Grilling Esther Dyson on SA Telecommunications

Earlier today, ITWeb published an article in which the eminent Editor-at-large of CNET, Esther Dyson, who sits on Thabo Mbeki’s Presidential Advisory Council, was quoted as saying:

“Consumers needed to be entrepreneurial by buying and reselling broadband.”

In the context of Thabo Mbeki’s statements at the panel about how, in effect, the government could do nothing at present to lower the costs of broadband connectivity in South Africa.

For what I would have thought were obvious reasons, this statement, by such an eminent thinker, seemed absurb.

I contacted Ms Dyson later today saying:

Is that really an accurate quote?

Could you please explain:

1) How this could possibly be legal? Don’t you need a licence to “resell broadband”? Are you suggesting that every consumer apply for an ISP licence?

2) If you seriously believe this is the answer to driving down broadband costs in South Africa?

Her reply, which I must say arrived very promptly, was:

yes, I did say that, in effect.

I asked about this during the president’s meeting, and the consensus (with my encouragement) was that this should be legal. Then I asked whether it was against the terms of service of the ISPs, and the consensus was that the ISPs had no such constraints (and that if they did, they should not).

I purposely reported on this in public in an effort to make people aware that such a possibility exists and that they should go forth
and do it…. so, to answer your questions…

(1) The consensus of the president and the ministers (and others) present was that it probably is and certainly should be permissible. There was some question that you might have to register after the fact, but (when pressed) that the registration should be lightweight.

(2) if you share (let’s punt on the word resell) your connection with
4 neighbors, you can drop the cost (ex the cost of the PC) by 80 percent from the get go. And you can reduce consumer expectations for what is a reasonable price, increase demand, and ultimately affect the market as a whole.

What I also said is that people need to go out and do things, without always waiting for everything to be “ready.” In other words, don’t ask for permission; if necessary, ask for forgiveness (or get enough people with you to challenge restrictions that may or may not exist).

My response:

this idea makes a lot of sense in an unregulated market where the amount of bandwidth one purchases is unlimited.

In South Africa at the moment, the majority of users have a 2 or 3GB cap on their bandwidth every month. Add to that the fact that there is way too little international bandwidth available, and the fact that many local ISP’s oversubscribe their bandwidth. This means that if I purchase a 512KB ADSL line from Telkom, and share it with 4 neighbours:

– I’d have around 128K maximum available bandwidth at peak times if we all shared the line — and that’s at best, without taking into account any over-selling of bandwidth by the ISP
– I’d have a maximum of 768MB of download available to me every month, around 25MB per day

You’d be hard pressed to call that broadband!

Finally, I don’t see how this would be practical anyway:

– How do I connect all my neighbours to my line? Install a wireless network? That adds several thousand rand to equipment costs, and complexity well above most home users
– How do I regulate and monitor traffic usage? Is it likely that the average consumer is going to be become a network engineer, be able to configure a router and bandwidth monitoring tools?
– And in addition to that, also become experts at billing their neighbours, running accounts etc.

This either sounds an option for people with enough money to set up this kind of infrastructure — which doesn’t make the technology any more accessible, nor would they struggle to just purchase their own link; or one of those suggestions that seems to put the responsibility back in the hands of the same people that are suffering from inflated costs in the first place.

My primary objection to this comment, in fact, is that it seems to absolve the government and Telkom from responsibility to actually provide an affordable telecommunications infrastructure to the public. It’s not the public’s responsibility to have to come up with impractical workarounds to cover up the fact that this is not being done.

To which she responded:

Thanks… So much for my great idea! But nonetheless, you could at least halve your cost..and ask your neighbor not to download video.
To some extent, it’s the principle i was trying to promote – of ‘user-generated action.’

Um…”Pretty please, Mr Neighbour, don’t download video on our BROADBAND LINK”.

Do the phrases “head in the sand”, “pie in the sky” and “delusional” pop into anyone else’s head?

This kind of thing makes me angry. Really angry.

As a matter of fact, I’ve emailed Telkom and ISPA to find out whether, in fact, I can go ahead and set up my own little ISP at my home.

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2 thoughts on “Grilling Esther Dyson on SA Telecommunications

  1. Jarred –
    you failed to include my further response. You can easily buy extra data for an account, and you can control what your neighbours do.

    Forgive me, but this is not a stupid or casually dreamed-up idea. It’s simply an informal reseller channel, since SA Telkom seems incapable of reaching a larger public with lower prices on its own. yes, I support entrepreneurial activity and I’m proud of it!

    FWIW, I have worked in many “developing” economies and I am intimately familiar with the kinds of problems you cite. I just believe people should take an active role in solving them, just as you (South Africans) took an active role in solving your problems of governance.

  2. The biggest problem with the Presidential Advisory Council is that the people there are not running startup businesses in South Africa, and having to deal with the problems related to broadband.

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