This the second installment in a series of posts in which I have the hubris to reflect upon What Google Should Do In Africa (#WGSDIA). There is some context for this post in the preface to the series.
Imagine that you are a smart entrepreneurial African geek who has recognised that the huge opportunity of providing low-cost voice and Internet access in Africa. You put together some new but remarkably inexpensive WiFi equipment from a company like Ubiquiti and set up a wireless mesh network in your community. You backhaul it to the Internet with an ADSL line if your lucky enough to be near one or with a wireless backhaul to your most obliging ISP. So far so good. But what you discover with your community is that while there is a small and slowly growing demand for Internet access, the real demand is still for affordable voice. So you offer free voice services over your wireless mesh and the community loves it because, after all, the majority of phone calls are local anyway.
The community is very excited about this and the love the service but they want more. They want to be able to receive calls from mobile networks and the Publicly Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and they want to be able to make calls out as well. They want to have real phone numbers that people can call them on from anywhere. Now things become more challenging. In South Africa, in order to be allocated a block of phone numbers, you need an Electronic Communication Services (ECS) license from the regulator. This is not too big a deal and requires only modest sums of money and slightly larger amounts of patience. Having achieved that you now have to negotiate interconnects with the major operators. This IS a big deal. The operators each require a million Rand (approx 125,000 USD) as a bank guarantee to create the interconnect. Some of them still require extremely expensive carrier-grade equipment in order to connect. Worst of all, some of them either flat-out refuse to interconnect (which is against the law but some operators are a law unto themselves) or bureaucratively render the process so slow that they might as well have refused.
Here the entrepreneur runs into a brick wall that requires both deep pockets and deep patience to resolve.
Cut over to Mountain View. On March 11th of this year, Google launched GoogleVoice, a service which offers you a single phone number which will ring all of your phones. In addition, Google Voice offers free calling and texting in the continental U.S. as well as voicemail, conference calling, voicemail via email, the list goes on. Google Voice is essentially a re-branding and upgrade of Grand Central which launched was founded in 2005 and acquired by Google in mid-2007. Currently Google Voice is in private beta for existing Grand Central users.
For the present, this is a niche service in North America that will appeal more to geeks and early-adopter technophiles because most people in North America already enjoy reasonably advanced and inexpensive phone services. So why pitch Google Voice in Africa?
Consider the opportunity. One could launch Google Voice but do it slightly differently. Launch the existing service which might appeal to anyone with existing broadband but also launch it as an API for entrpreneurs. Then all the small entrepreneur needs to do is find a way to get connected to the Internet and Google Voice can provide upstream services. They could allocate phone numbers to the entrepreneur (or he/she could bring their own) but most importantly GoogleVoice could manage the interconnections with the mobile operators and the PSTN. Obviously anyone selling voice services would still need an ECS license but that is a comparatively tiny hurdle to overcome.
I believe the launch of Google Voice in the U.S. signals a sea change in the telecoms sector around the world. Most significantly it points to the inevitable future of all voice services being Internet services. Creating a flat IP-based infrastructure for phone calls in Africa could begin to break down the mobile operator walled gardens and open up the possibility of operator-neutral value-added services in Africa.
So What Should Google Do About Google Voice in Africa?
I would pick a country in Africa where getting a communication network and/or services license is not too onerous and in which providing access on unlicensed WiFi spectrum is not illegal. Thanks to the Altech decision last year, South Africa is currently a good place to do this but it could be Kenya, Nigeria or somewhere else. Setting up something like GoogleVoice would require some work but probably much easier to pick a company like Dabba who are doing most of this already and work with them to evolve and adapt an African Google Voice.