The (Mobile) Ties That Bind

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

It won’t come as news to anybody if I say that family is strong in Vanuatu. We’ve known it all along. But with the upcoming release of a new report on telecommunications liberalisation, we will see its influence illustrated in vivid terms.

The Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PiPP) will soon be releasing a report measuring the social impacts of telecoms liberalisation in Vanuatu. One of the main findings is that, in the months following the extension of mobile telephone service to the majority of Vanuatu’s population, families benefited more than businesses in terms of changed perceptions and real outputs.

We’ve suspected this for a while. In June of this year, I presented a talk to regional telecommunications providers. Titled ‘Network Effects: Social Significance of Mobile Communications in Vanuatu‘, it explains Network Effects and how they manifest themselves in village life, then looks at some obvious and not-so-obvious implications for network providers in the Pacific.

Briefly, my point is that village life features very tight communication loops from which no one is exempt. The one-to-one aspects of village communications are enhanced by mobile communications, and smart network operators should do what they can to enhance this effect. The result is that our island geography (and gestalt) creates more value per user than traditional business analysis might lead us to believe.

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Island Hopping

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Denis O’Brien, owner of the Digicel Group, graces the cover of the August 11th issue of Forbes Magazine. Their profile, titled ‘Babble Rouser’, begins with a tone of detached and vaguely supercilious astonishment at the risks that Digicel has incurred in the course of its lightning-quick expansion across the island nations of the world. It quickly sobers, though, when it reports that the Digicel Group earned $505 million in operating profit on $1.6 billion in revenue in the financial year ending March, 2008.

Forbes leaves it to O’Brien himself to explain his damn-the-torpedoes philosophy:

“Get big fast. [Damn] the cost. Be brave. Go over the cliff. [The competition] doesn’t have the balls.”

I suspect he used some word other than ‘damn’.

Most anyone would enjoy downing a beer with the honey-tongued chancer from Cork, but Denis O’Brien didn’t make the cover of Forbes merely because of a flamboyant devil-may-care attitude. He’s noteworthy because he saw an opportunity where others didn’t, and he got rich capitalising on it.

The idea is simple enough: If you give everyone – literally everyone – access to mobile services, you can make money everywhere. In O’Brien’s world, there is no such thing as low-hanging fruit. Every single market gets aggressively cultivated. The fruits of such labours are truly remarkable.

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Rebuilding the Nasara

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

About a month ago, I gave a talk [Powerpoint File] to telecommunications network operators from all over the Pacific region. It dealt with the social aspects of Vanuatu’s communications revolution. Many of the themes I touched on will be familiar to readers of this column.

In a nutshell, I talked about Digicel’s approach to so-called marginal markets and how they relied on Network Effects to generate traffic where there had been none before. Once you have more than a certain percentage of the population using a particular means of communication, everyone else is compelled to join them, simply because everybody is using it.

Mobile telephone services significantly enhance one – and only one – important aspect of Vanuatu culture. They enable family members and friends to stay in touch with one another much more easily than they could before. This has the effect of strengthening some of the bonds that keep small groups together. As such, it should be viewed as a positive reinforcement of many of the things that we hold dear.

But in Vanuatu society, there’s more to communication than conversations between family members. We’ve so far succeeded in re-creating the kitchen conversation by electronic means. But we have no nakamal, no nasara. We have no meeting place we can truly call our own.

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Hodge Podge

Here’s a quick and dirty list of geeky things that I’ve been stewing over recently:

