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

Leila C. Janah inspires delegates to change the world

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 keynote speaker for the first day of Tech4Africa 2010 was Leila Chirayath Janah from Samasource, a woman that every one of us should aspire to be like. She gave up a life in America to come to Africa to teach.

Out of this she founded Samasource, which allows people living in poverty to cross the digital divide. Leila surprised the audience with some astounding stats on education and literacy levels in Africa, which are higher than we all think. The real problem is lack of work, unemployment drives young people to join terrorist organisations in droves because it is the only way to earn money to feed their families.

Local trade and crafts does not make an impact on the poor either. Products made by poor people are often only bought by locals or a few tourists, making a maximum of $1 a day for the sellers.

Conversely, most corporations do not make products that are affordable for the majority of the 3rd world citizens. In Leila’s words, ‘we must engage the bottom of the pyramid if we are to eradicate poverty‘.

Samasource’s mission is to connect poor people to work via the internet, it builds tools to allow their customers to work with them without outsourcing to a large company.

According to Leila, “the Internet is not just an information superhighway, its a work superhighway”, we can use the tools and connectivity the internet provides to make a real difference to global unemployment.

Samasource’s key value proposition is the ‘virtual assembly lines’, where companies give work on a per task basis. This allows people to work from local centers and internet cafes, eliminating the need to travel long distances to big cities to find work.

The system, and Leila herself, is inspiring and taught every delegate at Tech4Africa today that we can use the internet to make a difference and we don’t have to be rich or famous to do it. We can only hope that local initiatives like Heather Ford’s ‘GeekRetreat’ can follow in Leila’s footsteps and we, as South African Geeks, can begin to bridge the gap between the connected and the rest.

Heidi Schneigansz

Tech4Africa 2010 begins: The Fifth Estate, WiFi and VOIP

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

Tech4Africa 2010, the most anticipated event on the South African tech calendar, officially kicked off this morning. The brainchild of Gareth Knight, the event aims to bring the global giants and South African minds together to discuss the possibilities of human enabled technology and communications.

With international speakers like Clay Shirky, Leila Chirayath Janah and Dustin Diaz, supported by local minds like Alistair Fairweather, Rob Stokes and Barbara Mallinson (and too many more to mention), the conference promises to be, well, rad.

The proceedings were kicked off by Internet Solutions CEO; Derek Wilcocks. He spoke about cloud computing and the impact that the internet is having on our society today, describing the internet as The Fifth Estate. According to Wilcocks, the internet is a ‘power block in society, a force that can determine our society and communications’. He spoke of global corporations who are using the internet and social media to open communication channels, perform market research, develop brand advocates and increase customer service efficiency, but cautioned us that as powerful as the internet is, employees with the most cohesive face to face networks are up to 23% more productive than their digitally networked counterparts.

Wilcocks reminds us that non verbal communication dominates our lives as we live in an increasingly digital world, but ideally, real words smiles and handshakes should complement, expand and enrich our digital lives.

The second speaker in the Business Stream was Justin Spratt, who spoke on ‘Circumventing Monopolies with VOIP and Wireless’. Justin is the SA geek space’s favorite Australian, who heads up the WIFI and VOIP division at Internet Solutions.

According to Spratt, approximately 70% of phone calls originate from within buildings, so by implementing VOIP networks on fixed and mobile phones, we can save up to 30% of telephony costs, no mean feat on a continent where the consumer and business are being choked by high costs and low availability.

With his customary style, Spratt told us that “With all due respect to King Jobs, the mobile operating system currently sucks”.
Spratt predicted that by the end of 2011, BlackBerry sales will be in decline, due to the fact that the customer is not at the centre of their development and mobile architecture like Android will overtake iPhone and BlackBerry due to the open nature of the Google platform. IS are only developing their VOIP service for mobile software that they deem has a future, namely Symbian, Android and iPhone (only because you simply can’t ignore the iPhone).

IS aims to install their WIFI hotspots in every major centre, airport and corporate so they can ‘get into our spaces and save us money’ by automatically picking up that you are in the hotspot and routing you onto the network.

Spratt concluded that the key learnings from the IS VOIP project were not groundbreaking technologies but good usability, the ability to adapt and passion for your team, your project and your product.

Heidi Schneigansz

A great environment to learn and get inspired

Tech4Africa is less than a week away and we’re very excited! We’ve worked so hard to create an awesome environment at the conference, so we wanted to let our delegates what’s in store for them (the reasons for what we like to call Tech4Africa the “unconference”):

1. Speakers on panels will be talking from couches, not lecterns.

2. Questions are encouraged after each session.

3. Our speakers will be listening in at other talks, just like all the other delegates.

4. Andy Budd, Joe Stump, Dustin Diaz, Jonathan Snook and John Resig, will be doing an intimate technical Q & A session, where they’ll talk about issues they’ve faced and how they’ve approached them. This is a vital session for anyone technical.

5. There will be surprises prizes under seats, and a “goody bag”.

6. We’ve created ample opportunity for hallway conversations, networking, and meeting new people.

7. There is an interactive expo environment including a news studio, Internet cafe and an FNB coffee lounge.

8. There’ll be unique badges to help start conversations and introductions.

9. A deadly serious “no ties” and “no suits” policy!

10. Between all the serious stuff, there is a Cocktail party (with DJ) and an After party, where we hope you’ll join us for some fun!

Get ready for some inspiration 😉 Hope to see you there!