Much A Do About Bundles

March 2, 2015 3 comments

data bundlesKenyans (especially the Internet savvy ones) are an angry lot. Angry because a mobile operator has put in place what they term as restrictive terms of use of purchased data plans such as:

  • Expiry of the purchased data plans 30 days after activation
  • Restricted data bundle sharing ability. A user can only share his or her data with other up to a maximum of 10 times in a month down from 50.

Kenyan’s argument is simple; The operator took their money in exchange for the data and therefore the users have a right to use the plans for as long as they please and share as many times to as many people as they wish. This simplistic argument is based on a layman’s understanding of what exactly happens when you purchase a data plan.

When a user buys a data plan, a contract comes into force, this contract is between the buyer and the mobile operator. The contract obliges the operator to deliver the purchased data when and if required by the user. What we need to note however is that the contract comes into force to offer an option, not a product or a subscription.

An Option is defined as “the ability to take a predefined action for a fixed period of time in exchange for a fee. A product on the other hand is defined as tangible form of value. For value to be provided via an option, the seller must:

  • Identify some action people might wants to take in the future (browse the internet)
  • offer potential buyers the right to take that action before a specified deadline (guarantee the connection to download the purchased GBs)
  • Convince the potential buyers that the option  is worth the asking price (Marketing activities)
  • Enforce a specified deadline for taking action. (Data plan expiry)

Options allow the purchaser the ability to take a specific action without requiring the purchaser to take that action. If you buy a movie ticket for example, you have the ability to take a seat in the movie theater but you don’t have to if a more ‘plotious’ plan comes up that’s better than the movie. Being an option, you cannot seek a refund for not having  watched the movie at the advertised times.

Data plans are not a product, they are an option and are therefore bound by time for the specified action to take place. What you purchase is the ability to download xGBs and not the ‘actual’ GBs. This ability is time bound just like your movie ticket. I think the fact that most Kenyans refer them as ‘bundles’ signifies their belief that they have purchased a product.

Some people are arguing that by the fact that money changed hands, the end-user should determine his or her pace of use of the data plan/bundle and there should be no time limit of the usage. What we forget however is that the contract came into place when you purchased the data plan, but ownership was not transferred from the operator because this is not a products but an option. The contract specifies the terms on which the data plan (not bundle) will be delivered to you but it does not transfer any deeds to the end-user. Because options amount to dispositions of future property, in common law countries they are normally subject to the rule against perpetuities and must be exercised within the time limits prescribed by law.

Just like in companies that mostly offer employees share options and not share ownership. Options have limited specified actions and a time limit attached to it as opposed to share ownership.

The best the users can do is to petition the operator to revise the rules governing the options but not pontificate online about what is essentially an offer to take up an option and not buy a product.

When the operator came up with the feature that enabled a user to share or sambaza their purchased data plan to others, what was happening is that users were transferring their purchased option to a different party on commercial basis. The fact that a user could do the transfer many times posed a danger for the operator because:

  • The exchange of money and the option was between the operator and the purchaser. The contract is therefore enforceable between these two. Sharing the data bundle was innocently aimed at fostering data usage but had the inadvertent effect of complicating the options contract. Who should complain if the service is slow/poor? The original purchaser or the shared data recipient? You might argue that the recipient has a SIM card and is therefore in contract with the mobile operator, purchasing a SIM card and activating it constitutes an invitation to treat and no contract comes into force by activating a SIM card.
  • The option rules must have been understood by the recipient for them to accept. The fact that some people had started purchasing wholesale data and retailing it at much lower prices that the operator was doing wasn’t the issue, the issue was the operator found themselves in a legal quagmire as there were now people on the network exercising options they had not purchased. The retailers were purchasing the wholesale bundles as options and selling them as products.
  • An option for a wholesale data bundle has a longer specific action period in which the user can exercise the option. This is assumed to be the consumption of the data bundle in a manner that will deliver the agreed quality of service. A 200GB bundle has a longer expiry period to say a 10MB bundle, this is because based on the network resources, the higher GB bundle can be delivered over a period of time. If you now take the 200GB and ‘sell’ by sambaza-ing 2GB each to 100 people who will then proceed to consume the 200GB within 3-4 days, that voids the contract because the 200GBs were offered at a much cheaper price because there is an element of predictability of the network resources required over a longer period of time in which the 200GB was to be consumed and if these were consumed in a manner inconsistent to the initial agreement which was to ensure that its consumption also enables other users to enjoy their options, the contract is void. Same way you cannot demand a movie in a theater to be fast forwarded  on scenes you don’t like, data options have usage rules, if you make such a demand in a movie theater, the option contract becomes void and you will be asked to leave the movie theater with no refund.

