The days of ISPs making super profits are long gone. The margins being created by ISPs world over are thin. Also, should Internet connectivity prices go lower due to either more competition or legislation, ISPs stand to create even thinner margins in future. There will therefore be little if any revenue/profit oriented incentives for ISPs to be in business.
Having worked in the industry for about 12 years now (That’s eons in Internet growth terms), I have seen the ISP industry evolve both on the technology front and its value proposition to customers. The liberalization of the sector in most countries has also attracted many investors into the industry, this has created a stiff and competitive market, this has brought with it diminishing returns on investments. Small ISPs are dying or being bought out as they cannot stay afloat. Large ISPs are also merging to create economies of scale to survive.
With the coming projects such as Google’s project Loon and Facebook’s Internet.org (and subsequent Internet by drones project) and many more that aim to provide nearly free Internet to the worlds’ unconnected, there will be no financial incentive for a commercial ISP to go into business anymore.
So what do ISPs need to do?
There has been a lot of talk in the market about value addition and that ISPs should stop selling ‘dumb pipes’ and offer value over and above just the internet pipe. All this has already happened and at the moment ISPs have been outmaneuvered by OTT providers who are providing this value addition type of services over the links the ISPs are providing to their customers. For example, some years ago, all ISPs were offering VoIP as a value add, now with the likes of Skype and Whatsapp calls, ISP-provided VoIP is a dud. Another example is dedicated hosting at ISP provided ‘data centers’ (a room with access control and cooling 🙂 ), with the maturity of cloud services, such a service is also not appealing anymore to customers. ISPs are at the end of their rope.
If you carefully analyze all recent ISP mergers and buyouts in Africa (and beyond if you have the time), you will realize that buy out decisions are less and less being based on an ISPs profitability or revenues and cash flow position. They are now based on subscriber numbers. But what is the commercial point of buying a unprofitable or low revenue business? Answer: Its about the eyes.
ISPs are and will no longer be about direct internet pipe derived revenues but about indirect revenues. Sources of these indirect revenues include online advertizing, OTT services and content delivery and purchase. This is the very reason why giants such as Google and Facebook have entered the ISP business, Its about the eyes. An ISP with more subscribers and loss making is now more attractive to buy than one with few subscribers and super profitable. Unbelievable isn’t it?
End to end control.
OTT operators such as Facebook have been blamed by traditional ISPs for using the ISPs network infrastructure to do business with the ISPs end users. Attempts by ISPs to make these operators pay for delivery of content has been met with opposition due to fears that such an arrangement can result in a tiered internet and with that a demise of net-neutrality that has been one of the key characteristics and a supposed catalyst of internet development. Attempts to camouflage net-neutrality-flouting arrangements by use of ISP led offers such as Facebook’s Internet.org where users on certain networks access Facebook and Whatsapp for free outside their data plans have also been meeting resistance. Being so froward thinking, I am of the opinion that these companies foresaw the resistance to their initiatives to offer their content for free by paying the traditional ISPs, this is why they are all rushing to roll out their own infrastructure to provide free or near free internet to the masses. At the moment, other than their Satellite/baloon projects being tested in New Zealand, Google is already testing out high speed fiber -FTTH in select American cities. This will give them end to end control of the broadband supply chain and therefore quell concerns of creation of a tiered internet. This of course assumes they will come up with a way to show regulators that they have fair access policies for all third party traffic.
As i see it, the traditional ISP will die a natural death if they don’t adapt to the coming changes. What was once a value add will become the product and vice versa. Internet broadband will be a value add to content and OTT services. A content provider such as Facebook or Google will offer you free internet to access their content. Internet broadband provision will be a value addition to content providers. As someone once said, if the product/service is free, you are the product. The free internet will come with privacy strings attached so as to enable advertizers track your habits and offer more targeted adverts. This targeting is getting more accurate and spookier if the tweet below is anything to go by.
The use of browser safety features to disable cookies wont work as companies such as Google are now using what is known as device finger printing to identify you. Device finger printing works on the basis that your computers OS, installed programs (and the dates they were installed), CPU serial number, hardware configuration (RAM/HDD/attached peripherals) will give your computer a unique identifier if applied to an algorithm. Therefore your computing device is unique and can therefore be tracked without the need to set cookies.
Facebook inc recently introduced the ability to make voice calls directly on its Whatsapp mobile application. This is currently available on Android OS and soon to be made available on iOS.
