Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Making the Nigerian Internet A Level Playing Ground

328454_f520 Last week two significant things caught my attention. First Google and Verizon seemed to trying to preempt the US Federal Communications Commission’s attempt to reach consensus with the major stakeholders in the US internet infrastructure space. The two giants appeared to be proposing rules that would keep the internet a level playing ground, so called “Net Neutrality” rules. However several analysts expressed concerns over clauses that appeared to give them loopholes to make the wireless infrastructure of the internet less than open. Today, the wired internet (based on fibre optic and other physically wired connections to people’s homes) is the largest part of the means of internet access in the US. However, it is clear on several fronts that the mobile and thus wireless internet is the future and these two titans appear to be trying to position themselves to have clear advantages, arguably at the expense of customers and competitors alike.

The second significant event was the report that according to the ITU 43.9 million Nigerians were now using the internet. 43.9 Million. That’s nearly 30% of our population. That’s more than 4 times the regularly mentioned 10 million Nigerians. There are many things that run through my mind as I think of it. The opportunity, not just for commerce, but for education, cultural transformation, and so much more.

Now to tie these two things together. The mobile internet is the internet for Nigerians. Most of us, just as it was with telephony, have never really experienced wires and internet access together and the huge benefits of mobility will only strengthen that part of our technological culture. Like we did with unwired telephony, we are leapfrogging Western society in that regard and just as with mobile telephony we can enable a myriad of societal benefits. My concern here is that the enablers of mobile internet access, mostly the same enablers of mobile telephony, could deliberately put in road blocks that stunt this growth in order to wring the most money out of us that they can. Whether Google and Verizon are misguided, misunderstood or mischievous their actions could further cost the US even greater loss of their position of internet leadership and the wrong choices here could keep us from rising to ours.

Don’t get me wrong, if you investment in something, you deserve to reap the benefits from your investment. As I see fibre optic cables being run down our major highways and read about GLO-1, Main One, SAT-3 and others with monetary values in the billions written in the same sentence with them, I am constantly conscious of the huge expense that has gone into putting these things in place. It pains me when I see road construction rip those cables out of the ground. These Telecoms firms should make as much money as they reasonably can from their investments. However, in the rush to profit they shouldn’t act in such a way that they significantly raise the barriers of entry to the internet that will keep the rich and poor both from getting cheap, fast and reliable internet access. They shouldn’t make it too expensive for entrepreneurs to deploy quality internet based services in-country.

You hear me Globacom, MTN? Don’t be like Google or Verizon. Don’t be evil.

Of course evil is in the eye of the beholder when the smell of money is in the air. We pay 25 times more per kilobyte for mobile 3G internet access than they pay in the UK (i.e. usage without a contract just per usage charges) and the providers go smiling to the banks. That price may drop with all the fibre coming into Nigeria over the next few months, but I suspect that without intervention the prices may not fall to an equitable level. This is why our own FCC, the NCC should put policies in place today, that will protect our digital tomorrow. This isn’t just about pricing, it is about making sure that the decisions that are made for today and for tomorrow will help us achieve the societal advantages that the internet can bring whether or not the gatekeepers care for it or not. They need to start the engagement today that will protect the Citizenry while continuing to ensure that this is a viable investment climate for communications technology infrastructure investment.