A Tale of Two Telcos

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

Last week I reported that, in spite of requests for information, neither TVL nor Digicel had responded in time for publication. I’m glad to say that in the days following, both of them contacted me. The way in which they did so was quite interesting to me, so this week I’ll share a few details, mixing them liberally with anecdote and observation of my own.

As with all such gossipy pieces, it’s possible the end result will tell you more about the author than the subjects.

Tanya Menzies, CEO of Digicel Vanuatu, was first to respond. She apologised that she hadn’t answered in the time I requested, but was quick to suggest we meet for coffee and a chat.

The ‘chat’, when it happened, lasted over two hours.
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Town and Country

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

It’s axiomatic that in our so-called Information Society, improving communications is synonymous with improving people’s quality of life. Easier access to information is generally accepted as a good thing.

Far be it from me to gainsay the truisms that keep me in pocket money. But I do enjoy being wrong.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my time here in Vanuatu is that trends and patterns are not so universal as they sometimes seem. Things that are self-evident elsewhere in the world should not be taken for granted here. Society, geography, economy and a few dozen other differentiating factors make Vanuatu unique in important ways.

Received wisdom, even from the leading lights of development theory, often does more damage than good if it’s not leavened with a solid grounding in local conditions. And that’s why I’ve been waiting with bated breath for an upcoming report by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PiPP) on the social effects of mobile telephony in Vanuatu.

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What Lies Ahead?

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

Recently we’ve seen a bit of a lull in activity (or at least excitement) in the Vanuatu telecommunications sector. Customers are becoming a little blasé about choice in the mobile market. The mobile telephone incumbents have more or less established their positions, with TVL making real efforts to smoothe its complexion and Digicel allowing the first small warts to peep through its make-up.

The post-election transition of power slowed the policy process down some, and movements at the executive level meant that some of the local businesses needed a bit of a breather as well.

So let’s take this opportunity to do a little crystal ball gazing. What can businesses and Internet users generally expect in the coming months?

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

Not My Problem.

There is a time-honoured tradition here in Vanuatu, requiring that nobody get too fussed over anything. It requires as well that one think twice about the inevitable repercussions before taking ownership of anything. Whether it’s for an item or an idea, a report or a plan, taking responsibility is nearly always a liability.

There are good reasons for all this, to be sure. The only way for a group to survive in a small village – on an island, to boot – is to get along. Learning to keep one’s head down, even when silence comes at a price, ensures harmony. Being quick to forgive weakness and slow to confront ineptitude has become one of the hallmarks of Vanuatu society.

But this is the single biggest impediment facing IT service delivery in Vanuatu today.

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Our Greatest Wealth

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

Being rich is having money. Being wealthy is having time.

Vanuatu is rich in time, if little else. Everywhere you look, you’ll see people loitering, chatting, sitting together, wiling away the hours.

Doug Patterson’s Kranke Kona cartoon contrasts the Vanuatu way with the outside world’s hurry-up approach to life brilliantly: Two amiable men, sitting under the coconut tree, see an expat scurrying by, briefcase in hand, mobile phone pressed to his ear. They ask him why he’s in such a rush. He replies that if he works without respite every day, some day he’ll be able to slow down and enjoy life.

I sympathise more with the two brothers under the tree than I do with the expat. But the real humour lies in the juxtaposition. As enamoured as we all are with having the time to do things well, time is, nonetheless, a finite resource. And while it’s easy to say that time is money, we need to ensure that we don’t focus too much on its price and not enough on its value.

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Then and Now

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

In July 2004, the World Bank presented a report on the state of Vanuatu’s public utilities to the public.

This was a watershed moment. From that moment, the government of Vanuatu formally committed itself to a process that ultimately led to the break-up of the telecommunications monopoly and the creation of the Utilities Regulatory Authority.

The transformation since then has been nothing short of remarkable. Nobody seems to have anticipated just how widespread and immediate the effects of telecoms liberalisation would be. Some of the expectations outlined in the Infrastructure Regulatory Review appear now to be quite conservative, in some cases landing nearly outside the ballpark.

