth of allergies.  The more we understand about our bodies, the more we realise that what we previously thought of as “unclean” is actually a part of what makes us human.

So, would a “kindness” movement serve us well?  Or a “cleanliness” movement? Well, the answer is not yes or no, it is “mostly”.  Mostly being kind is a good idea and mostly being clean is a good idea but they are bad when turned into doctrine and orthodoxy. The rationale for orthodoxy is that if you don’t keep things pure enough, then it is a slippery slope to the increasing adulteration of all you hold dear.

The problem with purity is that is that it leads to fragility.  In Anti-Fragility, Nassim Taleb argues that all complex systems need to be stressed in order to grow stronger, to reduce fragility. Perhaps open works need proprietary works to stress them into improving and evolving.  As I wrote previously, the evidence from multi-party prisoner’s dilemma simulations would seem to support this, namely that “open” strategies succeed very well in a very closed ecologies and “closed” strategies succeed very well in a very open environments.

So what’s an Open Source advocate to do?  Well, if you were Evgeny Morozov you could rubbish the entire open movement but that doesn’t work for me because I really do see and live the benefits of open all around me.   I think what is needed is a new concept, that of “Right Openness”.  In Buddhist philosophy, one of the principal teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes the “path” to enlightenment.  Each path begins with the word “right”, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, etc.  What is notable about this is that there is no prescribed behaviour.  There is the overall goal of reducing suffering and being compassionate but the way you achieve that is not specified.  Mostly kindness is a great way of being compassionate but not always.  Mostly openness is a great way of achieving good outcomes in the growth of knowledge  in good governance, etc but not always. One need only look at a for-profit 3-D gun printing initiative to see how “open” as orthodoxy can lead to the wrong sort of outcome.

Let’s take the example of Right Speech. In the west, we value truth and freedom when it comes to speech. Yet, anyone who has uttered the words “Let’s be honest” in a relationship, knows that there are truths and there are truths. Time and geography matter when it comes to truth. Learning the truth about a murder that happened hundreds of years ago, half-way around the world is not the same as learning the truth about a murder that happened an hour ago, next door. The same with freedom of speech. Encouraging someone to help their neighbour is not the same as encouraging someone to kill their neighbour. We know this, yet we still defend freedom of speech when I think what we really mean is Right Speech, speech that does not harm others, that is timely, etc.

What then would Right Openness look like? It would recognise that “openness” is not an inherent virtue but rather a contextual good. What would that look like in practice? Well it would always hark back to the question of the larger goal, whether more equitable sharing of knowledge, good governance, etc.  It would then ask what right openness looks like in that context. It would lead by example, not by doctrine. In the Open Data world, it would embrace privacy issues as being fundamental to effectiveness openness without getting hung up on privacy as a violation of openness.

As we struggle to understand the complexity of the world we live, we look for simple rules to help guide us through the storm.  That’s great as look as we treat them as rules of thumb.  To paraphrase George Box, all rules are flawed, but some are useful.

So let’s hear it for Right Openness and remember kids, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes

Photo courtesy Stephanie Davidson 2008 CC BY SA