What this means is that mobile users with the updated app can now call each other by using available data channels such as Wi-Fi or mobile data. Going by a recent tweet by a user who tried to use the service on Safaricom, the user claims that they made a 7 minute call and consumed just about 5MB’s of data. If these claims are true, then it means that by using Whatsapp, a user can call anyone in the world for less than a shilling a minute. This is lower than most mobile tariffs.
Is this a game changer?
Depends on who you ask. First lets look at what happens when you make a Whatsapp call. When a user initiates a call to another user over Whatsapp, both of them incur data charges, in the case of the twitter user I referred to above who consumed 5MBs, the recipient of the call also consumed a similar amount of data for receiving the call. If it so happens that both callers were on Safaricom, then just about 10MB’s were consumed for the 7 minutes call. The cost of 10MBs is close to what it would cost to make a GSM phone call for the same duration of time anyway. Effectively, to now receive a Whatsapp call, it is going to cost the recipient of the call. This is unlike on GSM where receiving calls is free. When the phone rings with an incoming Whatsapp call, the first thought that crosses a call recipients mind is if he/she has enough data ‘bundles’ on their phone to pick the call. The danger is if there is none or the data bundle runs out mid-call, the recipient will be billed at out of bundle rate of 4 shillings an MB. Assuming our reference user above called someone whose data had run out, Safaricom will have made 5 Shillings from the 5MBs and 28 shillings from the recipient. A total of 33 shillings for a 7 minute call translating to 4.7 shillings a minute which is more than the GSM tariffs.
This effectively changes the cost model of making calls. the cost is now borne by both parties, something that might not go down well with most users. I have not made a Whatsapp call as my phone is a feature phone but I believe if a “disable calls” option does not exist, Whatsapp will soon introduce it due to pressure from users who do not wish to be called via Whatsapp due to the potential costs of receiving a call. That will kill all the buzz.
Will operators block Whatsapp calls?
It is technically possible to block Whatsapp texts and file transfers using layer 7+ deep packet inspection systems such as those from Allot’s NetEnforcer and Blue coat’s Packeteer. I believe an update to detect Whatsapp voice is in the offing soon and this will give operators the ability to block Whatsapp voice. The question however is what will drive them to block it? MNO’s will have no problem allowing Whatsapp traffic as it wsill mot likely be a boon for them if most of the calls are on-net (They get to bill both parties in the call). If however most calls are off-net (Like those to recipients on other mobile networks locally or international), then MNO’s might block or give lower QoS priority to make the calls of a poor quality to sustain a conversation. They might however run into problems with the regulator should subscribers raise concerns that they think the operators are unfairly discriminating Whatsapp voice traffic. Net neutrality rules (not sure they are enforceable in Kenya yet) require that all data bits on the internet be treated equally, it should not matter if that bit is carrying Whatsapp voice, bible quotes or adult content. This will mean that operators can be punished for throttling Whatsapp voice traffic in favour of their own voice traffic. This therefore presents a catch 22 situation for them. What they need to do is come up with innovative ways to benefit from this development like offering slightly cheaper data tariffs for on-net Whatsapp voice to spur increased Whatsapp usage within the network (and therefore bill both participants).
Worth noting is that it costs the operator more to transfer a bit on 3G than it does on 4G. Operators who roll out 4G stand to benefit from Whatsapp voice as they can offer data at a lower cost to them and this benefit can be passed down to subscribers. The fact that voLTE is all the rage now, Whatsapp voice can supplement voLTE and can even be a cheaper way for operators to offer their voice services on their LTE networks without further investment in voLTE specific network equipment.
In short any operator who wants to benefit from Whatsapp voice has to go LTE.
As 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!
After 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
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.
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 184.108.40.206 to 220.127.116.11 (total of 16382 addresses) and has them under AS 1, ISP 2 had the IP range from 18.104.22.168 all the way to 22.214.171.124 (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 126.96.36.199 to 188.8.131.52 on AS 1, send this traffic to the BGP router advertizing AS1
- To reach the IP range from 184.108.40.206 to 220.127.116.11 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:
- A user must have an IP address
- This IP address must belong to an AS
- 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.
On the other hand, a government might want to block access to a particular website. This they can do in several ways.
- 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.
