Thursday, January 12, 2017

Data Prices Drama ? Who is Responsible POTRAZ or Network Operators ?

Data Prices Drama Who is Responsible POTRAZ or Network Operators ?





It is very easy for people to reach wrong conclusions on certain matters because they would have been fed with wrong information. The first point to understand some of these items before drawing emotional conclusions is to have accurate facts. Unfortunately most people believe 80% of what they read on social media be it true or false but thats NOT for me to judge. Let me explain a few things and raise a few points and leave you to make an informed decision . I discuss publicly available information and about use 2 decades of my hands on experience in ICT industry at the highest level .

POTRAZ stands for Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe .It is mandated by an act of parliament to manage and regulate postal and telecommunication services in Zimbabwe. As their motto suggests “ To create a level playing field”.

As far as most of us know POTRAZ usually holds consultative meetings with the public and key stakeholders before coming up with new regulations that affect the public. In any case all the telco operators would not exist if there there no customers. The same applies to POTRAZ.

On October 16 , 2014 in a circular to the industry, POTRAZ said it had abandoned the Cositu pricing framework — an International Telecommunications Union’s model for the determination of costs and tariffs (including interconnection and accounting rates) for telephone services — in favor of a long run incremental cost (LRIC) model, which will see tariffs progressively coming down in response to a public outcry by consumers. Read again – coming down progressively .

Cellular mobile operators were directed to cut their voice tariffs in line with the new model December (2014). However, data charges would be determined by market forces. In the report, POTRAZ directed tariffs to be further adjusted to 12c per minute in 2015, and then 9c in 2016. The interconnection rate, which had been 7c for several years, would be reduced to 5c in December, 4c in 2015 and 3c by 2016. So what has changed ?

A new board was appointed. A new Director General was appointed after years of different executives rotating as acting DGs. This itself had catastrophic results as each acting DG was not given enough time to make and follow up key strategic decisions he or she made. One of which was the abolishment of the new Research & Development Department. (Source Newsday 2014).

Fast forward 12 December 2017 POTRAZ publicly announces new floor prices for both data and voice for the mobile network operators (MNOs) .A floor price is the minimum chargeable per minute of voice and per megabyte of data price. According to that communication by POTRAZ in December the floor prices would 12c for voice and 2c for data . What is clear the voice floor rate of 12c per minute was agreed upon across board including the MNOs under their umbrella Telecommunications Operators Association of Zimbabwe (TOAZ) . The burning issues was and is data rates .The cost of a megabyte. Data bundles. Now this is a tricky one as different players have different interests in the data price. Some players want it go up and others down all for different reasons. Lets get surgical about this.

Data Rates

The entry of Over The Top Services (OTT) caught both the regulator , the government and operators flat footed. They woke up and boom there was a cheaper , faster , efficient and more secure means of communication over night. Yes Whatsapp and of course Facebook , Twitter and gang loosely termed social media. Now use of social media rose exponentially and understandably so in a country facing economic challenges where $ 1 is a lot of money literally. But its grown affected 3 categories differently. The government , the MNOs and the consumers.How so ? This is what I think . The consumer was naturally excited as he could communicate more for less. The MNO was now losing voice revenue to these news services.

Government

And the government might have been worried about the potential abuse of social media .And some in human rights arena think that it is a way to regulate social media usage especially ahead of 2018 elections . This is disturbing considering that only recently government issued a warning statement to the effect “that anyone caught or sharing abusive and subversive material on social media will be disconnected from using the country's mobile networks” . A person does not need a local MNO SIM card to use Whatsapp of FB or Twitter. A SIM card registered in SA , Botswana , UK and yes USA can used. Who is offering technical advise to the authorities ? Cyber arena is not like the ground and air incidents where roadblocks can be mounted. People can use encrypted communication tools If they want to. They can us TOR or ONION. Governemnt is looking in the wrong direction. I for one I am against any one or any group who abuses social media. But the freedom of expression of opinions is NOT one of them. Also the tech gurus in government earning fat checks forget that more people in diaspora post on social media than locals. So will government going fly to each of these estimated 3 million Zimbabweans living abroad who express their opinion online? Some shake up is needed in some of these organizations and get in technical people who know what is technically possible and what is not. If you think think the Chineese approach will help. I have bad news for you. It will not. A subject for another day.

Bottom line they never saw it coming someone some where was sleeping on the wheel. Where are the so called research and development centers ? But the Minister of Information Communications Technology, Postal and Courier Services under which we believe POTRAZ falls under categorically stated on July 7 that “ We have no business in shutting down social media .”