Citations on some legal terms taken from:

  • translegal.com
  • Wikipedia

New ideas needed in the African telecoms scene in 2015

December 31, 2014 2 comments

telcoAs 2014 comes to a close, the continents telecom sector players have had a rather mixed year. Those who were lucky and made a tidy return during the year need to be aware that most of the innovative technology that enabled them return a profit is approaching a point of diminishing returns. if they are to make it through 2015 and beyond, they will need to out-innovate themselves and competition.

In the last Africacom conference held in Cape Town, it was noted by several leading telecoms analysts that telecom operators in Africa (especially Mobile) are confused; unsure if they are banks, insurance firms, hardware vendors, money transfer entities or fixed broadband ISPs. In my opinion this confusion lies in the fact that African operators are close to 100% dependent on vendor driven as opposed to market driven innovation. Noting that there are about 5 major vendors who serve most of African operators (Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, ALU, Cisco), a lot of copy cat innovations have been shoved down the operators throats. The lack of in-house or external but vendor independent innovation ‘think tanks’ (for lack of a better word) will be their undoing.

Below are some points that I believe any wise telco CEO needs to be aware of in 2015.

Application software (Apps)

For a long time, broadband operators in Africa have been selling bandwidth pipes to connect users to the Internet. With the ‘Appification’ of many services and platforms, browsing via web browsing software is slowly diminishing. The good thing with this is that to some extent the end users cede control of how much is being transferred to the apps leading to higher data consumption spread over a 24 hour period per person. More data use=more revenues. Spread of usage pattern over 24hours = more predictable and stable network.

African operators need to work with content providers in the development of apps which will spur bandwidth consumption and simplify life for users. The burden of app development has been left to mostly young hobbyists in incubation centers and freelance programmers, its time operators took this seriously and worked with developers especially funding their start-ups. Operators such as Safaricom in Kenya and Milicom in TZ have already set-up a venture fund towards this. The effect of this is that these apps will spur a data boom.

Video On Demand

In the past, operators have been cautious over offering VOD services due to several factors such as:

  • Lack of a payment platform due to the very low penetration of credit cards in Africa
  • Unstable networks that would ruin a VOD experience
  • Expensive bandwidth that made it cheaper to lease/buy a DVD movie
  • Lack of VOD ready customer premise equipment

The above barriers are now rapidly vanishing, for example, there might not be a massive uptake of credit cards in Africa, but mobile money platforms have to some extent covered this gap, the other promising feature is the ability to pay for services and downloads from your mobile phone airtime aka Mobile operator billing. The main area that need to be worked on by operators and regulators is the high cost of bandwidth that is still prevalent in many countries in Africa. The telecoms sector is a major source of revenue for many governments by way of spectrum and operating license fees. This cost is passed down to consumers making services expensive. If the governments lowered their appetite for revenues from license and instead let the cheaper bandwidth spur economic gains, the continent stands to gain more. There are over 100 VOD registered operators in Africa and this number is bound to grow if bandwidth was cheaper. With a counterfeit movie DVD going for about $0.5 in Nairobi streets, VOD will take off when the cost of demanding a video online is lower than that, that’s 1.4GB for less than $0.5. The African VOD experience needs not be a carbon copy of the US or EU versions, lower quality videos (hence lower bandwidth consumption) will find a niche here I believe. Remember when people dismissed YouTube by saying who would want to watch grainy videos shot by amateurs from a mobile phone? remember when people dismissed Nollywood saying there is no market for such low-cost, simple plot movies? Low quality VOD could work here in the short-term.

