Tag Archives: strategy

What Google Should Do In Africa - Launch a Digital Television Station

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series What Google Should Do in Africa - Part 2

AfricaFlixInspired by the recent successful launch of the Television White Spaces pilot in South Africa, I am once again tempted to engage in providing  mostly unsolicited advice about what Google’s strategy in Africa ought to be.  What I want to propose today is the launching of a Netflix-like streaming television service aimed at African markets and serving African and international content.  In this I take a more radical point of view than I did in my recent post about the Digital Dividend. This idea is borne of two recent experiences, one, some work I did recently looking at the migration process from analogue to digital broadcasting in Africa; and, two, my personal experience with Netflix.

Digital Migration

Most of the industrialised world has made a transition from analogue to digital broadcasting of terrestrial television.  The process in most African countries is much slower.  Because digital broadcasting requires a fraction of the spectrum needed for analogue broadcasting, a transition to digital television broadcasting:

  1. creates space for more television channels;
  2. allows the possibility of broadcasting in High Definition (HD);
  3. makes some spectrum available for other purposes such as broadband; and,
  4. allows broadcasters to keep pace with changes in broadcast technology.

Of the above benefits, I question whether a. and b. are relevant in Africa.  There has always been plenty of space for television channels.  The majority of African countries have four or fewer terrestrial broadcast channels.  As for High Definition broadcasting, it is hard to make either the social or economic case for HD broadcasting.  You could make the argument about Africa not being left behind or given second class technology but frankly I have trouble seeing the real market demand for HD television in the industrialised world, perhaps for sports broadcasting.  HD television feels like the upgrade that manufacturers tell you you want.  Which of course doesn’t rule out HD television via other means such as satellite.  So the real benefit of the switch-over to digital terrestrial broadcasting is the spectrum that is freed up for other purposes such as mobile broadband or TV White Spaces technology, etc.  And if that’s true, then does there really need to be a switch-over to digital broadcasting at all?

Across the continent, the switchover process is not going very well at all.  Very few countries seem to have come up with an effective strategy of how to manage the switch-over let alone finance it.  Few countries have an effective strategy of even how provide everyone with the Set Top Boxes (STBs) that are required to view digital broadcasts if you don’t happen to have a shiny new digital television set.  In South Africa, unspent funds from the Universal Service Agency are being re-purposed for the purchase of STBs for the masses.  The bottom line is that the economics of the transition to digital broadcasting simply don’t make sense.  It is an extremely expensive process for an, as yet, undetermined benefit.  Digital broadcasting is being treated as a giant “build it and they will come” project that will hopefully create both supply and demand at the same time.  And if you don’t buy that, there is always the argument that one must embrace the digital switch-over because it is inevitable.

Most African countries signed an agreement in 2006 that they would commit to the digital switch-over.  The general sense is that you simply have to get on board because analogue broadcasting will soon be obsolete.  It reminds me a bit of the furore a few years ago about the need to move to IPv6 because all the IPv4 addresses were about to run out.  Strangely the sun has yet to set on the IPv4 address space.

So what if there were another option, an option that didn’t exist or seem credible in the near future in 2006 when the switch-over policy decision was taken?  I am referring to Over The Top (OTT) broadcasting or the delivery of what was traditionally broadcast content over the Internet.

The Success of Netflix

Netflix is the most successful example of OTT service delivery.  As of the end of 2012, they claim over 33 million subscribers worldwide, most in the United States.  Not too long after moving to Canada from South Africa last year, I signed our family up for Netflix.  I was unprepared for how cheap and how efficient their service is.  $7.99 per month for all-you-can-eat television is pretty good, by any standard.  In fact, $7.99 looks roughly like mobile ARPU in Africa. People complain about the choice and how up-to-date their offering is but for our family it is the right blend of price and service.  What was even more impressive is how well it works.  We have a single 6Mb/s dry-DSL link that provides all of our household communication including VoIP phone service and Internet.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my kids watching Netflix did not affect the quality of my VoIP phone calls.