Government must engage citizens and encourage debate on issues that have to do the social media. It is not going any where anytime soon OK. How do you resuscitate an economy using ZIMDEF when people's affordable means of communication is compromised ? How do I communicate with my potential suppliers or customers as I used to at these new very high data rates ?

But since this was a directive from POTRAZ of which TOAZ were complicit to in a meeting held last October , a few tricky scenarios arise. For Econet if they fail to abide by the new regulation they would be fined - heavily. As for Netone and Telecel it is anybody guess what their fate is if they do not comply – they are government owned. Who is fooling who ?

Operators


These fellows were in deep slumber enjoying and reaping heaps of voice generated revenues at very exorbitant prices. When the OTT came aboard they were shell shocked and started screaming and crying like 3 year olds. This is what you get when you do not invest a portion of your returns into research and development (R&D) of current and future technologies. I speak from a position of authority having worked in the world's largest R&D lab in Silicon Valley 8 years ago. Companies like AT&T , Verizon , Sprint amongst others worked around the clock to ready themelves against the effects of the disruptive technologies like instant messaging and VoIP .

On the data price scene naturally MNOs want the rates to go up as they feel OTT services are eating into their voice revenue streams. In a few years time there wont be such a thing called international calling. We are going IP all the way. Like it or not start diversifying add more VAS and diversify. Invest heavily into R&D. Innovate or die. You have had a free run in a very long time. Secondly be careful not to be too greedy . Increased data rates will mean less data traffic usage and less revenue. Cut costs. Share passive infrastructure as POTRAZ has been advising you. When you cut costs you effectively increase your margins. I find it awkward that you are very quick to agree on price increases as TOAZ but very reluctant to share infrastructure .

Consumers

This is a people that is already over burdened by a very harsh economy , scarce currency , low manufacturing capacity , drought and famine in some areas , no jobs , toll gates , and so to add this communication burden is like pouring a mixture of vinegar , salt and hot chilli on an open wound.

Our constitution is very clear on our inalienable right of freedom of association and speech and the like. But this has to be done responsibly. Make sure that what you post on social media you can even say in public. What I have written here I can repeat verbatim on TV , Radio or face to face. People must not hide behind the anonymous nature of the internet to post profanities . Thats a sure sign of “ubugwala” a Ndebele term for cowardice. Real men and women confront and discuss issues as they are , with no fear or favor. Responsible “social mediaring “. Also don't used by people with their own agendas. Think for your self do not be remotely controlled.

POTRAZ

This is an organization caught between a rock and two hard places. The government , the operators and the consumers. There is no easy way out of this .

Different sections are interested in the operations of POTRAZ for different reasons. One section says they are into it for national security .Yep even in the USA there is NASA .Some naturally love the regulator's financial status. Cash cow in an environment of dismally performing parastatals. Some want to use POTRAZ as a vehicle for ICT Innovation. And others just to shoot down anything owned by current government .This regulator is professionally run but their hands are tied. This is not NRZ kind of entity.

But why dont the security and law enforcement guys set up their own cyber security intelligence unit and leave POTRAZ alone. Yes you got me right. This causes conflict of interests .Leave POTRAZ to ICT ministry .The ICT Minister announced an Innovation fund and some of us were already salivating at this thinking of develop home brewed technologies and applications to safeguard our economy and nation.At the same time acquire global skills and create employment. There is a shortage of forensic analysts , data miners , artificial intelligence experts and here we ware stuck fighting wrong battles .A bold decision must be made taken to leave POTRAZ and its professional staff alone.

FINAL WORD

Dear. Director General Dr. Machengete. Congratulations on your new appointment. You are still knew at POTRAZ . Some decisions were made long before you came aboard so consult as wide as possible before going public or making a public statements .Some of us offer free technical advice. Case in point Zimbabwe has been land locked ever since Adam and Eve took a bite at that apple. So the reason of data prices going up due to being land locked is not the best one sir. Rwanda and Burundi are very land locked and look at their data rates .We have Liquid,Telone, Powertel , Telecontract and Africom operating optical networks. And by the way once installed there is not much maintenance cost .Also light travels at about 3,000,000 m/s. So distance alone is no longer a major cost factor.

Recall , rethink , suspend the idea of floor pricing immediately , forth with. Let market forces come into play. Be bold you are the DG and NOT acting DG. Engage operators , the board , the public and the Ministry and pre-empty conflicting issues you will have from from government , operators and the general public .You know it . the data rates are way to high . Great job on CICs that are being rolled out. Something good coming out of USF fund . Compliments of the New Season.


 @robertndlovu : wozatel @gmail.com   : App + 1 650 200 0250 
 Bulawayo , Zimbabwe .