VOD can avail additional revenue streams to operators if done well. It can also backfire on operators if they will not meet the surge in data demand due to VOD. It is one thing to say you offer VOD and it is another to ensure that your network does not collapse due to VOD load. Video will have increased 14-fold between 2013 and 2018. It is estimated that over two-thirds of data on most networks including mobile will be video by 2018. VOD is an opportunity for the prepared and a risk for the unprepared.

Shift from Infrastructure investment to service delivery

Too many operators today are busy investing in and maintaining infrastructure. This is a very outdated way of doing things. We have begun to see a shift in this here where in 2014 we saw Airtel sell its cellphone towers to a third-party and pay to get service from them. This has a two major effects:

  • Infrastructure associated costs now move from the fixed costs to variable cost column of the financial books. This has a great boost to the financial health and makes the company more resilient to market and revenue shocks.
  • Ownership of infrastructure by operators makes them very rigid and fail to adapt to the changing customer needs and make money, sometimes, this change if it happens is not fast enough to meet market demands. I remember working on a project to install a MMS platform for a local MNO, before the service was even officially launched, Whatsapp took the multimedia file exchange scene by storm. The firm had already spent millions. If this was a third-party service instead, they would have spent less or minimized the risk associated with the dismal uptake of MMS services.

Operators need to shift from being technology oriented companies to being service oriented. By service oriented I do not mean becoming a service marketing company by outsourcing everything other than the sales and marketing, I mean their critical business decisions should be informed by meeting customer needs as opposed to deploying the latest, fastest, smoothest or shiniest piece of tech.

Re-look at Value Added Services (VAS) strategies

The ‘VAS or perish’ song has been sung so many times in many a conference I have attended. The problem that is now arising is operators are coming up with what they believe is VAS but is in effect a burden to the consumer. Take for example a certain operator in South Africa who sent me about 4 SMS’s after every call I made on their line about enabling directory services, offer to automatically send my vCard to every person I called, how much airtime my call consumed, an offer for an international bundle whose activation process involved 5 steps and many more. That was outright annoying and took repeated calls to their call center to turn them off. It felt more of value attrition than addition.

That aside, most people relate VAS to mobile operators only, fixed line ISP’s, broadcast and others need to embrace the idea of value addition to their existing services. The tragedy is that many have confused product improvement to value addition, the two are different and can easily be told apart. A fast food restaurant improving the quality of their burgers and fries is product improvement, adding a small toy to all kids meals is value addition. This example therefore means that for value addition to happen, the product must first meet customer expectations otherwise VAS is a waste of time. Many operators use value addition to try to improve the product instead of using it for the purposes of eliciting further delight from the customer (which then creates stickiness). Of what use is the toy in a badly prepared kids meal? In short, if what an operator is calling VAS ends up improving the product as opposed to eliciting customer delight, it’s not VAS. Many operators in Africa are adding toys to burgers with rotten patties. This is why many so-called VAS strategies don’t work because they were simply product improvements disguised as VAS.

Have a happy new 2015!

Harmonic Convergence? FM Interference to 700 MHz LTE Service

March 10, 2014 Leave a comment
Categories: Regulation and Law Tags: , ,

Why The Future Is In The Sky

March 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Drone.jpgAfter it’s headline acquisition of Whatsapp, Facebook is finalizing the process of acquiring Titan Aerospace a manufacturer of light weight drones. Facebook wants to use these drones to provide Internet services. By parking the drones about 20Km up in the sky, they will effectively be very low earth orbiting satellites that can beam high-speed internet services to large areas of land and sea.

In April last year, I wrote an article on how low orbit drones will revolutionize telecommunications by replacing Geo-synchronous satellites found at Clarke’s orbit. Other than reducing latency by being close to the earth, they are very cheap to deploy and maintain. To give you an Idea of how cheap they can be, Facebook bought Whatsapp for $19Billion but will buy Titan Aerospace for a paltry $60Million. On the other hand a brand new Geo-synchronous satellite will set you back by about $250Million

Why Drones?

Telecommunications technology advancements mean that telecoms equipment is now smaller and much lighter than before. This means that very powerful equipment is small and can even fit in a backpack. Vodafone recently exhibited a 2G base station that weighs 11 Kgs and could fit in a backpack that can be used to provide GSM coverage in disaster areas, 10 years ago you needed a 20 foot shipping container to host a 2G base station. With these kinds of advancements, it is now possible to use light-weight drones to provide telecommunication services.