- 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 18.104.22.168 to 22.214.171.124 (8190 IP addresses), If a government comes up with an AS number 94 with a similar IP address block but more specific say 126.96.36.199 to 188.8.131.52 (4094 IP addresses). Then lets say the website address is 184.108.40.206 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.
- 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.
If you had just enough electricity to either heat your house during winter or power your PC and give you an Internet connection, what would you chose?
In a recent survey, a group of Americans were asked this question and 63% of them chose the Internet connection over staying warm. In another case, a man dug up his neighbor’s lawn to pass a fiber cable to his house and when the neighbor sued him for damaging his well-manicured lawn, the defendant said that Internet was a utility service and therefore had right of way, the courts however thought otherwise and asked the defendant to pay for the damage done. Some ISPs in Kenya have faced difficulties when laying fiber to the building as landlords demand monthly fees for hosting the ISPs cables in the buildings, ISPs have been adamant in paying this monthly ‘rent’ because they argue that companies like Kenya power or the water distributors do not pay a similar consideration to the landlords to deliver their services to the tenants. The ISPs want the landlords to treat their Internet cables as utility cables and not charge for their routing in the buildings.
The question that arises is if Internet connectivity can be considered a public utility like water and electricity. A public utility can be defined as “a business that furnishes an everyday necessity to the public at large.” electricity and water are all considered public utilities. In strictly legal terms, there is also a regulatory component in the public utility definition, but here I am concerned with the “everyday necessity” portion. In a utility service like electricity, I want to flip a switch and expect electricity and consume it in quantities that will satisfy my need but at the same time leave enough available to satisfy other people’s (the public) needs too.
I believe the answer to the question on if the Internet is a public utility depends on many factors. The first is geography. In as much as Africa has made great strides in as far as Internet penetration is concerned, we are still very far compared to our European or Japanese counterparts when it comes to not just availability of the Internet but its use also, its one thing to have internet available and another to use it. Statistics show that Africa contributes just about 2% of total Internet traffic and less than 0.1% of the content. Africa is still fighting hunger and disease and lack of clean water, to try classify the Internet as a utility might seem insensitive and counter productive. or is it?
In the rest of the developed world, penetration in some countries is close to 100% (with Norway at 97% and Monaco at 100.6%) compared to Africa’s Highest penetration rate of 51% in Morocco and lowest in South Sudan at 0%. It might seem counter intuitive to classify Internet as a utility in South Sudan for example. However, if this is done, it might actually spur its penetration levels.
The reasons for declaring it as a utility are different for developed and developing countries. Whereas the developed country population is already hooked to the Internet and use it for their daily lives, In developing countries it’s still a luxury and not many can afford it. However, more and more people from developing countries are spending a bigger chunk of their incomes to gain connectivity.
Declaring The Internet as a utility in a developed country will be mostly to spur usage while in a developing country doing so will only spur penetration. The problem however that will arise in both developed and developing countries is that all public utilities must be closely regulated. When the FCC in the US attempted to declare the Internet as a public utility in 2010, it faced a lot of opposition because of the raft of regulatory measures it had put in place. At stake is how far the FCC could go in dictating the way Internet providers manage traffic on their multibillion-dollar networks. The FCC said that its intentions were misunderstood and all it wanted was to guarantee net neutrality. The issue of net neutrality arises from the fact that some ISPs were giving higher preference to traffic from their own services or friendly partners and less priority to traffic from rival networks, eg Comcast was giving video traffic from its sister companies higher priority than traffic of a similar nature from say Netflix or YouTube. Again, the issue of if Comcast is justified in doing this is a discussion for another day.
So the answer to if the internet can be classified as a public utility depends on so many factors. My opinion is this: for the sake of increasing penetration levels, it should be classified as a utility but should be devoid of the close regulation imposed on other utilities such as water and electricity. This is because unlike water and electricity which lack distinct differentiators from one supplier to another (clean water is clean water, 240 volts AC is 240 volts AC), the Internet has unlimited ways in which value addition and differentiation can be done. a regulatory framework to manage this value addition can be cumbersome and self-defeating and market forces should be let to determine which ISP wins the market.