Friday, December 9, 2016

Does Zimbabwe Need a Single International Gateway ?

Does Zimbabwe need a single International Gateway ? It depends on who you ask . Different stake holders will give you a different answer for different reasons. The concept of multiple international gateways is not unique to Zimbabwe in a region which has already liberalized its telecommunication industry to allow the entry of other players. So what has changed ? Why suddenly is there talk of a single international gateway through which all inbound and out voice and data traffic must go through . More than a decade ago the then sole telecoms operator in Zimbabwe PTC was unbundled and that gave birth to Netone the mobile phone company , Telone the fixed network company and Comone its data equivalent. Econet and Telecel were the new companies that were granted licenses to operate a mobile networks in Zimbabwe. This also meant allowing them to carry their own international traffic. This move was welcome across board as this gave end users more choice both for voice and data,In simple terms a gateway is system that connects 2 or more different systems. This is achieved via both hardware and software components. Normally an interconnection agreement is entered between the connecting parties . This enables users on one network to send calls and or data to the other interconnected networks. The industry standard is that the a regulator pegs interconnection rates between telcos both local and international .In Zimbabwe's case this is done by the Postal Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ). All the 3 mobile operators have their own international gateways to connect to the outside world besides Telone . Both inbound an outbound traffic traverses through the operator's gateways .The laws of the land allow each player only to carry traffic to and from their networks . Providers are required to declare the revenue accrued from international calls to state authorities like RBZ and POTRAZ. This market is naturally an important source of forex .There are millions of Zimbabweans living in diaspora who make calls back home to their friends, relatives and organization alike . No rocket science is needed to figure out that the volume of international calls into Zimbabwe is high. This is a very lucrative business . But things have changed since mid 2000. Interconnections can now be achieved at very low cost today as was then without any compromise in quality of service. The emergence of under sea optic cable around the globe has greatly lowered the cost of data connections and thus lowered the cost of owning and running a gateway .Naturally one would expect that these huge cost savings are passed on to the end users .This does not seem to be the case or at least for now with reference to terminating calls into Zimbabwe. As stated earlier on the termination rate – the cost of landing a call from outside is pegged by the regulator as a guideline for the operators . Now market forces have come into play. Skype , Whatsapp , Viber and other technologies using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) have emerged over the years. These are very disruptive technologies which have no respect for established systems that are rigid . Basically these emerging technologies carry voice and other messaging services over the internet as packets. These are the so called Over The Top services (OTT). New technologies are converging with old ones .This means that there are now various options to effect an interconnection between different technologies . It is no longer the huge and very expensive satellite link at Mazowe pointing to the sky that does the trick alone .IP based technologies are growing by day. This means that international gateways no longer rely on a satellite link alone to land internationals calls . Thanks to fibre optics again. The idea of a single gateway is based on 2 different reasons as far as we publicly know . One school of thought is that having a single gateway makes it easier for government to monitor and verify the revenues in the international call arena since monitoring of traffic is viewed at a single point. This is a technical nightmare but not impossible because of the different communications protocols and architecture at play. The decline in inbound international call revenue is apparent and OTT services have played a huge part in that. So a single gateway might achieve the desired objective to monitor voice traffic from a revenue stand point. But there is no guarantee that it will boost the inflows given the exponential adoption of OTT services that have eroded both and international call revenues of the telcos . Another possible reason of this decline is the use of grey routes by certain carriers and individual players. Because of artificially high termination rates and monopoly in this sector other players are tempted to carry calls into Zimbabwe using the internet route . This means that calls from say UK by pass a licensed gateway straight to the callee in Zimbabwe at the cost of a local call . This means less traffic through the licensed gateways . Less revenue declared to the state .Interestingly enough most advanced countries do not suffer from this because their international termination rates are market driven .In short the establishment of a single international will not remove grey route traffic termination as long as termination rates are absurd. Ask anyone in the UK how expensive it is to call a mobile subscriber back home . The high termination rates open a window of opportunity for arbitrage. Another school of thought is that a single interconnect gateway will give government ability to monitor international calls from a security stand point. This is nothing new. Countries do monitor both internet and voice calls in line with their national security policies . So advocates for this one indicate that 5 international gateways that are currently operational make monitoring difficult and complex. On the other hand activists say this might infringe on peoples privacy and if you add the infrastructure sharing bill that was recently passed into the mix you got it. However emerging and converging technologies made this complicated . Most communications are now IP based and messages are encrypted .So installation of a single international gateway to monitor voice and internet traffic becomes tricky business .Use of Virtual Private Networks is another item that crosses one's mind, This basically is carrying data and voice in a private tunnel between end opens. VPN software and technologies have matured and are even available in open source format – free. Add to this equation the cloud technology variable where data is stored and actioned in the cloud over the internet some thousands of kilometres away in Iceland . There is no one size fit all on this . Stakeholders must be serious about what they are trying to achieve and the effect of such implementations . The regulators must revisit their termination rates and allow market forces to take charge. Telcos especially mobile companies must seriously invest in research and development because technologies advances dont ask for permission from anyone in order to proceed. Any one dreaming of stopping the technology boom might be disappointed in the not so far future. Instead of spending scarce resources in designing systems to block and control everything we should be directing these resource into development side of the equation . Stakeholders need to have accurate information and show some reason why they should can be trusted in this one.We do not even have the skills for a project of such a scale ? What happened to the tender that was floated last year by calling for to express interest to deliver the Telecommunications Traffic Monitoring and Revenue Assurance system ? A single gateway might provide some form of about cyber security and revenue assurance for the government but I shudder to think how it would be like if that single gateway has an outage. In case the reader did not know , the main reason why the internet was developed was to ensure that there was no single point of failure communications wise . The USA military envisaged a situation where different cites would remain connected in the event of an attack on mainland. Mind you this was during the era of cold war. A single point of failure removes redundancy . Cyber security is very important but we must be careful not to make decisions today that will disadvantage future generations all because we were trying to monitor and slow technology advances. @RobertNdlovu is an ICT consultant based in Bulawayo writing in his personal capacity he can be contacted via robertndlovu@Ymail.com and App (077 600 2605)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

