South Africa Trip (part 2)

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As promised last week Iím doing my level best to chronicle my trip to South Africa on behalf or TRASA (an association of telecom regulators from 13 southern African nations, http://www.trasa.org.bw/).They have determined that theyíve over regulated the telecom industry in their countries and are determined to create a competitive environment rather than hold onto (for the most part) the monopolistic environment currently in place.

Wow, what a trip.30 hours of travel time just to get here.Iím beat.From Spokane to Minneapolis to Amsterdam, Netherlands to Johannesburg, South Africa.10 time zones and I donít even want to think about how many miles.This up all night and sleep all day stuff is gonna be hard to get used to. And about the time I finally get into the routine itíll be time to go home and get all screwed up again.

The trip was uneventful. It was strange to eat real food on the plane though, Iím used to nothing but crackers and pretzels.And I did notice that the Amsterdam airport was um, dingy I guess is the word.No carpet (nice for pulling luggage!!!) and the linoleum floors were dirty everywhere I went.Same for the bathrooms etc.Not filthy but not clean either.A stark contrast to most airports in the USA.

When I cleared customs in South Africa and walked out to the waiting area I was greeted by the harmonious, loud, and enthusiastic a cappella singing of 20ish people (without music).I have no idea what any of the words were but it was very cool.Those that were on my plane all seemed to enjoy the greeting.The group didnít stay for everyone to pass customs so I assume that they were there to meet someone specific.Pretty impressive none the less.

In country, Iíve been surprised at the differences here.The pace that people move at is agonizingly slow.Diet Coke is called Coca Cola Light.It tastes the same but the can itís self is about twice as heavy as the ones in the USA (yes itís still an aluminum can but itís very thick).†† Iíve seen Mc Donaldís, no surprise there really.Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut were somewhat of a surprise.But I must admit that I did a double-take on Toys-R-Us!And Nevada Bobís Golf shop about floored me.LOL

My wife (and my folks too I think) were more than a little bit worried about my safety here.All we seem to see on the news at night is soccer (football here) riots, bodies floating down the river, and donít forget that Somalia is in Africa!†† However, Iíve never, not even once, felt the least bit edgy let alone scared (OK the taxi ride was a bit scary but not as bad as one I had in Boston Ma.).Other than the guns for sale right in the shopping mall I strolled around, this could be any medium sized city in the states.

The people are wonderful.Itís soooooo refreshing to have complete strangers look you in the eye and say hello when crossing paths on the street.You have to be on the street too, no sidewalks here.You take your chances in the street or walk on the dirt beside the street.Unless itís just rained, then you walk in the mud.Oh yeah, getting use to looking the OTHER way when crossing the street still has me walking out in front of a car from time to time!Dang cars are all built with the steering wheel on the wrong side so people, for some strange reason, all think they should drive on the wrong side too.

I was also amazed at the labor over here.On average Iíd say that there are 3 or 4 people to whatís normally done with 1 person in the USA.At the mall across the street from the Airport Grand Hotel I walked past a jewelry store that hadso many people behind the counter that they far outnumbered the customers and took up about half of the available counter space.There were also people digging ditch, with pick and shovel, not a backhoe to be seen so far.I finally saw some backhoes on the way out of town, but they were all brand new and on the showroom floor.

People here are also shorter than in the states Iíd say.Normally I canít see very far in front of me when in a crowd.At 5í6Ē Iím on the short side in America pretty much everywhere I go.Here in South Africa Iím average or a bit over that it seems.Kinda cool!

Some of you are doubtlessly wondering about Apartheid, racism etc.Iíd not say that Iíve seen any sign of racism, but I have noticed that many people (both black and white) treat blacks differently than whites.I noticed it first when Uzoma (from the FCCís Wireless Bureau, born in Liberia) and I were standing at the hotel front desk.He was leaning against the counter talking to a black clerk.I was standing to the right and a half step or step behind him as he asked her a couple of questions.Heíd ask the question and the clerk would give me the answer.It wasnít exactly un-nerving or seem to be done with malice, but one did have to wonder why she didnít answer the guy that had asked the question!

