Life on the Move

February 10, 2011

A friend of mine asked me to write her a bit about my thoughts about immigration, for a paper she’s working on. She knew that I’ve lived in a few countries in Africa for more or less time, and wanted to know more about it, and how I thought people might feel about moving to Europe.

I ended up writing more than I had planned, so instead of leaving it to rot in a private message, I thought I’d publish it to get some feedback from others. Comments and criticisms are welcome.

What do I think about migration: I think it can offer many new opportunities, as well as many risks for the migrant. The people who migrate (to live) are the ones who have least to lose, or the most to gain.

The less they have in their own country, the more likely they are to migrate. At the bottom of the luck pyramid, people are most likely to migrate to escape war, and then in roughly decreasing order, famine, poverty, physical aggression (violence) or oppression (e.g. sexual, sexuality, race, nationality or freedom).

In the middle, diplomats and aid workers migrate because it’s required by their work; volunteers migrate to meet their calling and improve their skills and employability.

At the top of the pyramid, consultants migrate because they get paid fantastic sums, far more than most of us could hope to earn, to offer their unique expertise.

In many countries, immigrants are unpopular or even persecuted, as people feel they are taking advantage of better healthcare without paying taxes, or stealing their jobs. Denmark has a large immigrant community who don’t mix with the Danes, and they are very unpopular in a country that extremely tolerant and liberal in every other way imaginable.

Why did I live in other countries: so far because of work, but I also chose a job which offers me this opportunity regularly and I take it at every opportunity, simply because I love travel, new experiences, meeting new people and learning about new cultures.

Did I have any difficulties? A few:

I was mugged twice in Ghana and robbed once in Italy;

I’m not allowed to walk around at night in Kenya, so I have to travel everywhere by taxi;

it’s expensive living abroad (I got a supplement from my work which helped a bit);

food poisoning is a risk (I just ignore it and be prepared to be sick occasionally);

malaria is a risk in Africa (I always have to take antimalarial drugs, which are expensive);

it doesn’t affect me, but Africans have an acquired semi-immunity to malaria, which they lose if they spend too long living abroad, and is impossible to get back, so if they move back to Africa tey tend to get very sick;

hot humid weather is uncomfortable for me (air conditioning and fans help);

I miss my family, especially my brother’s kids, and my friends and colleagues when I’m abroad, especially for a long time (I return to the UK every so often);

it can be difficult to build a new social life, especially if you’re not staying for long (learning the language helps);

people treat you like an outsider and they can be aggressive towards you if you have more money than them, or if they think you’re taking their jobs (learning the language helps, and learning to ignore beggars and brush off insults);

moving money is expensive (travellers’ cheques, bank charges) (not much you can do about this one, except change as much as you can in one go);

cash machines won’t take your card or they swallow it, cutting off your supply of ready cash (you might have to courier in a new card or return to your own country to collect a replacement);

What’s it like to live in Africa:

Services are very basic to nonexistant. There is usually no hot water for showers unless you stay in a hotel. If there is some, it’s not reliable. You can’t buy soap or beer or wine or any vegetables except local produce in the towns and villages. Electricity is unreliable, sometimes only a few hours per day, so fridges don’t work well. There’s no TV or radio in rural areas.

Fixed line phones don’t really exist, nor do mobile contracts. Everyone is on pay as you go, and you can buy credit everywhere (almost every shop sells it, from butchers to bars), even if there’s no signal. Sometimes you have to go to one spot in the village where there’s signal to make or receive a call.

Everyone wants to talk to you. Kids point at you because you’re white. Some of them have never seen a white person before. People don’t like being photographed. Education tends to be rough, violent, rote learning, in schools with no glass in the windows and wooden benches that are falling apart. Kids have creativity and imagination beaten out of them. I think this is the biggest tragedy of the continent.

In the capitals you see rich people living and working in high-rise flats and office buildings, and just outside, on the street, will be people walking through the traffic (usually gridlocked), selling apples, maps, toys, phone credit, fried plantain chips, meat pies, football shirts, newspapers, anything you can imagine, or just begging from car to car. Taxis have no seatbelts and most are over 10 years old, second-hand from Europe or Japan, and have chipped or smashed windscreens.