Perhaps most telling is the report’s contention that ‘low income, low population base, low urbanization and low literacy rate are characteristics which suggest that demand for telecommunications services in Vanuatu is likely to be constrained.’

Experience seems to indicate quite the opposite.
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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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[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Let me be frank: Vanuatu is, in most ways, a backwater when it comes to technology. There’s no point sugar-coating it. We’re limited by numerous factors, some of them environmental and institutional, but the biggest problem we face is one of perception and imagination.

One of the most difficult aspects of high tech is that it’s intangible and therefore difficult to visualise. It’s everywhere around us, but when you ask the average person to explain what it does or how it works, they’d just give you a perplexed look and move on. We see the icons on the screen, and we know that with the proper incantation they can be made to do certain tasks, but we never really see it working.

A car motor may be incomprehensible to most, but at least it’s visible. We can watch the fan belt spinning and the drive train turning, we can hear if the engine coughs or sputters, we can see the exhaust and tell at a glance if something’s wrong.

Things aren’t quite so clear in high tech. Sure, it’s easy to see when the computer slows down, or when a sheet of paper gets stuck halfway through the printer. But consider this: most of us aren’t even aware that we’re interacting with high technology almost all of the time. We don’t think about the radio, the cash register, the DVD player, the bank machine or the mobile phone as different heads on a ratchet set. But that’s effectively what they are: interchangeable cogs in the same notional machine.

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Power Play

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

Now that we’ve got the beginnings of truly nationwide communications, we need to deal with power generation. We’ll never generate enough power to run a desktop computer in every house, and community computer centres are expensive and of limited usefulness, so we need to see how suitable things like the emerging class of micro-laptops (like Asus’ new Eee PC or OLPC’s XO laptop) are for use in the islands.

Smart phones and even plain old vanilla mobiles also have a critical role to play in rural access to communications. There are any number of very simple information services that can be deployed via text messaging.

But in order to do this, we need to power these devices. A mobile phone uses very little electricity, to be sure, but in a village with none at all, even a little is a lot.

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One of the items in yesterday’s brain dump was a talk I presented 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.

One of the questions that came up regularly when I asked for feedback on my talk was how people would be able to afford mobile services. Given that 5000 vatu (about USD 50) per month is not an unusual family income in the village, even topping up with 200 vatu credit (currently the smallest increment available) would be a burden, would it not? The answer is yes and no.

There’s an interesting relationship between commodity prices and agricultural production here in Vanuatu. When the price of commodities like coffee, copra and cacao rises, production actually decreases rather than increasing. The reason for this is that the need for cash in rural areas is quite limited. Once a villager earns enough to pay school fees, clothing and a few staples, there’s no more need to sell their crop. So when they can earn the same amount of money for less effort, they do so.

This is one of the factors leading to a kind of economic insulation for the average ni-Vanuatu. I wrote a bit more about other aspects of this phenomenon in this article for the Daily Post.The bottom line is that the cash economy remains small in rural Vanuatu because the cash economy is only a small part of the whole picture.

When mobile communications are introduced, the perceived need for cash increases. In the short term, this puts stress on the pocket book, but things can probably work themselves out through a nominal increase in the amount of cash being generated (e.g. through cash crops). Add to this the increased efficiencies that come hand in hand with better communications, and we’ll likely see more prosperity and economic activity – in cash terms – than less.

In other words, this is not a zero sum game.

That detail is still lost in many traditional planning processes. In fact, ignorance of this dynamic is a bigger inhibitor to growth than many other external factors. If people can’t forecast capacity properly, their estimates come out consistently low, and because products and services don’t meet the need, they don’t have the effect they’re intended to, so people don’t invest in them.

Very often, taking the last few years’ numbers and extrapolating linear growth creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which growth remains linear only because that’s as much as it can grow. Unfortunately, it allows analysts to sit back and say, ‘See? I told you so.’

Update: Looking a little further down this continuum: Once the inherent economic elasticity in this system is used up, however, poverty sets in. An example would be people planting cash crops in places once reserved for food crops. It’s a fine line between building the cash economy and building dependence on the cash economy in such as way that a person’s outputs can’t meet their costs.