The advantage that drones bring is that they are very easy to deploy, no need to dig up streets for several years trying to lay last mile fiber optic cables, they can also be deployed and be re-deployed with relative ease of just launching and flying it to a different position. The drones will use solar panels on their wings to power the telecommunication equipment and also power its engines. The Titan drones can stay in the sky for 5 years non-stop meaning that service reliability from them will be very good and lower running costs. See a video below of the drone model that Facebook will use to provide Internet across the world, they intend to deploy 1100 of these in the first phase.

Other than drones, high altitude weather baloons are also drawing interest from Google Inc who are currently testing internet provision in New Zealand using then. The project called “Project loon” is similar to the drone approach only that in this, baloons are used to suspend telecoms equipment 25Kn in the sky. Read more on this Google project by clicking here

What does this mean?

This project is a text-book example of a disruptive innovation. In his book titled “The Innovators Dilemma” Prof. Clayton Chistensen analyzes how companies or markets that were faced with disruptive innovation reacted and won or lost out to new innovations that were cheaper, simpler and easier. Here is a video of the Professor explaining this concept. (I recommend reading the book though)

This therefore means that the traditional mass market ISPs as we know them are about to face their biggest disruption ever. Any ISP that is to survive the future has to adapt and face skyward and not underground.

How drones might revolutionize ad-hoc telecoms

April 2, 2013 8 comments
US Air Force handout image of a Predator drone

US Air Force handout image of a Predator drone

The mention of the word drone conjures images of missile-carrying unmanned aircraft on a mission to bomb the lights out of a terrorist cave in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Unfortunately this is how most of us came to know about them; as weapons. However, these unmanned remote-controlled aircraft are now finding application in many areas such civilian and wildlife surveillance, agriculture and aerial cartography.

Other than long-term communication networks, there exists many short-term and ad-hoc networks that are created and destroyed on a as-when-needed basis, a good example is the outside broadcasting of live events such as sports, national parades, concerts and disasters (you can add election tallying and supreme court sessions if yo are from Kenya to this list). The list of ad-hoc telecoms networks is endless.

Satellite capacity

Satellite news gathering   and Outside Broadcast (OB) vans at an event

Satellite news gathering and Outside Broadcast (OB) vans at an event

At the moment, nearly all news collecting organizations have signed contracts with satellite operators to lease either BSS or FSS satellite capacity for their live video links from remote locations. With normal SD video requiring about 9 MHz and HD requiring about 18 MHz of non-inclined orbit satellite capacity, the cost of one SD  feed is about 2 Million shillings a month, considering that the link is not in use all the time, the per-use costs associated with provision of multiple satellite based video links can be huge for a large news gathering organization. Whereas this cost might be insignificant to the likes of Fox and CNN, it cannot be absorbed easily by smaller news gathering organizations like those found in Kenya. The fact that Satellite capacity lease contracts are usually long-term (3 years and above), such an undertaking can easily spell doom for a corporation that is not careful when signing the dotted line.

The other alternative is the use of UHF line of sight point to point links. these are however limited by the following facts:

  1. They suffer heavy attenuation over long distances making them useful for short hops (say from Nyayo stadium to CBD).
  2. Even with the use of high-powered UHF transmitters to enable the transmission of the signal over longer distances, the earths curvature means that if you transmit from the top of an outside broadcasting van parallel to the ground in the vicinity, the signal will end up in the sky after a long distance, a tall mast  or several repeater stations are therefore required to target the signal downwards. The many radio repeater stations along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway that were used before fiber optics were there more because of the earths curvature than to amplify the signal.
LoS

Drawing A showing how a signal originally transmitted tangentially to the earths surface ends up in the sky because of the earths curvature. Drawing B shows how the use of repeater tower stations along the way can help ‘bend’ the signal.

Because of the random locations from which news happens, a fixed network cannot be economically used for the transmission of live news and events. The news and events happen anywhere any day any time. a versatile network is therefore needed and at the moment only Satellite can offer this versatility. Fixed networks also become unavailable in case of disasters such as floods and earth quakes and wars.