Public transport is virtually nonexistent apart from minibuses that usually carry up to 30 people, cheaply and dangerously, from 6am to 7pm. All have taxis and some countries have motorcycle taxis. Taxis are absurdly cheap, usually a few dollars for a 10 minute ride. US dollars are universal currency (good for emergencies) although the exchange rate is terrible. Bicycles are fairly common, as are carts pulled by donkeys.

Government is usually corrupt and useless. You can’t usually get anything from a government office without paying a bribe. You also can’t expect your local representative to do anything for you or your village, town or state, unless it builds their prestige. Government officials pay themselves very highly, often as much as in Europe, and drive the most expensive cars, although most of their electorate survive on a few dollars a day.

Police earn virtually nothing, and you can only expect trouble from them. They’ll stop your car as an excuse for a bribe. They won’t lift a finger over a crime unless there’s a bribe or someone important was robbed or hurt. Hospitals are few, insanitary (never let them inject you unless you bring your own needles), paid for (although not expensive), overcrowded and disorganised. There is no fire service.

Sewage often flows through open gutters on the street, into the nearest river or the sea, when they have running sewage at all. Most villages have no running water, only hand pumps on a well of uncertain quality. Some people walk for hours every day to fetch water.

Generally do you think that an african coming here would find a great difference in attitudes, civilization level etc?

Capital cities tend to have a lot of wealth and infrastructure compared to the rest of the country. I guess that someone coming from a village would be shocked and awed at the level of civilisation that we have, and someone coming from a city would probably take it in their stride.

People think that the UK had very good, efficient government, but Italy for example doesn’t, so maybe an immigrant would not be surprised. Perhaps an immigrant from Asia might even find that some European countries function less efficiently than their own.

Many African countries have restricted freedom of speech. In most it’s illegal to criticise the monarchy, if there is one; in Uganda it’s illegal to be homosexual; in Zimbabwe and Rwanda people are very careful what they say. Two journalists in Rwanda were recently sent to prison for saying that “some Rwandans were unhappy with the country’s rulers.” Many immigrants would be shocked at the level of honesty and criticism of officials in our press.

Regarding attitudes, I’m not so sure. People in Africa seem to be very religious, and shocked at how secular we are. I’m regularly asked which church I go to. People dress very brightly in Africa, particularly women, and they might find our clothing dull. Men in Africa tend to dress smarly, wearing three-piece suits in 40’C heat, and they might find our slack office dress insulting.

Most Africans are probably used to people being very friendly, open and having plenty of time for everyone, and they might find a highly efficient, ordered and controlled society like Denmark or Germany to be oppressive, boring or just unfriendly. People also tend to get married young, and have more children than we do, and several people have been surprised that I’m not married with kids by age 30.

I hope that’s an interesting and not too biased or untruthful report.

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Open source in Government

February 17, 2009

The Register has an interesting article about various open source vendors’ latest attempt to legislate their way into the healthcare system, and why it’s doomed to fail.

I found it well-written and convincing right up to the last
paragraph but one:

If open source is going to make any real headway in the government, there needs to be an incentive to choose it, not a rule. Time and again, this is where the open source community falls short: Quality code isn’t enough of an incentive. You can put the best engineering in the world
into your product, but if you don’t know how to market, your project will rot in the source repository.

Uhh, non sequitur? Needs to be an incentive to choose it => needs better marketing? Where’s the incentive in marketing? Surely the incentive should be that it’s a better product or that it saves money or time, not that it has flashing lights all over it?

Backup Mail Exchangers

January 28, 2009

On Monday night, the power supply unit (PSU) in the server that hosts our mail server failed at around 2200 GMT. We don’t have physical access to the server out of hours, so I wasn’t able to replace it until about 1045 the next day, so our main email server was down for nearly 13 hours.

We didn’t have a backup MX because:

  • It usually can’t check whether recipients are valid or not, and therefore must accept mail that it can’t deliver;
  • It usually doesn’t have as good antispam checks as the primary, because it’s a hassle to keep it updated;
  • Spammers usually abuse backup MXes to send more spam, including Joe Jobs.

I thought that this was OK because people who send us mail also have mail servers with queues, which should hold the mail until our server comes back up. It’s normal for mail servers to go down sometimes and this should not cause mail to be lost or returned.