One more thing.Over here everyone calls you sir.Yes sir, thank you sir, your welcome sir, etc.I sure wish theyíd export that wonderful habit to the US of A.

I was up bright and early on Monday morning for the TRASA meeting (it was 5 pm my time when I got up).Thank goodness Iíd thought to bring sleeping pills so I did get a pretty good nights sleep (so far this has proven to be a VERY good idea).When getting ready for the meeting I finally got to actually meet Uzoma C. Onyeije, Senior Legal Advisor, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.I liked him right off the bat.

At slightly after 9:00 am local time the meeting got started.I almost had to laugh; it reminded me of the first WISPCON (http://www.wispcon.info).Lots of heart and energy but everything that could go wrong did.Starting with a sound system that just would not work.Fortunately, thatís about as bad as it got and when the microphone refused to behave itself people just spoke up.

This meeting was mainly going to cover proposed wireless regulatory issues.It centered around a 30,000 word document titled:TRASA Guidelines on Wireless Technologies and Regulation.Its goal was to provide a platform for all 13 southern Africa nations (or as many as are willing to do so) to implement the same or very nearly the same regulatory environment.The reasoning was (ďisĒ might be a better word here) that the current regulatory environment is keeping costs up and expansion/innovation down (Iím paying $10 per hour for internet access, it is wireless (via my Orinoco Wi-Fi card) but runs at slow dialup speeds).They (TRASA members) believe that by making it easier to do business in any country, eliminating monopoly structures and making equipment standardization easier there will be more innovation, better services and lower prices.

There were a few speakers but myself, Uzoma, and Mike Leach, Policy Advisor, Department of Trade and Industry in the UK were the main ones to talk either from stage or during general discussions.

The first speakers from TRASA talked about how Wireless would help reduce or eliminate a lot of the problems that they have in country.Things like no local calling within country.High equipment/construction costs for traditional infrastructure.Lack of diversity (in services and/or service providers) in the market etc.

They talked about how expensive satellite access is in the region.How a diversity of technologies would help improve service levels and pricing for existing mechanisms.A lot of emphasis was put on the idea that one solution does not fit all situations.Fiber may be the best thing to use in situation A, with fixed wireless the best for situation B, and satellite for situation C.Striking the proper balance would be the key to making it all work the best while spending the least.

I brought up the idea that most traffic normally stays in country and that better/more local infrastructure would likely not mean as much additional incoming bandwidth as one may think.It was then that I was given a lesson in how things work here in southern Africa.There are only ten interconnect points in the whole southern Africa region.All traffic has to run through them and the cost to connect to them is VERY high.Also, because the costs are so high (a domain could be $1000 US dollars per year) itís not unusual to see servers (with the content that people are most likely to want) sitting in the UK or America instead of locally.

Uzoma, from the FCC was the first of the guest speakers.He spent a lot of time talking about the new way of thinking about spectrum management at the FCC.How they are moving from a Command and Control mechanism and more toward a market driven approach.He talked about how itís now believed that the FCC should specify what bands can be used not how they should be used.

He talked about the need to protect existing wireless services while at the same time allowing innovation and new ones to take root.It was, correctly, pointed out that there is more demand than there is spectrum.In the USA spectrum use is governed by the FCC.Itís used by both public and private entities.For telecommunications, dispatching taxis, directing fire trucks, radar systems, baby monitors, microwave ovens etc.All important uses and often conflicting ones.

The Spectrum Policy Task Force (SPTF, http://www.fcc.gov/sptf/) was brought up.He pointed out several recommendations that the SPTF.Most of Uzomaís time devoted to the SPTF was spent talking about interference temperature and the idea that there are 4 dimensions to spectrum use.Space (geography), time, power (related to space) and frequency.Most spectrum management to date has considered only 3 dimensions.Time is normally not considered but should be for maximum efficiency in spectrum management.

Another interesting bit of discussion centered around Uzomaís idea of Interference Temperature.In a nutshell this is a measure of how much interference a device can tolerate before itís unable to function properly.An example of how that could be important might be the idea that a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) could use very low powered devices in the TV broadcast bands.The TV receivers would have to be able to function correctly even if the WISPís devices created some small level of interference.Or vise versa.With todayís level of technology (and certainly with tomorrowís) that very idea should be very much doable.In fact, many of the devices that I use today in my WISP distribution network do just that.They are able to happily (mostly) coexist with many other spectrum users in the same coverage zones.