Enter the Drones

The fact that a drone is steerable within the atmosphere means that it can be flown to any location and with the aid of gyro-stabilizers, park them in air and be used as telecommunication facilities to receive regenerate, amplify and transmit onward a signal from users. compared to satellites, drones can offer the following advantages:

  • They can be steered to any location to offer a line of sight to any user/OB van or if they are equipped with high zoom cameras, they can be used to gather news without the need of a human camera operator on the ground, this can be useful especially in disasters, war zones and in daily events like road traffic monitoring.
  • The drones, by virtue of them being easy to deploy, can be effective in providing communication in areas that have been cut-off from telecom networks such as earth quake and flood areas, a drone can provide GSM and Wi-Fi connectivity to a large area without the need of setting up terrestrial networks.
  • The fact that a drone can land back to earth unlike a satellite spacecraft, drones can be re-fueled and repaired and used countless number of times unlike satellites. They can be easily reconfigured for different tasks, the same drone unit might gather news, offer Wi-Fi to a disaster zone, relay signals and do aerial cartography by simply re-configuring it for each task.
  • The ad-hoc nature  and speed in which the drones can set up and tear down networks will considerably lower the cost of using drones for telecommunication purposes as a drone can be re-deployed many times for different missions. A While back Safaricom had to tow along a mini BTS and satellite dish to provide GSM coverage for the Lewa marathon, all they will need is to deploy one drone on the event day and provide GSM coverage for the even.
  • Their proximity to the earth means that they can use unlicensed spectrum making it cheaper to communicate.
  • They do not need long-term commitment to start using them, getting satellite capacity from an operator can take upwards of 3 months and the shorter the contract period the more expensive the capacity.

Regulatory framework

There will however be the need for a stringent regulatory framework on:

  • Who can be a licensed drone owner/operator.
  • For what purposes will the drones be used? Situations of drones infringing on privacy can be common if not checked. Imagine a drone trailing and photographing a cheating spouse in his/her escapades. 🙂
  • Airspace control and navigation guidelines to avoid drones colliding with buildings, airplanes or other drones.
  • Designated no fly zones for camera equipped drones such as residential areas, military barracks etc.

I believe, if well implemented, the use of drones can revolutionize telecommunications especially the creation and tearing down of ad-hoc networks.

How Kenya can enjoy lower electricity tariffs

March 1, 2013 3 comments

???????????????????????This week, Kenya Power company announced a plan to increase the electricity tariffs and connection fees by about 45% from the current prices. They have also proposed a reduction in off-peak tariffs by about 20% to encourage heavy power users to utilize off-peak periods for their consumption. Off-peak in Kenya is from 11PM to 5AM where power consumption is about half the peak consumption.

The move to lower the off-peak power tariff is something I have been advocating for because doing so will lead to the following:

  1. If heavy users shift their consumption of power from peak time to off-peak time, then the spike in demand will reduce. Power for peak load conditions is mostly generated from sources that can come into and out of the grid at short notice, these are mostly fossil fueled plants. Lowering the % of power generated from fossil fuels can considerably lower the overall electricity costs. Take a look at the fuel adjustment figure on your electricity bill to understand what impact lowering this figure can have on your overall bill. If electric power utilization in Kenya were nearly a straight line, there would be no need for introduction of expensive peak load power plants into the grid as base and intermediate load plants can serve customers at a lower cost.
  2. The utilization of off-peak period by heavy users such as factories can lower their cost of production because energy is a huge component of manufacturing costs in Kenya. Kenyan manufacturers pay 21 US cents per KWh compared to Egypt and South Africa which pay 3.1 and 4 cents per KWh of electricity respectively. Power costs are the main reason behind many manufactures shifting base to outside Kenya.