However, we had a report that one of our users did not receive a mail addressed to them, and was told by the sender that it had bounced. I saw the bounce messsage and suspected Exchange, so I decided to check how long Exchange holds messages before bouncing them. Turns out it’s only five hours by default. Most mail servers hold mail for far longer, for example five days, sending a warning message back to the sender after one day.

Bouncing messages looks bad on us. Apart from making our main mail server more reliable 🙂 we need a backup MX to accept mail when the master is down.

However I do still want to minimise the spam problem that this will cause. Therefore I configured our backup MX to only accept mail when the master is down. Otherwise it defers it, which will tell the sender to try sending it to the master (again).

How did I achieve this magic? With a little Exim configuration that took me a day and that I’m quite proud of. I set up a new virtual machine which just has Exim on it, nothing else. I configured it as an Internet host, and to relay for our most important domains. Then I created /etc/exim4/exim4.conf.localmacros with the following contents:

CHECK_RCPT_LOCAL_ACL_FILE=/etc/exim4/exim4.acl.conf
callout_positive_expire = 5m

This allows us to create a file called /etc/exim4/exim4.acl.conf which contains additional ACL (access control list) conditions. The other change, callout_positive_expire, I’ll describe in a minute.

I created /etc/exim4/exim4.acl.conf with the following contents:

# if we know that the primary MX rejects this address, we should too
deny
        ! verify = recipient/callout=30s,defer_ok
        message = Rejected by primary MX

# detect whether the callout is failing, without causing it to
# defer the message. only a warn verb can do this.
warn
        set acl_m_callout_deferred = true
        verify = recipient/callout=30s
        set acl_m_callout_deferred = false

# if the callout did not fail, and the primary mail server is not
# refusing  mail for this address, then it's accepting it, so tell
# our client to try again later
defer
        ! condition = $acl_m_callout_deferred
        message = The primary MX is working, please use it

# callout is failing, main server must be failing,
# accept everything
accept
        message = Accepting mail on behalf of primary MX

The first clause, which has a deny verb, does a callout to the recipient. A callout is an Exim feature which makes a test SMTP connection and starts the process of sending a mail, checking that the recipient would be accepted. This is designed to catch and block emails that the main server would reject. Our backup server has no idea what addresses are valid in our domains; only the primary knows that.

The callout response is cached for the default two hours if it returns a negative result (the recipient does not exist on the master) or five minutes (see callout_positive_expire above) if the address does exist. We use a defer_ok condition here so that if we fail to contact the master, we don’t defer the mail immediately, but instead assume that the address is OK and therefore continue to the next clause.

The second clause of the ACL, which has a warn verb, is what took me so long to work out. Normally, if a condition in a statement returns a result of defer, which means that it failed, the server will defer the whole message (tell the sender to come back later). In almost all cases this is the right thing to do, but it’s the exact opposite of what we want here. We want to accept mail if the callout is failing, not defer it, otherwise our backup MX is useless (it stops accepting mail if the primary goes down).

Because this is such an unusual thing to do, there is no configurable option for it in Exim. The only workaround that I found is that there is exactly one way to avoid a deferring condition causing the message to be deferred: a warn verb. The documentation for the warn verb says:

If any condition on a warn statement cannot be completed (that is, there is some sort of defer), the log line specified by log_message is not written… After a defer, no further conditions or modifiers in the warn statement are processed. The incident is logged, and the ACL continues to be processed, from the next statement onwards.

So what we do is:

  1. Set the local variable
    acl_m_callout_deferred to true;
  2. Try the callout. If it defers (cannot contact the primary server) then we stop processing the rest of the conditions in the warn statement, as described above;
  3. If we get to this point, we know that the callout did not defer, so we set acl_m_callout_deferred to false.

The third clause  of the ACL, which has a defer verb, simply checks the variable that we set above. If we get this far then the primary server is not rejecting this address; and if it’s not deferring either, then it must be accepting mail for the address. In that case, we defer the message, telling our SMTP client to try again later, at which point it will hopefully succeed in delivering directly to the primary.