Last month, I attended an event at which Netflix’s Director of Cloud Infrastructure, Adrian Cockcroft, spoke.  He further impressed me with just how far and how fast Netflix has come.  One of the first things he said was that Netflix expects to become the largest Content Distribution Network (CDN) in the world some time this year.  That may or may not turn out to be true but just the fact that he thinks it likely is saying something given the likes of Akamai, Level 3 and others.  If you know anything about the distribution of video and other big media on the Internet, you know that it is dependent on CDNs which are gigantic local caches of content.  So when you request that YouTube video in Cape Town, it appears to stream internationally at high speed but actually you’re just getting a local copy from Google’s Global Cache CDN in South Africa.  This makes for much more efficient use of the main arteries of the Internet although how CDNs should be implemented and by who is a subject of much debate.  Netflix have built their infrastructure entirely on Amazon’s cloud infrastructure which makes them a completely virtual organisation.   It impressive just how flexible and efficient at content delivery Netflix are.  No doubt the competition is not far behind them but just to say that remarkable things have been achieved in the last 6 years in both video compression and content distribution.

An Opportunity for Google?

So, a bold move for an African country would be to scrap the digital switch-over entirely and invest all that money planned for a digital broadcast network into broadband fibre and wireless infrastructure to support OTT service provision.  Bold but inconceivable.  I think we all know that that is never going to happen.  The digital switch-over ship has sailed and there is too much money already committed to it.  It is officially too big to fail.  However, that wouldn’t stop a smart company from doing the right thing.

Google already operates its own CDN network in Africa.  There are Google Global Caches in South Africa and Kenya and doubtless other countries on the continent.  It is well-positioned to manage the delivery of content on the continent.  Arguably, as a company, Google understands African media markets better than most international Internet companies having invested significantly over the last 4-5 years in local offices and local talent in Africa.

An African digital television service could be a low-barrier opportunity for new content-makers and a great way to promote thriving national industries like Nollywood to the rest of the continent.  It would be an opportunity to innovate service delivery perhaps creating new super-low-bandwidth options or perhaps overnight updates or local WiFi-based mini-caches of television content.

Are Google the best company to do this?  They certainly have all it takes although it doesn’t mean that someone else might not do it faster and better.  The three takeaway points I want to leave you with are these:

  1. The switch-over to digital broadcasting in Africa is a slow-moving train wreck.
  2. OTT television services are growing faster and more efficiently than you might have imagined.
  3. The combination of 1 and 2 could mean a different television future for Africa.




Unpacking Our Mobile Broadband Future ITU Y U NO LIKE WIFI?

ITU Y U NO LIKE WIFI?The future is mobile.  We all know that.  We read it everywhere.  In the UN Broadband Commission‘s recently published report entitled, The State of Broadband 2012: Achieving Digital Inclusion For All, ITU analysts boldly announce their belief that:

“mobile broadband could prove the platform for achieving the boost needed to get progress back on track – at end 2011, there were already almost twice as many mobile broadband subscriptions as fixed broadband connections.”

But what does it actually mean and is it really true?  When talking about our mobile broadband future, it is essential to distinguish between devices and networks.  The two things are not necessarily the same thing.

The Future is Mobile Devices

This future I believe in.  Small, low-power wireless devices whether phones or tablets are taking over the way we interact with each other and with content.  New markets and services are being created every day for mobile devices.  The world of app and apps stores are creating new opportunities for innovation and adding value.

The Future is Mobile Networks

This is the future mobile operators would like you to believe in but the evidence is increasingly not in their favour.  Here are some statistics that may change your perspective of our mobile broadband future.

Global Smartphone-originated Data Traffic

Global Smartphone-originated Data Traffic
January 2012 – Source: Mobidia

A recent study by Mobidia revealed that about 70% of smartphone data traffic travelled via WiFi and not mobile networks.  Keep in mind that this research was not done in Africa, it was done in the industrialised world.  What we are seeing overwhelmingly is WiFi become the default form of data access and cellular access being relegated to those times when WiFi is not available, an increasingly rare phenomenon in the rich world.