When Solar Meets Wireless

When Solar Meets Wireless - Rural Communications Solution

March 23 - 2010

Background

Recently the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) made an announcement that it had committed US$24 million from the Universal Services Fund (USF) for implementing eight projects in the rural areas. No specifics as to which telecoms operators had been tasked to carry out the rural network outreach programs. Also no specific areas in the 8 provinces were made public by Eng. Charles Sibanda who made the announcements.

Studies that have been conducted worldwide have identified that telecommunications is an important tool for the economic development and self-sufficiency in any society.

Despite these potential benefits it is apparent that a range of problems needs to be addressed before this opportunity can be realized. Most of these rural communities are geographically isolated and economically disadvantaged, and have generally not attracted the interest of commercial service providers.

The announcement by POTRAZ is good news – on paper at least. We all know the attitude of the present telcos, in that they have NO interest in extending their services to rural areas. I wonder what has changed this time around that will make the likes of Econet, NetOne, TelOne, Powertel, Telecel and others to suddenly develop a keen interest in deploying coverage in rural Zimbabwe. Maybe through the new service providers like Aquiva Wireless, Africom and others we are going to see something being done to bring digital economy to rural areas.

This is my public request to Potraz & the Minister of ICT Mr. Nelson Chamisa under whose Ministry these projects will be rolled out:

“Could we please have a publication of (1) which companies are receiving money from the Universal Services Fund and (2) which 8 areas have been ear-marked for rural network deployments? That way we will know who to hold accountable with public funds should the areas ear-marked for network coverage be still with NO coverage 3 years from today.”

Well no need to reference examples here where some A2 farmers received farming inputs from government and the nation will have to import grain leaving some people wondering what happened to the farming inputs.

Ok let’s move on with what could be done to bring ICT and telephony to Nkayi, Gokwe, Guruve, Chiadzwa and Wedza just to mention a few as an example.

Solar Powered Wireless for Rural Connectivity

In the game of chess there is what is called twin forking where you pin two strong pieces on the board by one move. This is what this article is about. Addressing Africa’s two hindrances to bridge the digital divide starts with addressing electricity supply and connectivity technologies - solar energy for power and wireless technology for connectivity. Easier said than done, but NOT impossible. The solar cell, which can function on minimal natural light, enables a phone to be installed in remote areas where it is impractical to run power cables to the unit. If insufficient light is available the device can be backed up by a battery.

Solar Primer – Insolation

Solar panels convert photons of light into electrical current by a process known as the "photovoltaic effect". This essentially means that the solar energy illuminating is causing electrons in a solar panel to become excited. These electrons are then directed into an electric current by a built-in electromagnetic field. Africa receives a lot of sunshine because most countries are not too far from the Equator. A standard way to measure the amount of sunshine received in an area is called - insolation. This is expressed as kilowatt hours per square meter per day. No rocket science involved here southern Africa has higher insolation values than Canada!