With the landing of several undersea cables in Africa in the last three years, many a pundit have hailed it as a new dawn of telecommunications in the continent. The cables brought with them massive bandwidth capacities to the continent that enabled faster and cheaper communications. Before the arrival of these undersea cables, Satellite was used to connect Africa to the rest of the world. These satellites had the following characteristics:
- Expensive due to the fact that satellite transponder leasing was expensive due to the extremely high demand for the capacity. This demand reached peak circa 2005 when operators were even buying capacity from satellites that were still on paper, not yet built and launched.
- Due to the cost and scarcity of capacity, many back-haul pipes were congested making satellite communications slow and irritating to use.
The arrival of cheap and abundant terrestrial capacity led many to declare that satellite was destined to history books and that there will be no market for satellite broadband in the years to come.
Three years down the line, reality has hit home as the following facts downed:
- The issue of back-haul was resolved by the undersea cables, these cables did not however address the last mile access problem. There is a lot of capacity at the landing stations that cannot be distributed to end users as there is no good last mile infrastructure in place. Spectrum scarcity has also made things worse.
- Even on the existing last mile networks and those being put up to meet this demand, reliability has been a key issue due to poorly designed networks and fiber cuts. Industry leaders now seem to agree to this fact as seen here
- No regulatory framework was set-up to harness the advantages brought by the availability of bandwidth. Regulators failed to come up with new policies and laws such as infrastructure sharing, spectrum farming and sharing
The result is that the consumer has not benefited much as ISP’s and NSP’s continue to offer mediocre services. There are reports of some ISP customers getting as low as 92% availability which translates to about 29 days of outage in a year.
Will Satellite make a come back?
Before we answer this question, we need to be aware of the key advantages that satellites provide. These are:
- Very high availability. No technology beats satellite when it comes to availability. Downtime is rare and far in between making majority of well designed satellite systems achieve the proverbial 99.999% availability (52 minutes of outage in a year).
- Satellites offer instant availability of service over a large area without the need to lay additional infrastructure.
With the advent of Ka-band satellites, the landscape is about to change as these will bring with them large amounts of bandwidth and make them available instantly to large geographical regions. The key advantage of Ka-band satellites over the more traditional Ku-band and C-band satellites are:
- In terms of capacity, one Ka-band satellite is equal to about 100 Ku-band satellite yet they cost the same to manufacture and put into orbit. This means that capacity on Ka-band will be much cheaper to the point of giving fiber capacity competition.
- Ka-band utilizes spot beam technology that enables the use of smaller antenna (as small as 60cm) and cheaper modems. At the moment, a full Ka-band kit is competitive on price to terrestrial technology equipment. Intelsat is developing a spot beam architecture utilizing all bands that will allow 2 satellites to cover all populated continents of the world. Read more on the Intelsat Epic™ project here
With more capacity available to offer higher speeds at much lower costs, with equipment being cheaper and more competitive to terrestrial offerings and giving much higher reliability that terrestrial services can only dream of. What will prevent Satellite broadband from making a come back?
If recent events are anything to go by, Satellite broadband is already making a come back to Africa. The recent launch and uptake of capacity on Yahsat 1B and Hylas-2 satellites over Africa will avail high-speed capacity whose quality rivals that of majority of the terrestrial services latency not withstanding. The main reason why i think Ka-band will be a game changer in the African broadband market is that operators have realized that it is one thing to roll out a terrestrial infrastructure and another to operate and maintain it. Operational costs of the newly laid terrestrial wired and wireless networks are becoming prohibitively high due to vandalism and sabotage. The terrestrial networks offer very many points of failure to offer any reliable service. Ka-band satellite will offer cheaper bandwidth that is more reliable and easy to access and install on any place in the continent. It takes an average of 3 weeks to survey and install a fiber cable in a city like Nairobi, it takes about 2 hours to fully set-up a Ka-band dish and connect to the Internet….. Once the fiber hype dies, Ka-band broadband via satellite will be a hit in Africa.
Anyone dismissing my argument should look at the following links that talk of roll-out and expansion of Ka-band satellite in Europe, Middle east and USA which we consider to be pretty “wire up” than Africa.
- Hughes announcement of the launch of Echostar 17 to offer 100Gbps broadband services in North America: http://bit.ly/ShARi6 after the successful launch and sale of capacity on Spaceway satellites
- Viasat Ka-band 100Gbps broadband service offering in North America: http://bit.ly/ShBAjj
- Avanti communications announcement of the launch of Hylas-2 to offer services in Mideast, Africa, Europe and the Caucus: http://bit.ly/ShBYhL