The figures are even higher for tablet traffic.  And while we’re at it, since when are tablets “mobile” devices?  Of the fifty million tablets sold in the United States, only 8% have mobile capacity.  The tablet is not a mobile device, it is a WiFi device.  Google’s Nexus7 tablet is WiFi-only.  Both Microsoft’s new Surface tablet and Apple’s new iPad Mini are likely to launch as WiFi-only devices.  Why would Apple and Microsoft do that?  Well, one reason might be to avoid the painful process of negotiating mobile carrier agreements.  Imagine if computer manufacturers had to negotiate ISP agreements to connect a computer to the net.  The latest tablet is also a whole lot cheaper than a smartphone.  Compare a $200 Nexus7 tablet with an $800 Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone.

So what’s my point here?  My point is that the UN Broadband Commission’s recently published report on Achieving Digital Inclusion mentions WiFi exactly twice, both times parenthetically.  Mobile operators would like you to believe that the future of mobile broadband lies in the LTE networks that they are building.  And certainly that is partly true but only partly.  If the Mobidia stats are to be believed, about 30% true.

Mobile operators have no interest in WiFi because they currently have no control over WiFi networks although that is beginning to change in the U.S.  And we get reports like the one from the UN Broadband Commission because the dialogue at the ITU is dominated by operators.  The Broadband Commission itself is chaired by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world.  The irony of putting the richest man in the world in charge of a commission to connect the poor appears to be lost on the UN.

In any discussion about the mobile broadband future of Africa, WiFi is simply not part of the discussion.  Yet the evidence is before our eyes of the strategic importance of WiFi to our “mobile” devices.  It’s cheap and fast and grew to solve the problem of affordable access by chance not by design.  It happened because WiFi is an open space for technology developers to innovate.  No carrier agreements required.

Also not mentioned in the UN Broadband Commission’s report is the potential of Television White Spaces spectrum, a space for with the potential for massive innovation in rural access.  Another area not controlled by mobile operators.

The benefits of WiFi go beyond just cheaper access.  They also create the opportunity to eliminate the weakness of a single point of failure that mobile networks create.  WiFi infrastructure can make it harder to wilfully shutdown communication in a given geographic region.  The key to resilient networks is plurality of access and WiFi is already embedded in every smart device you can think of.

It would be nice to see WiFi recognised for the powerful role that it is already playing in mobile broadband and to see it figure in national strategic broadband plans for the future.

WGSDIA – Launch Gmail Zero

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series What Google Should Do In Africa

This is yet another post in a series in which I have the temerity to offer Google my unsought armchair strategic advice on what they should be doing in Africa.

In May of this year, I was over the moon about Facebook launching Facebook Zero, a service which offers free text-only access to Facebook including messaging.  If you click through to an image or other service and you pay but for the basic stuff it’s free.  On this continent, where the cost of access remains a barrier to innovation, that is pretty incredible.

Part of the reason it is so incredible is that Facebook doesn’t have staff in Africa.  They don’t have an African programme or a programme manager for Africa.  The closest office they have to the continent is their European office in Dublin, Ireland.  Yet, they figured out what so many other companies, projects, social movements and development agencies didn’t, namely that the cost of access is the dominant factor for online participation in Africa.  Facebook Zero hits that issue directly on the head.  Unfortunately you get all the rest of Facebook with that which may or may not be ok with you.  Right now though it has the potential to be a serious hearts and minds winner on the continent.

Back in the United States, Facebook has just outstripped Google as the most visited site in the country.  Here in Africa, Google and Facebook are pretty much neck and neck. Google have been doing some  amazing mapping work; they’ve done some great capacity building of varying types; developed innovative applications; sold some advertising, etc.  Some of the stuff they are doing like the Google Global Cache is making a real difference.  They’re pretty busy in Africa.

But the fact remains that Google does not take Africa seriously.  Let me explain.  First let me say that by Google I do not mean any of the many remarkable Google staff who live and work in Google offices around the continent.  I mean whoever is pulling the levers on Google’s Africa strategy.  Africa is not a profit centre for Google.  Nobody’s job is on the line if Google Africa doesn’t meet their advertising revenue targets.  I think this is done with the best of intentions, perhaps to give Google time to better understand the environment they’re working in or perhaps to allow infrastructure to improve to the point where sufficient traffic exists to class Africa with other regions.  Whatever the reason is, the downside is that then it doesn’t matter if Google’s strategy in Africa fails.  It’s just Africa… failure is expected.

