2004 South Africa Trip 11/27 - 12/3
This is Part I ~ before the trip. Click here for Part II or after you read Part I you will see the link.
Sometimes life takes the strangest twists and turns. Years ago I met a man by the name of Bill Gillis. Bill grew up about 30 miles south of Odessa in arch rival Ritzville Broncos territory. He now heads up the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide at Washington State University. One of the projects that the CBDD is involved in is with Gaborone, Botswana-based TRASA (Telecommunications Regulators' Association of Southern Africa).
Initially I was asked to spend a couple of hours at a November 18th 2004 event in which representatives from many southern African nations spoke about education issues specific to their countries. These talks centered mainly on how they needed a good broadband network that would inexpensively reach out into the rural areas of their countries so that they'll be able to better educate their countrymen.
Things came together very quickly after that first encounter. Literally in a matter of days it went from being invited to sit in on a panel discussion to also spending an hour or so talking about what I do as a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) and my impressions of our regulatory environment and how it could be better. All from an operator's perspective.
Someone seems to have liked my bio and the info I've made available on my website. Even before either of those meetings could take place I was invited to South Africa to talk directly to the regional regulatory bodies about what a WISP is and how I could do a better job with some regulatory changes.
My goal with this series (number of them to be determined after the entire series of events is over….) of articles is to allow you to participate vicariously through me. To give you a sense of what that part of the world is hoping to be able to do in the not so distant future and how they plan to get to that point.
The first meeting lasted about two hours and featured speakers from the various countries around Southern Africa. I don't often take notes as I would rather pay attention to the speaker and can't do that and write at the same time (yes I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but just barely!).
A few things said jumped out at me though. Talk about government vs. private funding, or maybe a bit of both. The mention of extremes, extreme wealth or total lack thereof. Extreme education or total lack of it. The concept (brought up by the speaker from Rwanda according to my notes) that a computer equals a (paraphrasing here) modern day hammer or axe. It's one of the most basic of tools. Concepts like "education is great but only for those that have access to it". Or the basic human need to learn, communicate, teach, market one's strengths.
I especially loved the idea that access to education and real time effective communications will help even out opportunity. And here I had thought that was a wholly American concept!
Something that surprised me in a not so good way was when I asked the assembled panel when they thought that they would be able to show demonstrable effects of better communications and better education on society. The year 2025 was tossed out as a long term goal. As an entrepreneur my mind shut down on that one. If I can't cause a noticeable change in 25 weeks I really have to think long and hard about doing something! I'm the first to admit that I have long term plans for my business. I expect significant local benefits from my actions far sooner than 20 years, though. I want to do things that'll help my friends, today. Not just my kid's and/or grandkids 20 years from today!
Shortly after being invited to join the crowd for the original event I was asked to spend an hour or so with the group after that meeting. In attendance were nearly 2 dozen people. People from Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, and others. People with titles like "Director of Central Support Services, Communications Commission of Kenya", "Head Business Computing, NetTel Academic Coordinator & Course Developer", "Dean, Postgraduate Studies and Research", "Professor, Physics Department", and a slug of other impressive names.
All there to listen to this little ol' country hick boy. I had something that none of my esteemed guests had though: experience. I've done what so many others only talk about. I've built a network from scratch back when there was almost no help available and did it by squeezing every penny till it bled. Just what those folks in developing countries will have to do to move their populous up to an industrialized nations's standard of living. So I spent about an hour talking about my company (as a copier repairman turned ISP turned DSL ISP turned Wireless ISP).
I talked about what broadband has meant to people in our areas. For example, I have a customer whose daughter takes distance learning classes via the net. She has a headset for the computer and she gets her lessons on the computer then "calls" the teacher who then works with her one on one to help bring her regular school grades up.
We talked about my wife's recent minor surgery. We had learned a great deal about it on the net. We knew different methods used for the procedure, the pros and cons as well as the limitations of each method and a lot about the overall procedure in general. I'd not be surprised to find out that we knew as much or more about what was about to happen to her than many of the nurses did. All because we had access to, literally, a world of information. All available in real time, faster than we could even read it.
The idea that access to real time communications would allow their people to take their ideas, talents, and energy and turn that into whatever they wanted to use it for excited the group. One of the countries there (Zimbabwe???) talked about how excited they were that the university now has 800 PCs! Just a couple of years ago they had 20 and many of those didn't work. Heck, I'll bet that Odessa, Wash. has nearly 800 PCs in it!
Next I spent about 15 minutes talking about regulatory issues. How it would be nice to have no regulations but since there are people out there we need government to make sure that bad people don't abuse the average among us. I talked about how hard it is to keep the playing field level. How too much regulation is just as bad as too little. We also talked about how the USA spectrum auctions have been such a total waste as no one who bought spectrum has had the money to actually deploy services with it.
My audience was most gracious—especially since it was about 3 AM their time! I have to learn the trick to dealing with jet lag someday! Just going from the west coast to the east coast turns me into a stunt double for Night of the Living Dead! Sheesh. But I digress……
TRASA is taking a fresh look at their regulatory environment and are interested in talking to people who've done not just those who've talked or taught. It's very humbling to think that I may be able to help the people from that whole region be more able to run effective businesses.
I'll detail as much of this part of the trip as I can when I get back from my November 27th to Dec 3rd trip to South Africa.