The Government Must Embrace the Internet, It’s here to Stay 

​TechZim reports that the Minister Supa Mandiwanzira recently said that telecoms companies have lost up to $26 million in revenue due to the use of over the top services such as WhatsApp calls and Skype. Consequently, the minister continued, Potraz (which regulates telecommunication companies) and the people of Zimbabwe also lost money. Potraz, he said, lost $139 000 while “we” the people lost $4 million in potential taxes. 

I chuckled when I read that, because aside from not making much sense, there’s nothing wrong with over the top services.

This is simply how technology works. Regardless of the minister’s wishes, or his grasp of Economics, the truth here is that ordinary voice calls and texts are on the decline. Not only here but globally (see here,  here,  here). 

Governments and corporates might not like the decline of voice calls for many reasons. One of the biggest might be the loss of control. The government might resent the limited control they have on third party services such as Skype or WhatsApp as opposed to normal voice and texts which they can access,  control or monitor through local telecom companies. 

However from a purely economic perspective, it is better for the economy as a whole to use over the top services. 

Ask any person in the street whether they are worried that WhatsApp is replacing texts and you’ll get an emphatic no. People are actually happy with the convenience and cheapness of WhatsApp.

The telecoms companies are certainly not as happy,  after all they lose money. But I think it’s incorrect for the minister to say that the people of Zimbabwe also lost money in the form of potential taxes. My understanding of Economics (which is admittedly informal and limited) informs me that cheaper ways of communication are better for everyone. 

After all consumers communicated using cheaper means, that is through data, rather than texts or voice calls. So the consumers benefited, and the money they may have spent on airtime was spent on something else. Wherever that money was spent it most certainly had taxes imposed, so <em>another</em> sector of the government’s taxes rose. Even when that money was spent on tax free items, the overall commerce of the economy hardly changed.

More importantly from a tech perspective it is a development that has far reaching technological consequences. Consider a situation where there are fewer and fewer voice calls and texts. Obviously more people will seek to buy smartphones that are WhatsApp capable. The smartphones are more expensive than feature phones hence more business again. 

Smartphones also have plenty of features whose positive impact on the economy might not be apparent now. These include opportunities for online businesses, improved internet connectivity, greater citizen awareness, more access to information by the citizenry and a boost to the local app ecosystem. The possible benefits of more people adopting smartphones are vast.

That is the way of technology. In fact there were people who were unhappy when cars started replacing horse-drawn carriages. You can guess that those were people who either owned horses or lords who were wealthy enough to have them. It’s true as well that a whole lot of jobs dies with the rise of cars, for example blacksmiths who made horseshoes and cinches.

Similarly one might point out the “lost revenue” of postal services with the rise of the internet. Or that by camera makers when the smartphone started having decent cameras.

It’s true, but it needs to be viewed in the broader context.

These arguments ignore the other side: the jobs created by car makers, the people employed because of the internet and, of course, the many other important technologies and inventions that sprung from these disruptive technological advances.

Clever companies have already realized that there isn’t much money in texts and voice anymore. The next fifty years belong to the web and web applications and content delivery on the internet is where the money is going to be. Companies like AT&T have stayed in the game by evolving and adapting to the times. Those that refuse- like Kodak did with the digital cameras, or IBM with computers will find themselves eclipsed by more responsive firms.

Strive Masiyiwa knows this. That’s why Liquid Telecom recently bought Neotel of South Africa and Raha of Tanzania. Both provide internet services. Together with Zol, Econet will be assured of a place in Southern Africa’s tech space for the next few decades. That’s also why Mr Masiyiwa is so passionate about the Kwese TV project. The internet is the future, and whosoever ignores this simple fact will be left behind.

The minister of ICT should be working on ensuring that more people have access to the internet instead of lamenting over money that was never the treasury’s to begin with. 

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The Dangers of the Internet- and Stupidity

Ok, it’s not really the internet that’s dangerous. It’s just plain stupidity here.

Reminder of what/what not to say online. Especially if you think your job is boring, or your boss is an idiot.

If you’re this stupid then you probably shouldn’t be on the internet in the first place. Like seriously, who does what this guy did?

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God may live in Africa but the internet doesn’t

Chances are that you think your internet connection is slow. This feeling is stronger if you’ve spent some time in places like the US, UK, Germany or South Korea.

Of course it might just be that your service provider provides crappy internet or the signal is weak where you live or maybe you are on the lowest priced data plan but the depressing (or perhaps comforting?) fact is this: Wherever you are in Africa the internet is slower than, say, Germany.

There are a number of factors which cause this inequality but possibly the most important is the issue of hosts. Two months ago at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport a Google employee, one Mr David Weekly, noticed that his internet speed was noticeably slower than what he got when in the US despite the excellent signal. He wrote a “mildly technical” post about it on his Facebook page.

Without getting too technical let me briefly explain what David discovered. When a person goes on the internet, and tries to access Facebook, Twitter or perhaps search for images of Robert Mugabe’s mustache what happens is that a request is send to another computer called a server which stores your favourite videos and, indeed, pictures of Bob’s mustache.

In simple (and very simplistic) terms the data from that host computer is then transferred to your computer’s browser which interprets it and turns it into moving things on your screen. . For a page to fully display a number of trips between your PC and the host where the data is stored  may have to be made.

A simple pingback reveals that it takes over 200 ms for data to travel between my computer and
A simple pingback reveals that it takes over 200 ms for data to travel between my computer and Facebook’s servers. The round the trip time is as much as 300ms.

This delay – termed “latency”- is usually very small because of the incredibly high speeds at which the data is transferred, which while significantly slower than the speed of light, are still very very high. In fact, when a delay is less than 100ms users will feel as if the responses are instant. However if distances are very long the effect becomes noticeable, particularly when you try to load a “big” page. You’ve probably noticed latency when speaking to someone in South Africa over the phone.

The problem here is that most of the data we access is hosted in the US or UK, or other places that are really far away from your flat, local internet cafe or the village where I grew up. So it obviously takes less time for a person in London to access a webpage hosted in London than it takes me to access the same page from here.

One way of solving this problem is for huge internet companies like Facebook and Google to put some of their servers in Africa. This would help but the companies themselves have no economic incentive to do so because only a tiny fraction- about 3%- of the world’s internet traffic is from Africa.

Perhaps a more sustainable, and economically beneficial, solution is for us Africans to host our sites locally. This will reduce the latency and also help African firms which provide hosting services. It might also start a virtuous cycle of increased speeds, greater internet usage, cheaper data and so forth.

So the next time you want to pull your hair out after a YouTube video stops buffering, remember that while Will Smith allegedly  famously said “God lives in Africa and sometimes visits other places”, the Internet lives in North America and Europe, sometimes visiting Africa.

God may live in Africa, the Internet certainly does not.

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