History of Electric power Monopoly in Kenya

In 1908, Harrali Esmailjee Jeevanjee (Jevanjee Garden in Nairobi is named after him), a wealthy merchant in Mombasa bought a second-hand generator from Seyyied Bargash who was the sultan of Zanzibar. The Sultan had purchased this generator from spice money in 1875 to light up his palace and nearby streets in Zanzibar.
At around the same time  an engineer, Mr Clement Hertzel, was granted the exclusive right to supply electricity to the then district and town of Nairobi. This leads to the formation of the Nairobi Power and Lighting Syndicate. in 1922 the Mombasa and Nairobi generators are merged under a new company incorporated as the East African Power and Lighting Company (EAP&L). Between 1922 and 1983, EAP&L expands into East Africa and builds power networks and sales the distribution rights to the respective governments. By 1982, EAP&L was only present in Kenya and it changed names to Kenya Power and Lighting company (KP&LC).

Breaking the Monopoly

Since 1908, electricity distribution model has been an expansion of the original one consisting of a centralized source of power shared by many. The acquisition of exclusive rights from day one by Clement meant that no one had the permission to generate and distribute electricity. A Monopoly was therefore born. Kenya can considerably lower its power distribution and generation costs by opening the market to several players. I have discussed in detail in a previous blog post how this can be done here

Improve generation and distribution efficiency to lower costs

A huge chunk of the electricity costs go towards three things.

  1. Paying for the capital expenditure in the generation and distribution network equipment: Most of the CapEx comes in form of loans from ‘development’ banks and western foreign governments. We can considerably lower the cost of these loans by borrowing in the currency in which we will buy the equipment in or better borrow from the Chinese who are giving the lowest long-term development loan interests.
  2. Costs introduced by inefficient systems: The Kenyan power grid is inefficient. We lose about 7% of the generated power due to poor electric lines and about 10% due to use of old inefficient generating systems and transformers. My former Electric transmission lecturer who was also the then director at KIRDI reckons that improving the electricity grid efficiency in Kenya by 1% can save the economy about 7 Billion shillings annually.
  3. Idle capacity costs introduced by a short peak time demand period: During off-peak, the idle capacity becomes a cost, See how idle capacity can become a cost hereBy spreading the load over a 24 hour period through encouraging heavy users to use off-peak power, the component of idle capacity costs in the operating costs of the national power system can be drastically reduced leading to lower electricity bills to consumers.

If the above costs are reduced as outlined, the Kenyan consumer can continue to enjoy lower power tariffs for a long time to come. The reason why other countries can afford to offer power at five times below what Kenya is offering is because they adopted these measures to lower the cost of electricity.

How do countries block access to the Internet?

December 9, 2012 9 comments

In the recent past, there has been news of certain countries blocking certain websites or the entire Internet from being accessed by the citizens. We have seen stories of countries in the middle east blocking YouTube, Google and social media websites such as Facebook and twitter during the Arab spring and the recent release of a movie that touched on the Muslim religion. We have also seen countries such as China block access to Facebook for political reasons. Just last week, Syria blocked Internet and mobile access by its citizens as the civil war ragged on.

The distributed nature of the Internet ecosystem means that there is more than one path to  and from an Internet resource such as a server hosting a website. distributed content delivery and hosting also means there exists more than one copy of the same website or content on several servers that are located in geographically distinct regions. For example, if you tried to access a YouTube video from an Internet connection in Kenya, the video could be hosted at the Google cache servers on Mombasa road. A person accessing the same video in the UK can get the same video from a content server in London for example. This poses a challenge to people who might want to block access to the Video.

How the Internet works in ‘layman’ terms

The Internet utilizes a special routing protocol called Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). In BGP, each Internet service provider has IP addresses that they give users who want to connect to the Internet. All of an ISPs IP addresses then belong to what is called an Autonomous System (AS) number  which belongs to the ISP. What happens then is that all ISPs in the world announce their IP addresses under their AS numbers. To find your ISP’s AS number click here.