Callout result caching becomes a problem here. If the master was not reachable, but a previous callout had verified that a particular address existed, and that callout result was cached for the default 24 hours, then the backup MX would defer subsequent mail to that address for the next 24 hours, even if the master went down. This is why we changed the positive callout result caching time to 5 minutes earlier.

The fourth clause  of the ACL, which has an accept verb, is even simpler. It accepts everything that was not denied or deferred earlier. We can only get this far if the master is not accepting or rejecting mail for that address.

So far the configuration appears to work fine and has blocked 14 spam attempts (abusing the backup MX) in 14 hours.

I apologise for not writing another article sooner. I’d like to respond to some of the comments on my previous article, IT in the field, by some of the people I mentioned, Jeff Allen and Jon Thompson. I’ll include their comments and my responses inline.

Jon writes:

1) Almost no one uses PDA’s. Mobiles – yes. (See my post on Nokia Data Gathering.)

I would argue that I’m coming from a different position, not on what’s currently in the field and being used, but what could be. I think that Jon is referring to a similar kind of future possibilities in his follow-on article. But I’m also thinking in terms of what an organisation (NGO or government) can do to avoid these problems in the first place, by changing the way that they deploy technology.

I accept completely that PDAs are not commonly used in the field at the moment. However, I’d suggest that organisations take a much closer look at deploying PDAs (and mobile phones) instead of general-purpose PCs in current and future projects, as it would avoid most of the problems that Jeff reports and that we are discussing here.

2) Is anyone buying and deploying Inveneo? Who is Aleutia? What is their penetration. Odds are Jeff’s guy in Congo will never know about either.

I’m not intending to put the onus on Jeff’s guy in Congo, or any other end user, to select appropriate technology for their circumstances. I don’t think they have the technical skills or buying power to do so. The choice was already made for them by the organisation that supplied a PC running Windows without antivirus updates. I believe that this was a bad choice, driven by the factors that I gave in my previous article, and that different choices could be made in future to avoid such problems.

3) Webmail will stay the same until the cows come home. Sure, someone can write tricky code but will the guy in Congo ever see it? Probably not.

Actually, I have seen comments asking why Google doesn’t use their own Gears library for their own webmail service, particularly in the context of recent Gmail service outages. If they did decide to do so, the benefits should translate immediately to users with low-bandwidth or intermittent connections, in the Congo as elsewhere.

4) Mac OSX does not exist in the rest of the world and barely in the Balkans, some of which are even slated for EU membership.

I don’t see that as a strong argument against deploying alternatives such as MacOS X in new systems. We have a problem: poor maintainability of traditional IT systems in the field. We have to find solutions to those problems, which may involve deploying different technology. The same argument applies to Ubuntu.

5) So you do support Ubuntu adoption as an alternative? I think you are getting my point. You could just install Ubuntu and forget about the AVG argument.

But the end user will not deploy Ubuntu. The providers of the equipment will have to do it for them. That’s my point, that the organisations have to change, not the end users.

Vertical programs that distribute hardware almost never follow-up so anything they put in the field is usually toast within a few months.

That’s precisely my point in the last article, even if I rambled a bit in the process of getting there. But I think it would be great to have hard numbers that we could present as evidence to the organisations to get them to recognise the problems in what they’re doing, and to change their ways.

For example, let us just say that something causes the OS to hiccup so the well meaning local IT guy steps in and recommends reinstalling the OS. Of course the owner doesn’t have one so the IT guy offers one of his own. Bootleg install. Story over.

That is certainly true for general-purpose computers, but even a minimal amount of BIOS lock-down can prevent the reinstallation of the software, or make it significantly harder. There’s also the question of why the man in the Congo is turning to his “local IT guy” for technical support? Why isn’t the organisation that provided the computer providing support for it as well?

9) Forget about NGO’s as they are not the problem. Remember, this guy worked for the Congolese Gov’t so he gets whatever trickles down (a few odd machines from international agencies)

These “international agencies” are precisely who I meant by NGOs. Perhaps I should have included IOs as well, but all this jargon is going to get very confusing to anyone who’s not an expert in the field. Is there any reason not to lump NGOs, IOs and government programmes into the same basket as “organisations” all?

