Whose Success?

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

I don’t often talk about my motives. Newspapers, in my opinion, make lousy confessionals. I’ll make an exception today, because it helps make a point.

I recently experienced a curious moment. I’d spent a sunny Port Vila Saturday at the office catching up on email, news and whatnot. There were a couple of stories in the local newspaper about communications companies setting up shop here, there was a link to a story about ‘eternal’ airplanes – unmanned spy planes that never have to land. There was a story about spy agencies listening to our Skype calls. One about radio tag implants for everyone, so we can be tracked more easily.

I locked my screen, turned off the lights, and headed out of the office. The sun was westering, drifting almost level with the bay. An acquaintance happened by and invited me for coffee.

I found myself curiously disoriented. It’s happened before, and will no doubt happen again. In the course of a few steps, I’d traveled from an echoing data chamber to a sleepy village where strangers don’t exist.

My friend and I talked about trends in communications and IT. Both of us were from the same city, and both of us have worked for years in high tech. He worked the marketing side, and I on the technical side. Now, here we were in Vanuatu, trying to make things better for people.

This guy comes from the world of big things. Big money, big business, big trends. He worked for several large corporations, and even had a stint as an analyst for the Gartner Group.

I like Big Things, too. I tend to find them in small things, though. Rather than read reports containing in-depth, detailed survey results covering Leading Indicators and such, I prefer to watch how people do things and then sit back and wonder ‘So what if everyone did that? Or what if no one did that any more? Or what if they did it this way? Or what if they did this too, as well as that?’

So we chatted. I told him about how cheap and easy it would be to roll out wireless Internet in Vanuatu. Prices for really cool gear have fallen to commodity levels, and enthusiasts have developed some very funky software. As he began to see what I was getting at, he interrupted me and said, ‘You know, you could get tons of funding for that sort of thing.’

Thinking he meant donor money, I nodded and explained that we’d likely need a proof of concept first, and besides, it might be easier to simply fund it one village at a time by developing small-scale commercial services, like a pay-per-use community email service.

He replied, ‘Yeah, but how do you scale that? Just think – you get a mining company to subsidise the roll-out, because it would mean they could control their operations way more easily, right? Then, you bring more industry on board, and… then you sign a licensing deal with Google or Microsoft, who give you a nice fat chunk of cash for opening up a new revenue stream for them. They’d love to lock into something like that.’

I carefully put my coffee cup down. Ignoring how nutty his idea was, I said, ‘It’s true that you could make a decent chunk of money like that, but you’d basically guarantee that the network would be closed to the poorer people.’

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but you could make a fortune.’

I’d like to report that that was the point when I beat him over the head with a chair. I’d like to, but I confess that I honestly thought that somehow he didn’t understand. I mean, this guy was a volunteer, working for peanuts in a developing nation. And yet the merest whiff of cash was enough for him to unabashedly disavow everything he’d worked towards these last two years.

Perhaps too gently, I asked him what would be the point of creating something so plainly designed to make the rich richer by keeping the poorer folk down. From the look he gave me, I’d just as soon have asked him why math works.

‘Dude,’ he said, ‘you could make a fortune.’

The problem, quite frankly, is that I don’t want to make a fortune like that. If I did, I’d never have left my old job.

But these days, I look at the increasing control that the Powers That Be are gaining over that wonderfully anarchic appendage of modern culture that is the Internet, and I am immediately nostalgic for the 1990’s, a time when they just didn’t get it, but it didn’t matter, because we geeks did, and we could do anything with it.

Well, the 1990s are just about to start in Vanuatu. And I want to live them again. And maybe, just maybe, change the outcome just a little. At least a little. At least here.

It’s nostalgic and foolish, I know. But I really just want us to be free.

Digicel and TVL will very soon be providing us with a level of service that we’ve only dreamed about before. But their job is not to be exciting and innovative. Their job is to be solid, reliable and stable. Both of them have large-scale corporate underpinnings that guarantee the product they provide.

Having two players at the communications table is vastly better than having only one. Especially when the second player is Digicel. Reports coming from the Caribbean, PNG, Samoa and elsewhere indicate that they will make an aggressive play for control of as much of the market as they can get. They are not complacent; they do not compromise or accommodate others unless it serves their goal of market dominance. Their business strategy is to provide better coverage at lower cost than anyone else, and to leverage that into a dominant position in every market they enter.

To be clear: Most observers agree that Digicel’s strategy in Vanuatu is not to keep TVL honest, nor is it to share politely with them. Digicel wants the entire market, and will do what it takes to earn it.

That’s excellent news for Vanuatu. In the short term, we can rely on competition to create a ‘beauty contest’ atmosphere, with each player offering more and more services for less and less cost. It will be exciting to watch, and even more exciting to participate in, especially as we take advantage of these new tools to bring kastom into the information age.

But let’s not pick up our pompoms just yet. First let’s be clear about what we want. The best possible outcome for Vanuatu is a knock-down drag-out fight between the incumbent and the newcomer that goes on more or less forever without a clear winner.

We already know what happens when a company becomes complacent about their services, and starts thinking more about the fortune they could be making and less about the services they could be providing. It will take a while, but that time will almost certainly come again.

Through careful management and regulation, the government of Vanuatu can make sure that such complacency is a long time coming. Above all, Vanuatu needs an environment of continual exploration, not exploitation.

One thought on “Whose Success?

  1. Beautifully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Something I think my students should read. Glad that Irish optimism is still at the forefront.

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