What I’m Working On

Cheaper and more pervasive access to telecoms in Africa

At the Shuttleworth Foundationmy fellowship is all about creating affordable access to telecommunications infrastructure in South Africa and beyond. We live in an age where access to telecommunication infrastructure is technologically feasible for everyone and where the cost of deploying infrastructure is steadily dropping. However, in much of the developing world, access is not available to everyone and often where it is available, it is not very affordable for the majority of the population.Perhaps the biggest reason why telecommunications costs on the continent are so high is because telecommunications markets are not terribly competitive. Markets tend to be dominated by a few well-resourced players who, having entered the market, are very resistant to the arrival of additional competition. Comparatively weak regulation on the continent has contributed to these few dominant players getting their way in preserving the status quo.

Why is this important?

When I started this fellowship at the very end of 2007, I believed that affordable access was important because it is an enabler of so many important aspects of development from effective health care to access to education to enabling enterprise. This is non-controversial and fairly demonstrably true. I have come to believe it is much more important that that.

We are entering an age where the barrier to translating an idea into a product or service is dropping lower and lower to the point where individuals with a good idea can compete with corporations with armies of employees. Equally the free flow of ideas enabled by the Internet has spawned an unprecedented amount of innovation with each new idea becoming the springboard for other ideas.  When asked what was required to create a culture of innovation, Clay Shirky replied:

You need a very low cost of experimentation, right? If things are expensive to try people will hold back from trying them and they’ll spend all their time trying not to fail. If the cost of experimentation falls though, and I mean falls precipitously, then people will spend a lot of time experimenting, and instead of not failing, the goal becomes to fail informatively to learn something from the things you tried.

Elsewhere in the world we are beginning to see this culture of innovation enabled through low-cost access lead to auto-catalytic, non-linear growth of innovation. A kind of knowledge economy critical mass or what complexity theorist Stewart Kauffman calls a supra-critical economic web.

So what to do?

If a lack of competition is the problem, what is the easiest way to get new players into the market. We need to lower the barriers to market entry. Happily 2008 in South Africa saw the dropping of one of the largest barriers to competition with the Altech decision which overnight changed telecommunications operator licenses from a scarce to an abundant resource. However, getting a license to be a telecoms operator is just the first hurdle.
The next challenge is how to effectively and affordably deploy infrastructure. Here there are three options: copper, fibre or wireless. Of these wireless offers the biggest opportunities for entrepreneurial deployment of telecoms infrastructure. Unfortunately, access to wireless spectrum is governed by the communications regulator and now that demand exceeds administrative supply, they are very difficult to get hold of.

So there are a few options:

  1. Find and use spectrum that doesn’t require a licenseThe Village Telco is an attempt to lower the barriers for entrepreneurs or community organisations to set up their own telecommunications infrastructure using VoIP over meshed WiFi infrastructure.
  2. Campaign to make more spectrum available both unlicensed and licensed.Open Spectrum brings together a multi-disciplinary grouping of parties with a shared interest in working towards greater efficiency in the allocation, assignment and use of radio frequency spectrum in South Africa and beyond.
  3. Work on getting mobile operators who hold most of the commercial spectrum to behave better.Fair Mobile is an emerging campaign to expose less-than-competitive mobile markets to public scrutiny.
  4. Wake developing countries up to the importance of investment in broadband infrastructure.The South African National Broadband Forum (SANBF) is an attempt to establish affordable broadband access as a national strategic priority in South Africa.