His support team? The local DVD vendor and the well meaning IT tech. Therefore, educate the local health official, the DVD vendor and the local IT tech…

And why are they his only (or primary) means of support? MSF sent Jeff out to deal with a problem that wasn’t even to do with any equipment that they provided (as far as we know), but it was stopping the man in the Congo from interacting with MSF.

Had MSF not sent Jeff to the Congo, you, me and Jeff would be none the wiser.

Indeed, but had the original organisation not sent out the wrong equipment (a Windows computer with no support and no antivirus updates), MSF would not have had to waste a lot of valuable time and money and resources on sending Jeff out in the first place. Also, had MSF provided their own, more suitable equipment, for the man in the Congo to use, Jeff would not have had to make an on-site visit either.

I’d like to respond to Jeff’s comments as well, but this article is already getting rather long and ranty, so I’ll leave that for another day.

With deregulation very much on people’s minds due to the imminent demise of capitalism I thought now might be a good time to discuss the international consensus on the “liberalisation” of public utilities in the developing world. By liberalisation I, of course, mean private companies delivering public services like water and electricity.

Whilst there is clearly a debate in regard to publicly run utilities in the West, with some for and some against, there seems to be an unparalleled consensus when it comes to the governments of the developing world and their (in)ability to provide public services without private help.

Partly this is historical. In the West there has been long term infrastructure investment so a break up usually involves pawning the family silver and a shift away from a proven model. In much of the developing world this infrastructure is in a far more uneven state, and poorer governments have difficulty finding the funds to roll out new pipelines (for example) to rural areas. Who better then than private companies to do it for them? After all 51 of the 100 largest economies in the world are corporations who are only too willing to make short term investments for long term returns.

A failing state whose government doesn’t care one way or the other whether the people are well served is unlikely to be able to deliver essentials like a decent telecommunications network to isolated communities. So when it came to handing Tanzania’s water provision over to a UK company no one was prepared to argue that this wasn’t going to work, after all, they’re the experts. Except it was a disaster (see here).

The same argument applies there as it does here. Private companies provide these services in order to make a profit. So the service will be the minimum required and the cost will need to include the director’s new private jet. You get less for more in an NHS hospital run by private finance – why would it be any different under an African sun?

The only real difference is that when private water companies stuff up in the West it’s just a case of more leaky pipes and higher bills – in developing regions whole communities run dry. Whilst good financial management is obligatory, the aim has to be the human benefit in country not the bank balances of rich Westerners.

The very point that makes liberalisation seem more acceptable in developing nations (weak, ineffective states) also means these states have real difficulties regulating the behavior of private companies. The greater the liberalisation, the weaker these states become until there is barely any democratic control over the waytilities are run at all. It feeds an addictive cycle that means the deeper the liberalisation, the harder it is for a nation state to provide public services direct.

The free market consensus has meant that the very thing that undermines the ability of developing world governments to become effective managers over essential services is seen as the thing that is the savior of these services.

In Bolivia the gas industry went for years without making any significant contribution to the national coffers, and the jobs it provided were almost entirely staffed by non-Bolivians – which meant it was only when the Morales government introduced proper taxation (under the misnomer nationalisation) did this significant industry begin to fund a program of reforms that had a direct impact on the lives of the poorest Bolivians.

Even the WTO admits that “There is no causal link between foreign investment and poverty reduction. 80% of FDI is in the form of mergers and acquisitions, little in the form of productive investment that creates jobs and exports.”

During a largely unobjectionable speech a few days ago WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy argued for “the reduction of barriers to trade in critical services, such as banking, energy, and environmental services”. This whilst the rest of the world is arguing for an increase in regulation to the banking industry. So even when the tried and tested methods of the modern market are being rethought for the West poorer, less influential nations still get fed the same old diet of the state being a barrier to growth – and they aren’t in a position to underwrite entire industries if they get into trouble.

Lars Thunell of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) let the cat out of the bag when he said in August that “We believe that providing clean water and sanitation services is a real business opportunity.” Well, that’s great, but first and foremost it’s a human necessity.

In practice, in places like Zambia, “the twin policy goals of ensuring commercial viability and meeting social objectives have been shown to be incompatible, if not contradictory, under the new system.” The WTO says that “Water privatization, almost everywhere else that it has applied, has meant more expensive and lower quality water for poorer communities, or even, as in Puerto Rico, no water at all for the poor. (The rich in these places benefit from fine water.)”