Uzoma also brought up some of the problems of spectrum congestion that weíre seeing in the USA.The demand for more radio stations, public safety systems, and especially wireless broadband distribution systems is outpacing the ability to allocate new chunks of RF space.It was pointed out how important it is for the rules to be flexible so that spectrum management can move at the hareís pace of industry rather than the tortoiseís pace of government.The reasons for this are many.Increasing ďcommunications-intensiveĒ services based economy, the trend toward a mobile work force, increased convenience and efficiency, and resource sharing, all contribute to the need for more and more flexible communications systems.

New technologies will make all of this possible.In November of 2004 the FCC certified the first SDR (software defined radio).A cell phone base station built by Vanu, Inc. (http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-254463A1.doc)SDR and new digital technologies like OFDM (http://www.odessaoffice.com/wireless/definitions.htm) make it possible to push more data through the air in even less time.

Flexible spectrum management.Thatís the current thinking, according to Uzoma.Set your rules in such a way that you strike a balance with them.Not too heavy handed but not too flimsy either.Mechanisms are needed that allow existing users of the spectrum to upgrade to new, more efficient technologies, while also leaving room for all other users to start out with the technology that best fits their business plans.According to Uzoma, there are basically three models for managing spectrum.Exclusive use, commons, and command and control.Itís the view of the SPTF that both the exclusive use and commons models should be expanded.Exclusive use determines whoís got the right to use spectrum but not what theyíll do with that right.The commons model allows anyone to use spectrum but without interference protection (authors note: Iíd like to see some degree of interference protection for incumbent (first-in) operators).

Next up was Mike Leach.He talked a lot about the recent regulatory reform efforts in Europe.They were needed because the legacy framework was anti-competitive and therefore created a disincentive to invest in the market.Europe had very similar issues to southern Africa: Diverse population base, a large number of relatively small countries, and great disparity between existing rule sets.

All of the different rules for each country made operating across boarders very difficult at best, nearly impossible at worst.So Europe put together a group not unlike TRASA in order to deal with those main issues.It was very interesting, indeed, to listen to the way that they went about making changes, why changes were made, and what is expected from the changes.

††††††††††† Mike started out talking about satellite access.How there was more than one spot in Europe where one could move mere feet in any direction and touch up to 4 different countries.How the heck is a company supposed to get a satellite to function one way on one channel in country A and do something different in B, C, and D?The rules were a mess.

††††††††††† One of the first things that was done was the gathering of industry.Industry group(s) focused on regulatory impediments.They were realistic in their views and gained great credibility with the regulatory bodies.

††††††††††† Three goals were identified:De-regulate industry, enact pro-competitive regulation, and harmonized regulation.

††††††††††† De-regulation mainly focused on cutting down of red tape.Making the rules easier to understand and implement.

††††††††††† Pro-competitive regulation was a bit harder.Is competition always king?Turns out that the answer is ďyes, and noĒ.To quote from Mikeís PowerPoint presentation: ďIn general terms, competition principles have a proven track record. Preventing anti-competitive behavior which distorts fair competition including abuses of significant market power.ĒHowever, getting the balance right is no easy task.How do you prevent the old monopoly from ďcherry pickingĒ customers from the new competitor(s)?How do you force (is that the right word?) the market to open up in such a way that new companies will want to, let along be able to, enter the arena?

††††††††††† Much time was spent on ďmarket harmonizationĒ.Mike talked about how this would drive much larger economies of scale.Little things like having licenses last the same amount of time in all countries would greatly simplify the tasks of the operators while not significantly impacting regulators.

††††††††††† In Europe they are moving toward more industry involvement with regulatory issues.The regulatory bodies are guided by the concept that getting the most for the least out to the consumers is the ultimate goal of any regulatory actions.