As an example, assume ISP 1 has the IP addresses from 197.236.64.0 to 197.236.127.255 (total of 16382 addresses) and has them under AS 1, ISP 2 had the IP range from 41.255.32.0 all the way to 41.255.63.255 (16382 addresses also) under AS 2 and so on and so forth up to say ISP100 with IP range x.x.x.x to y.y.y.y on AS 100. So if say for example YouTube is hosted under the IPs that belong to ISP 40 with AS number 40, then if there is a customer on ISP1 that wants to access YouTube, then the routers on each AS will have what is called a routing table that tells them to which AS to send traffic for a particular IP address. A BGP routing table is something like this:

  • To reach the IP range from 197.236.64.0 to 197.236.127.255 on AS 1, send this traffic to the BGP  router advertizing AS1
  • To reach the IP range from 41.255.32.0 to 41.255.63.255 on AS 2, send this traffic to the BGP router advertizing AS2
  • To reach IP addresses on AS n, send this traffic to the router advertizing AS n
  • To reach all other IP addresses that I do not know how to reach, I should ask some few knowledgeable routers at some big ISPs who because of their size might know.

This means very many IP addresses can be addressed by the common AS Number they share. One ISP can have only 1 AS number to address all its customers. The YouTube IP belonging to AS 40 can therefore be reached by the customer on AS 1 if the AS 1 router knows the route to AS 40 from its routing table.

The above is a simplified explanation of how an Internet routing table looks like. From this we see there are three critical conditions that need to be fulfilled for an ISP user such as you and me to reach or be reached from the Internet. These are:

  1. A user must have an IP address
  2. This IP address must belong to an AS
  3. This AS must be announced by BGP to other BGP speaking routers on the Internet.

How then can Internet access be blocked?

The above means that a user without an IP address cannot access the Internet, but it would be nearly impossible to remove all IP addresses from devices in a country if the powers that be do not want them to connect to the Internet.

The easiest way to make these users not reach the Internet or be reachable is to stop announcing their IP addresses and AS number via BGP. This means that if an ISP is asked by the government to stop announcing its AS, then users on that ISP cannot access the Internet. All a government needs to do is threaten the withdrawal of ISP operating license for non compliance and boom, the entire country is without Internet access!

The diagram below shows how about 57 Syrian AS’s containing thousands of IP addresses stopped being reachable on 29th November 2012 after the government ‘asked’ ISP’s to stop announcing them on the net. The few remaining AS’s were most probably government-run networks.

Syria-offline-nov29-2012

On the other hand, a government might want to block access to a particular website. This they can do in several ways.

  1. By asking ISPs to install filters that can detect and filter traffic to and from particular IP addresses that host the website. This is usually a long drawn process and can take months to implement. Iran, China have such systems in place. Nokia Siemens was in the news facing criticism from EU in 2010 for supplying Iran with such equipment.
  2. If a government wants to block with immediate effect without involving the ISP, they can do this by use of illegal means of advertising a more specific route to the website and discarding the traffic upon receipt. In this method, a government announces an AS with a smaller IP block similar to what belongs to the website. Lets say for example there is an AS number 78 advertising the block 195.210.0.0 to 195.210.31.255 (8190 IP addresses), If a government comes up with an AS number 94 with a similar IP address block but more specific say 195.210.0.0 to 195.210.15.255 (4094 IP addresses). Then lets say the website address is 195.210.0.44 which is part of this IP block, then there will be two AS Numbers 78 and 94 announcing that they know how to reach the website IP on the Internet, so which AS is chosen? The AS chosen is the one with a more specific route (less IP addresses on it) in this case the malicious government AS number 94. So user traffic from this country to that website can be picked by the government router and discarded. Pakistan Telecom (The govt controlled incumbent) inadvertently announced routes to YouTube on the Internet in 2008. They however did not apply this to Pakistan ISPs only but this specific route leaked to the Internet causing a worldwide YouTube outage as all YouTube traffic was now being routed to a BGP speaking router in Pakistan. See how it happened here.
  3. Countries or organizations that control the root name servers for top-level domains (TLD) such as .com and .net can also block access to websites using the TLD by not answering domain name queries to the root servers for particular domain names. The root server method is what the hacktivist group anonymous wanted to use to bring down the Internet, if they attacked all the existing 13 root servers and bring them down long enough, then the DNS resolution system would collapse leading to a world-wide Internet blackout. This method of blacking out Internet access to certain websites can only be done by countries or organizations controlling these root servers such as the USA.

There are many other numerous ways to block Internet access or access to certain websites by a country, some legitimate and some illegitimate like example 2 above. All in all, it is very easy to block entire countries from the Internet should the need arise.

Categories: Broadband and Internet Tags: , ,