Shripad Dharmadhikary talks about how “The [World] Bank’s knowledge is frequently created by highly paid, often international, consultants, who have little knowledge of local conditions. The knowledge creation is mostly directed towards arriving at a pre-determined set of policies – privatisation and globalisation. This knowledge creation is often selective, in that information, evidence or experiences that do not support these pre-determined outcomes are ignored.” In other words people in poor nations are disempowered by ‘experts’ in rich nations when it comes to running their own economy and essential services.

International mechanisms are used to bulldoze opposition rather than facilitate meeting targets like the Millenium Development Goals. So, for example, “the benefit of GATS [are seen as] as helping to overcome domestic resistance to change, to render domestic protest against privatization futile. It is time we examined whether this is really the appropriate tactic to raising living standards, or whether listening to the concerns of the poor is in fact necessary.”

A bit of a trawl though the WTO archives revealed that even organisations responsible for this mess recognise that their past behavior has not been entirely helpful. “In almost all countries that have undertaken rapid trade liberalisation, wage inequality has increased [seeing a] 20-30% fall in wages in some Latin American countries. Trade liberalization is negatively correlated with income growth among the poorest 40 per cent of the population, but positively correlated with income growth among higher income groups. In other words, it helps the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

But whilst it’s important to recognise that the market does not provide magical solutions we still aren’t out of the problem that very poor countries often do not have the skills nor funds to invest in major infrastructure projects. Global envision express this idea most clearly when they said “The fact is that most developing-country markets are too small to support infant-industry promotion and their states are too weak, incompetent and corrupt to efficiently administer the complex instruments required. As for WTO rules, it makes sense for developing-country governments to voluntarily enter into commitments with other WTO members that bind in sensible policies (for example, to restrict subsidies and performance requirements), and provide external discipline against silly and harmful government intervention.”

In other words, if you play by their rules you don’t have real options. Without the ability to deliver upfront investment there is no way to avoid the inevitable corruption that comes from working with Western corporations. Alternatively you could substantially tax their profits to fund better infrastructure, health and education – which benefits those corporations in the long run anyway.

A fairer deal takes countries out of the indignity of waiting for aid packages that don’t deliver and having political ‘reform’ foisted on you that is just a one sided set of rules that lock those nations into further dependency.

You don’t build effective states by systematically undermining their ability to deliver the essential services that their populations demand. Building functioning democracies relies upon local people having direct control over their economy and public utilities. Whilst liberalisation seems like a good go round for today’s problems it breeds its own future difficulties and dependencies so needs to be deployed on a case by case basis rather than as a matter of ideology.

Fibre for Africa

September 26, 2008

The consensus seems to be that Africa needs more land and submarine links to provide enough bandwidth for its long-term growth, and bring down satellite Internet costs.

East Africa currently depends completely on expensive satellite bandwidth. There are several projects in progress to lay submarine cables down the east and west coasts, and it can be difficult to keep track of them all.

Luckily, Steve Song has drawn an excellent map here. I’m linking it here to help people find it (including myself, next time I need that map).

We also need overland connections to help bring that bandwidth to landlocked countries, to help them share and compete with each other, and to network rural areas. Fibre, copper and microwave are the traditional and expensive options, O3B wants to provide a satellite alternative, but the TIER group‘s WiLDNet project has the most disruptive potential in my view, potentially replacing microwave links with something that’s a hundred times cheaper and can be bought off the shelf.

TIER also wants to see their technology used to provide international bandwidth and compete with the undersea cables:

The vision is to connect Gilbraltar, which has low-cost world-class bandwidth and hosting, overland via long-distance Wifi through Morocco/Algerian, Mali, Burkina Faso, to Ghana.  This means crossing the Sahara, which is certainly not trivial.  (Timbuktu is roughly on this path.)  The article said 6 Mb/s, but I am thinking something much higher.  Although this is a crazy idea, I think it is much cheaper than many proposed projects, and if it worked you could grow the network over time and also increase BW for busy links, even moving to fiber once you have the traffic to pay for it.