But not necessarily.  If Google were to try something as audacious as Facebook, to zero rate a text-only interface to Gmail and Gchat, a Gmail Zero if you will, that would open up interesting possibilities.  Perhaps one might argue that Facebook is already there with its messaging and chat services.  But I think a Gmail Zero would have a different application.  I can see Gmail as the entrepreneur’s tool of choice.  Facebook is still to much of a walled garden to be as profoundly useful as a standards compliant email account.  That would really get the bits flowing and where more bits flow… more ads flow.

Of course it’s easy to think up ways that Google could make a real difference in Africa.  Spending other people’s money is a piece of cake.  While we’re at it, could we have a better Gmail?  GMail needs to go on a diet for Africa.  A Gmail Lite with some slimmed down javascript would make email a lot more pleasant on slow links.

That’s not too much to ask is it?  Gmail Zero and Gmail Lite.  Two great tastes etc…

SA Minister of Communications – Reading the Tea Leaves

Arthur Goldstuck has written a thoughtful piece on the newly appointed South African Minister of Communications, Siphiwe Nyanda, and his new deputy Dina Pule.  He does a good job of highlighting their key strengths and weaknesses.

Based on their lack of experience in the telecom sector, much will depend on who they choose to be advised by.  Good legal, economic, and technology advisors could make all the difference. I think this will make the campaign for a national broadband strategy all the more important in terms of getting a clear message from civil society through to the Department.

Optimistically, one might argue that neither Siphiwe nor Dina have “history” with the incumbents.  This might bode well for real change.

Certainly, empowering ICASA to move more quickly and decisively on things like interconnect fees would be a great first step.  Please, let us have a well-funded, fully independent regulator.

Worth considering also are the other key overlapping ministries that will have an impact on telecoms.  The Department of Public Enterprises (Barbara Hogan) would be an obvious one although she may be too busy saving SAA to afford much time for ICT infrastructure.

But most significant I think will be the new planning ministry.  If broadband is ever to take off in South Africa, it will need to be recognised at the level of an integrated national economic strategic plan.  If that can be achieved, then I think there is hope for the DoC to move forward with a mandate for change.’

South African National Broadband Forum

I am getting quite excited about the upcoming South African Broadband Forum next week.  Inspired by the coalition that emerged in the United States to get broadband infrastructure investment on the political agenda in the run-up to the U.S. election, the Association for Progressive Communications, the Shuttleworth Foundation, Sangonet, and the South Africa Connect project are co-convening a forum on the 24th of March in Johannesburg to launch a campaign to make broadband a national priority for South Africa.

It is clear to anyone living in South Africa who uses the Internet for work or leisure that the situation is dire indeed.  Indeed looking at the recently published  ICT Development Index from the ITU, the news is frankly embarrassing for South Africa.   In particular, looking at  the sub-Index on ICT  use (page 38) which covers the indicators of Internet user penetration, fixed broadband penetration, and mobile broadband penetration, we see the following:

In 2002, South Africa was ranked 67th globally and was number 1 in Africa.  By 2007, South Africa had dropped 25 places to 92nd globally and was 4th in Africa behind Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt.  By contrast, over the same period,  Nigeria rose 24 places, Kenya rose 12 places, and Senegal rose 10 places globally.

Sigh.  Come on South Africa!  It’s time to stop pointing fingers and admit that we all have a hand in the problem and, more importantly, in the solution.  So if you think affordable broadband might make a difference to South Africa’s future, come on out to the forum and engage with others who want to make a change.  Please register first though following the instructions at the right of the page.

The event will have a few key speakers but most of the day will be turned  over to the participants to collaboratively engage in thinking through a strategy for South Africa’s broadband-enabled future.  The event is organised in World Cafe format to maximise participation by all.