††††††††††† One of the things that Mike has been involved in has been a ďone stop shopĒ approach.Itís a fascinating concept.Iím still trying to get my arms around all that it means so please forgive me if I donít get this exactly right.Basically, once these new changes are all put in place an operator (or other industry segment) will be able to go to ONE web site.From there heíll be able to choose the country that he needs information from, the technology he needs information about, and find/fill out any forms or applications that he needs to deal with.The idea being that this will make functioning in any/all participating countries much simpler.And anything that can make the life of industry simpler will tend to reduce costs and in the end benefit consumers.As I understood things, this would even go so far as to create one application form for any given issue that would be standardized across all participating countries.

††††††††††† Mikeís group believes that these actions (among others) will lead to ďInfrastructure development, applications development, and education and training prospectsĒ.That sounds about right to me.

††††††††††† Building trust and overcoming prejudices will likely be the most difficult aspects of the implementation phase.They believe that by always keeping an eye on the end game itíll be possible though.

††††††††††† My part of the day was spent mostly on talking about the who, what, when, where, and why of being a WISP.I started out talking about how I understood the market and my competition (mainly the TelCo.s).I told them about how we work hard to create teams and partnerships out of local government, industry, and individuals through things like trading access for rent in almost all cases.

††††††††††† I showed my guests how Odessa is so small that it doesnít even rate a dot on a State of Washington map.And how, even out there, I have nearly 6000 square miles of coverage.How over the last 5 or so years Iíve only spent $60,000 or $70,000 to do that.Amazingly (to some anyway) thatís my own money, no grants or investors.Just me, the bank, Visa and Master Card.

††††††††††† Next I talked about how I decided to use the technology that I used back then.Should I go with DSSS, FHSS, or (available today but not then) OFDM?I landed on DSSS which later came to be synonymous with Wi-Fi.It was much less expensive.And, as I later found out, it would allow me to set the radios to avoid known sources of interference.Thatís an ability I still find myself using far more than Iíd have ever thought possible let alone likely.

††††††††††† My PPT included a large number of pictures.Things Iíd done to build tower (base station) systems, customer installations, mobile applications etc.Iíll have as many of the PPTís as I can posted on my Wireless Broadband site (http://www.odessaoffice.com/wireless/) as soon as I can.In the mean time you can poke around and see many of the pictures I used and, eventually, many taken during the trip.

††††††††††† What weíre going to do next naturally came up as well.How weíre going to continue to increase our market coverage areas.Weíll continue to improve the equipment we use and how we deploy it.It was also interesting to point out that for roughly $1,000,000 I could cover at least 80% of the population of my state AND provide free equipment for 500 end users.

††††††††††† Next I covered regulatory issues as I see them (as well as they could be covered in the 5 minutes left in my segment).If we lived in a polite society weíd not even need regulations.People would always keep in mind the impact their actions will have on others.Unfortunately we donít live in a world free of bad characters.In an imperfect world we need government but it should limit itís scope to protecting the average person from the unscrupulous among us.

††††††††††† Some time was spent on the basics of the FCC rules, mainly for unlicensed.I talked about how sometimes good ideas failed to take into account their impact on the market place.A specific example would be the new part-15 higher power levels allowed for certain types of systems.Vivato was able to certify a solution ($150,000ish for a 360* coverage base station system) that controls where data is sent via electronic means rather than RF means.Basically the Vivato system (in laymanís terms here) uses a switch or router to make sure than a packet goes out one of several access point/antenna systems that are all assembled into a common enclosure.I believe that a system that would be the functional equivalent could be designed and built in the field using off the shelf gear for 10th that amount.Sadly, under the current rules weíre not allowed to do so.

††††††††††† To me a regulatory environment should follow the KISS (keep it simple, silly) rule.Donít make rules that the average person canít understand.If the rules are too hard to understand someone will have to be hired just to keep up with the rules.That costs money that could have been put into infrastructure expansion.And complicated confusing rules are harder to enforce.In my mind, the rules should be enforceable too.And the enforcement should be fairly strict.If the rules are onerous then the enforcement should be lax and held tightly to, only as a last resort.Thatís too hard to police or function within though.Better to have very reasonable and flexible rules that are easily followed and enforced.