  • Greg Ross’ delightfully intelligent Futility Closet features a very interesting map. Memorising it should be a pre-requisite for any technology discussion. Understanding it should be a criterion for sainthood.
  • Jan Chipchase is exploring that map. He’s a poster boy for the the new geek chic: rambling around the world, finding out how people live their lives, then trying to find ways to make technology that fits. I’d be more condescending about his rock star status, but hey, that’s mostly what I do, too. If he’s the rock star, then I’m the wandering minstrel. I suppose each of us is good for the other.
  • I say it below, but I need to set the proper emphasis here: Mobile communication devices are the application platform for the rest of the world. Power, cost, literacy, localisation and different approaches to network management (i.e. more entrepreneurial space in newborn networks than in established ones) all contribute. 2G, 3G, NG are all great, but think about SMS interfaces first. There’s a huge opportunity space there.
  • Digicel launched their mobile phone service  last week, making a bigger splash than anything I’ve seen since I arrived here.
    • Photos of the mad queuing (and a couple from the party) here.
    • They’ve done admirably in the first 90% of the job, which was getting the network up and running. Let’s see how they do on the other 90% – keeping it running.
    • I bought myself a 2000 vatu (USD 20) phone and a separate SIM card for my Motorola in order to test the service. I’d been using the Digicel service for barely two days, and when I ran out of credit, I swapped in my TVL SIM (with nearly 4000 vt credit in it) and had an important call fail 5 times in a row. I immediately put my Digicel card back in and stumped up another 1000 in credit. In less than two days, I’d come to assume that calls would actually work. This in spite of the fact that I’ve been using TVL’s services (and working closely with them on occasion) for years. I should have been inured to their level of service and surprised by the improvement that Digicel provided, but the opposite was true. Lesson: We only think about the network when it’s not working.
    • I heard rumours that Digicel had to fly a replacement generator to Ambae by helicopter on their first full day of service. The story might be a case of the Coconut Wireless running a little hot, but if it turns out to be true, I would be interested to know whether the machinery died of natural causes or of bush knife. There’s a whole article in here, but briefly stated, here’s the equation: A radio tower is of no value until it’s turned on, so nobody objects to its existence until the service starts up. From that moment on, people have something they can hold hostage, so however generous the initial agreement, there’s almost always a re-negotiation, usually with a metaphorical knife to the throat.
    • Update: I’ve also got reports of an outage in Tanna in the South. How does it go again? One is an accident, two is incompetence, three is enemy attack. Or heck, it could just be birthing pains.
    • Double Update: Turns out it wasn’t outages, per se; it was delays commissioning some of the systems. Sources with a clear view of the proceedings told me that Digicel could not have turned up their service at all even a few before the launch date – that’s how close to the wire things got. To be clear: This doesn’t reflect poorly on Digicel at all. Quite the contrary. I’ve seen projects that were trivial in comparison lose months (even years) because of minor technical or logistical problems. The fact that one or two of the generators weren’t 100% ready on the day does nothing to diminish the fact that they increased communications coverage nationally by an order of magnitude; and that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented anywhere in the Pacific since 1942.
  • On Monday at 09:00, I presented a talk to the Pacific Network Operators Group (PACNOG) at the Sebel Hotel. It’s titled ‘Network Effects: Social Significance of Mobile Communications in Vanuatu‘. It explains Network Effects and how they manifest themselves in village life, then looks at some obvious and not-so-obvious implications for network providers in the Pacific. Briefly, my point is that village life features very tight communication loops from which no one is exempt. The one-to-one (but not the one-to-many and many-to-one!) aspects of village communications will be enhanced by mobile comms, and smart network operators should do what they can to enhance this effect. The result will be that our island geography (and gestalt) creates more value per user than traditional business analysis might lead us to believe.
  • The telecom licensing regime will be opening up a little further some time before the end of the year. I need to find a way to convince local operators to take advantage of this opportunity. It won’t be easy because:
    • There are a bunch of better-funded outsiders who want in, and are willing to sit on losses in order to get market share; and
    • Capital investment for Vanuatu companies can be really, really hard. Most companies here live hand to mouth, so asking them to amortise any kind of investment is a huge demand.
    • Hopefully, the Universal Access Fund will help mitigate the problem. It’s not clear yet how it will be administered, and there will be a lot of flies buzzing around that particular pot of honey, so I’m not willing to get enthusiastic about the opportunity just yet.
  • Now that we’ve actually got the beginnings of truly nationwide communications, we need to deal with power generation. The toughest part will be hardware. See, we’ll never generate enough power to run a desktop computer in every house, and community telecentres are expensive and of limited usefulness, so we need to see how suitable things like the Asus eEe, OLPC and smart phones are to use in the islands.
    • On that front, Wan Smolbag Theatre will be getting about 25 XO laptops soon for their young people’s literacy project. Yay! They’ve also sent an eEe up to their youth center in Loltong on Pentecost island for evaluation.
    • The Mac Minis we first sent there performed in a less-than-stellar fashion due primarily to hardware problems. Even trivial problems (like a stuck CD) can take weeks or months to resolve.
    • The biggest challenge we face is the assumption that being in the tropics means we have lots of sunlight. Uh, maritime climate, anyone? Jungle? Mountains? Solar panel not work good on cloudy day under tree with no flat places. Okay, there are places in Vanuatu where solar power is fine, but unfortunately, it’s least reliable right when you need it most (e.g. hurricane season).
    • One way to mitigate power requirements (and decidedly non-trivial UI/literacy issues) is to leverage SMS-based apps as a computing platform. See above. There’s a lot of work going on in this area in India and Africa. We need to do more here. See this and this for previous rants on the subject. Must find more sponsors….
  • UNDP has finally released funds for the Vanuatu leg of the People First Network. Only 5 years late. (Yes, you read that right: 5 years.) I’ll be doing a little consulting to try to re-frame the project to reflect the changes that have occurred in the last half decade.

