Mesh Potatos Become Hot Potatos

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

The Tech track at Tech4Africa kicked off with a presentation by Steve Song, a Shuttleworth Foundation fellow and a founder of Village Telco project.
His main theme was the high cost of access to basic communications, and the solution developed that can help solve this problem. Which is always a good thing in a solution.
An eye-opening statistic: the bottom 75% income band in Africa spends 50% of their disposable income on mobile services (in SA it’s a touch lower, at 40%, although probably because people earn a bit more here than because our mobile operators are particularly cheap).
If you’re an economist you get to sit back smugly, take a sip of Merlot and say, “See, you see how much they value it? Clearly it delivers the incentive they believe makes it worth the price.” If you’re not an economist you kick them in the head.
If you’re an African leader you wake the hell up, and realise that without driving down the cost of telephone and data access, your people will struggle and struggle to advance (and hence build businesses that pay you tax revenues that leaders can in turn plunder for new presidential palaces, you bastards).
In Steve’s more considered words, “What might an enlightened African leader should say: ‘It’s the cost of access, stupid’.”
His main contention in developing businesses is that to enable innovation, you must lower the cost of failure. When failure is expensive, the lesson learned is to stop wasting money.
With greater communication, more sharing of knowledge and greater transparency across markets comes immediate and marked growth in GDP. A cheaper way to provide telephony services in Africa is vital, and since the mobile operators (and government regulators) are not coming to the party, other options must be found.
His talk then turned to an old Linksys wireless router, the WRT54G. Popular, now getting a little long in the tooth, but based on a Linux core in its firmware. Open Source types compelled Linksys to open up the code under GPL, and they dug in.
They hacked it, and discovered it was a pretty powerful box, with hardware (RAM, CPU, etc) more advanced than its as-shipped specs needed. A whole new industry of hacked WRT54G routers grew up… enthusiasts wrote books about it, codified the OS as OpenWRT.
You can unplug the stub antenna, and add a directional (such as a cheap, home-made cantenna), and talk reliably over many kilometres.
You could hook a bunch together over in a mesh over an area, plug a phone into it, hack it a bit more, and end up with the Mesh Potato.
Mesh, as in the Open Source mesh protocol developed substantially by a woman called Elektra in Germany, POTS as in Plain Old Telephone System (it works with old skool analogue telephone handsets) and an ATA (Analogue Telephone Adapter) to packetise the voice.
Mesh Potato. Get it? It’s cleverer in Spain, where they call them patatas.
The hardware for the box was designed by an Australian hardware engineer called Mr. David Rowe, and then mass produced.
Hacking together some code is easy enough, you may think, but a piece of hardware is an entirely different proposition.
Luckily, not true.
An interesting development, says Song: “Hardware is the new software. You can bring a unique hardware product to market quite quickly and cheaply.”
The Mesh Potato team finalised the design, did some prototypes for testing, then went into production with a manufacturer in China, who was only to happy to give them a good unit price in exchange for the know-how (yay for open source goodness and commodity technology like WiFi and open standards like SIP!).
The final device will be a fairly cute little white box that’s weatherproof (rain, dust and sun) with hardened ports that won’t fry its little heart if some klutz plugs the wrong thing in.
The mesh then connects up a number of standard handsets that can be pulled out the dumpster, allowing a non-profit to set up a local telephone network quickly and exceptionally cheaply.
The little network can be autonomous, or you can add a “server” that’s being developed that has a VoIP connection upstream to a gateway to allow interconnect to national operators.
Song recons they got a 400m range at a setup they ran at the Afrikaburn festival/party/freakshow in the Karoo in the Western Cape a few months back, and with a new version planned using 802.11n, they’re looking for even longer range.
The non-profit part is key, because these organisations can operate a network in many African countries free if they don’t charge. A small business can be set up to be a commercial venture, but then they’d need an ECS class licence (in SA, similar elsewhere).
The box was developed by a team that kicked around ideas and designs across South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda.
Song says they’re so far not getting hostility from the incumbent mobile and landline operators, but probably because they’re flying well under the radar. The tolerance may change when the Mesh Potato starts to become widespread.
It’s an interesting future. In the past the only people with the ability to deliver a viable telephone network would have to do it on a national basis. Deep pockets. Exclusive licences. Monopolies. Price gouging. In incumbent operators’ defence, the price to pay for doing a national network is that it would have to meet minimum standards. Expensive, reliable, standardised technology. Think SS7.
That changes with repurposed commodity technology.
Now a village or area in a township can set up a telephone network that services just them cheaply and easily. If it falls over, they know exactly whose door to go knock on. It does the needed job. It’s cheap. It can be grown, and grown.
Rather like ISPs providing VoIP services to small businesses will eat into national operators, so small consumer meshes will eat into national operators.
Is this the democratisation and commoditisation of telephony? These small potatos?