(reference, video)

Google Broadband

September 9, 2008

According to FT and other sources, Google has announced their support for a new initiative called O3B to “bring internet access to 3bn people in Africa and other emerging markets by launching at least 16 satellites to bring its services to the unconnected” in 2010.

They will… order 16 low-earth orbit satellites… as the first stage in a $750m project to connect mobile masts in a swath of countries within 45 degrees of the equator to fast broadband networks… the project could bring the cost of bandwidth in such markets down by 95 per cent.

This will probably be the largest single investment in developing country network infrastructure in history. The TEAMS submarine cable for East Africa (which is not yet active) will cost $82m to lay according to Wikipedia, while SAT-3 (West Africa) cost $280m. However, the comparable but larger Iridium satellite service, with 77 LEO satellites, was estimated to have cost US$6 billion and filed for bankruptcy in 1999.

According to the FT, “wireless spectrum required for the service had been secured through the ITU“, but this seems unlikely as the ITU works by consensus and not coercion, and it has no power to override local governments’ license demands.

In Kenya for example, a deregulated market, an international gateway operator must pay Ksh 15m ($210,000) for a 15-year license, plus up to $70,000 per year, and probably the same again for VSAT licenses. If this is scaled up from Kenya’s 37 million population to the whole of Africa’s 955 million, O3B might have to pay US$ 18m per year for licenses alone, adding $360m to the cost of the project over the 20-year lifespan of the satellites.

The technical model is interesting. By not dealing directly with end users, but being a bandwidth provider for communications providers, O3B enters a market with Intelsat, Iridium and other satellite operators, providing expensive bandwidth in places where none is available. Their service should have lower latency than the usual geostationary satellites, as their satellites orbit closer to the Earth in MEO (NYT claims only 120 milliseconds, compared to 500 for a geostationary satellite). However:

  • latency will still be worse than land-based connections (I don’t buy NYT’s claim that 120 ms is “close to fiber”)
  • bandwidth will still be limited by available frequency space
  • bandwidth will have to be shared (to some extent) between users of a single satellite
  • ground stations communicating with moving satellites have spectrum efficiency problems (due to the Doppler effect)
  • ground stations with moving (tracking) antennae must switch from one satellite to another every 10 minutes, causing a short dropout
  • satellite communications require more power than microwave links, and in this case are likely to be located in rural areas with no electricity grid
  • the hidden node problem makes satellite more suitable for leased line substitution than Internet access

Latency is likely to remain a problem for voice customers, both mobile networks and Internet access, for which bandwidth demand is largely being driven by VoIP (estimated at 70% of bandwidth use in some African countries). Satellite VoIP providers apparently use different codecs with lower bitrates than standard VoIP, so popular services like Skype may not work well over satellite.

Google and other partners have so far invested $65m of the total $750m sought, and venture capital is being raised for the rest. This proves just how much this bottom of the pyramid Internet market is worth to Google.

Satellite bandwidth is already highly commoditised, and O3B’s plan to reduce this from US$4,000 per megabit per month to $500 requires compelling evidence. In any case this is wholesale bandwidth, not for end users, who will still pay whatever the telco wishes to charge.

I also think that their US$ 750 million investment in satellites will be useless within 20 years of launch due to degradation (NYT claims a 10-15 year life for MEO satellites), whereas building more land capacity in Africa would have much longer-lasting benefits.

Om Malik says: “I’m intrigued by this startup because it does make sense to offer connectivity in remote areas. It also makes sense because Africa is one of the booming cellular markets and one where there is a need for cellular backhaul infrastructure. In remote areas, voice is going to be the killer app for a long, long time. The problem is that this company will always compete with fiber networks in terms of pricing, and that might put them on the back foot.

Google clearly wishes to use this project to enable broadband Internet access in developing regions, but many other things must be in place, including fixed power infrastructure, PCs or OLPCs, technical support and skills, and demand and useful content and services for areas with lower literacy, before that can happen.

Hopefully this will at least increase the spread of mobile and broadband networks by adding backhaul options (competition) and reducing the financial barriers that telcos have to overcome to deploy these networks, but this is far from certain, especially as the telcos would like to offer such services themselves, and may view O3B as a competitor more than a supplier.

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