Somewhere in here, I eke out a living, write 2000 words a week and try to have a life. I’d love to be a rock star just like Jan and find a Daddy Warbucks to take all my mundane worries away, but I’m not starving, so I can’t complain.

No Borders

I made a mistake this week, or rather a misjudgement. I wrote about a new threat called Goolag, in which a malicious person could use Google to find servers on the Internet that are vulnerable to attack. The servers are infected with malicious code that causes anyone who visits them to be exposed to compromise. This is how many an innocent person’s computer becomes a spam-bot, remotely controlled by hackers and used to send spam, and sometimes to infect its neighbours as well.

I wrote, “Making simple mistakes is the easiest way to expose yourself to attack…. You won’t be targeted so much as stumbled across.”

Within two days of writing about the issue, an online security blog reported a wave of attacks affecting approximately 200,000 web servers. The single most important part of comedy, as they say, is timing.

This latest wave of attacks is important to us for a couple of reasons: It demonstrates that the democratising effect of information on the Web respects no single set of ethics or morality. The very same information-sharing tools that have so empowered people everywhere are being used by vandals and criminals for their own selfish ends as well.

It also means that there are no safe havens online.

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Network Effects

Let me tell you a story:

Sese is worried. Her son Kaltaso has his heart set on getting a new toy for Christmas. She’s not quite sure what it does, exactly, but it’s the latest thing overseas. At least, that’s what Kal says. He tells her all his online friends have them, that it’s really fun to link them on the Internet and play together.

The toy is expensive, but not too expensive. Sese has talked it over with her husband, and he agrees that it’s good for the boy to spend time online with friends from around the world. If this toy helps with this, then it’s worth it. But there’s a problem: It’s not for sale anywhere in Vanuatu, let alone here on Pentecost.

Sese knows that you can buy things online, but she doesn’t have a bank account yet, let alone a credit card. So she sends an SMS to her cousin-sister Lily in Port Vila, asking for help. Lily works as an administrator for one of the online banking operations that opened up after the fibre optic link was installed. She knows about these things.

Lily texts back, saying that she’s checked on eBay and found exactly what Kal wants, at about 30% less than anywhere else. She’ll just send the cash from her PayPal account. She knows Sese doesn’t have a lot of cash so she asks if Sese could send 20 kilos of kava on the next ship. One of Lily’s boys is going to be circumcised soon, so it will save her a lot of expense. Kava costs about 40% less if you get it straight from the island.

Sese checks with her family, then writes to Lily to say that she’ll put the kava on Wednesday’s ship. But Lily has to promise not to say a word to anyone. Kal chats online all the time with Lily’s second born son, and if he gets word about the gift, it will spoil the surprise.

This little story is fiction, of course. It’s a description of how things could be in two or three years, if we do just a few little things.

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