(NOTE: Blogging for the event is done with little time and bandwidth. Apologies for any factual errors, but c’est la vie).

By Roger Hislop

The next big thing is content

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

The race to lay fibre optics cables into Africa is on, with around 10 cables either landed or planned by 2012*. What does this mean for business, consumers, rural areas, and communications service providers themselves?

An interesting debate emerged under a session about “The promise of fibre, the last mile, wireless and ubiquitous bandwith”. MTN, Vodacom, Infraco and Seacom spoke about their competing interests and how collaboration is crucial for the future. So far, mobile operators are collaborating on laying cables.

But that’s pretty much where it stops.

Everyone on the panel –Duncan McLeod (Techcentral), Stafford Masie (Seacom), Angela Gahagan (MTN Business), Pieter Uys (Vodacom),Dave Smith (Broadband Infraco)- recognized that the proliferation of cables coming into Africa means that costs will inevitably come down – it’s just a matter of time. And that introduces issues of sustainability for businesses currently working in this space. What are they going to do when competition drives down the price of infrastructure costs and their revenue models are threatened?

Seacom’s Stafford Massie stuck his neck out and said it’s time to move the game on from discussions about infrastructure. He suggested that providers are currently engaging international content owners in a very predatory fashion – wanting exclusivity in their deals – because they’re still obsessed with ownership of infrastructure (see individual cables and towers, placed right next to each other). However, content owners (such as Google, Youtube, Facebook and others) want more openness and are not prepared to be locked into MTN exclusive or Vodacom exclusive deals. Stafford suggests that for the future, the discussion should be about how operators can diversify and monetise new business models.
Massie believes that the way to make money in this space is in content and application services with a pan-African open access platform.
Content however, is a different game to infrastructure. Content models work much better with co-operation, alliances and openness, rather than secretive competition. You have to be more innovative about how you make your money. The telecoms giants in south Africa are possibly too comfortable in their dominant ownership of the space and may well see themselves losing large chunks of revenue to more open and creative players over time.

Angela Gahagan of MTN says they do have value added services, and products that focus on cloud computing, but insists that without the infrastructure, you can’t look at the add-ons. Pieter Uys of Vodacom was equally defensive about the need for infrastructure. There was recognition that providers still need to deliver on terrestrial infrastructure and establish additional footprint to get to underserviced areas. However, apart from SEACOM (represented by Massie) none of the big guns seemed to be able to lift their eyes beyond the current model of getting more subscribers and traffic through “owning” the infrastructure. Perhaps this is a reflection of the bedeviled ICT regulatory environment in South Africa.

Both the panel and participants spoke about how looser regulation allows for a whole different approach to ICT innovation. Kenya has managed to achieve far more Internet penetration and telecoms services, largely because Kenya’s ICT space isn’t highly regulated, allowing plenty of opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship. In discussing leadership, participants said they have tried to work with politicians but so far it just hasn’t worked, so what next? Stafford Massie encouraged people (especially individuals who have the government’s ear) to try again – he said that politicians are not technological people. Things have changed so much in the last 2 years that it’s worth going back to politicians to show them examples of how technology can transform peoples’ lives.

More details on this topic on this podcast with Stafford Massie.

* The current and planned cables include South Asia Telecom Cable (SEACOM), SAT-3, Main-one, Glo-one, East African Submarine Cable System (EASSY), The Eastern African Marine Systems (TEAMS), and West Africa Cable System (WACS).

Samantha Fleming