Typical average annual insolation levels:

Central Australia = 5.89 kWh/m2/day - Very High
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe = 4.5 kWh/m2/day - High
Helsinki, Finland = 2.41 kWh/m2/day - Very Low

Solar equipment

Deployment of these systems is NOT too complex if done by trained personal. Deployment involves system sizing which basically includes estimating the power consumption by the system. Batteries are used to store electrical energy to power the system at night or during times when sunshine is at its lowest by use of chargers.

Most end user wireless equipment has pretty low power consumption levels but transmitters used by the service provider will need larger solar systems which means digging deeper into the pocket - one reason that scares most people way from deploying solar powered systems.

Wireless Primer

The term wireless is pretty broad in the true sense of the word. On the streets of Bulawayo or Harare this means a cellphone to the average citizen. Accurate in a sense . I am not offering a wireless tutorial here, but tech savvy readers must realize and appreciate that the bulk of the readers are not as tech savvy and as such a clearer explanation of what wireless technology is, will go a long way into unlocking what its full potential is.

Wireless technology revolves around the ability to send electromagnetic signals (radio waves) over the air using a transmitter with a receiver on the other end. A simple example would be the traditional Supersonic or WRS radio set where you tune into radio 2 or radio 4 to listen to your favorite programs. This is a one way radio system, where the user ONLY receives and does NOT talk back. The same technology is used for cellphones with the difference that the user can talk back to the sender.

This is facilitated by use of base stations that cellphone operators like Econet, NetOne or Telecel deploy to send calls to you. TV also uses wireless technology. And so what’s the difference? The difference lies in what frequencies a network operator is allowed to transmit and receive signals. The way the GSM operators operate would be the same way that you can wind your FM/AM dial to tune in to your favorite radio station at a technical and circuitry level.

Wireless technologies are characterized by their frequency range, their coverage area, signal loss, and transmission power. But suffice to say here that the different wireless technologies include, but NOT limited to, GSM, Wi-Fi, WiMax, Satellite, Blue Tooth etc.

The unique position with wireless technologies lies in their ability of NOT wanting to use copper cables to send signals. But each country must regulate who uses which frequency otherwise there will be congestion caused by interference and it will be chaotic. This is one of the roles of a telecoms regulator to manage frequency spectrums – like Potraz in the Zimbabwe sense. Otherwise if there is no control you shouldn’t be surprised to hear some ZRP messages on your cellphone assuming your Nokia receiver can receive the signals.

Solar Powered Wireless Access

This is a viable avenue of implementing RURAL telephony in a bid to redress the knowledge and information gap between the urban and rural populations, amongst other things. No need to explain and expand the clear relationship that exists between information technology and development of a country. Access to information and communication on the fly bridges the digital divide that generally engulfs the bulk of African countries. This is usually measured as teledensity: the number of connected phones users per 1000 people.

Solar and wireless technologies share a very unique thing. They both bring something to a location where it would have been otherwise impossible to. Solar brings power and wireless brings data. So the combination of these produces something that everyone wants but can’t connect the dots – bringing internet and voice to remote location using solar energy. Bear in mind that the batteries can function for several days without sunlight.

Solar Powered wireless access uses low wattage transmitters and receivers to send and receive radio signals regardless of frequencies involved. Backhaul to backbone also uses solar powered radio with up to 100 km range at 32Mb/s with line of site before repeating.
Solar Wireless Access Nodes presently available have enough battery capacity to run for several days without significant sunlight, and are fully remote monitored as long as there is backhaul to data network! NetOne already has deployed a solar powered base station because of intermittent ZESA outages.

Naturally most people dismiss solar powered initiatives as very expensive because what they fail to realize is that once installed the system pays itself as long as the sun shines! But once deployed there is not much maintenance to be done on sun light! And if there is no sunshine its likely that there is wind and hence windmills.

Challenges and Opportunities

The two most basic services that technology can deliver in remote areas are a dial tone and email access.

These two should constitute a basic need for any nation that claims to be serious about any form of development. Availing solar-powered phone and internet centers at business centers is one direct way of availing basic communication means to the remotest part of the country not covered by any GSM signal. This way even the remotest farmer in Wedza can send an email to a fertilizer supplier in Kwekwe for prices. The phone and internet center approach spreads the cost of ownership over a larger group of people.

Due to remote location difficult terrain, hostile environments and dispersed population, laying of copper or fiber optics is not a cost effective solution to provide connectivity. As such there is no one single approach that will achieve the objective of bridging the digital divide. But an array of approaches using different technologies have to be invoked based on conditions local to the area. For instance solar powered equipment will fare better in Lupane than Nyanga. These are facts relevant to a specific geographic area. This is not a one size fits all solution.

A thorough and detailed site survey will establish if a particular technology will work for a certain community or not. The site survey must collect relevant data like weather patterns, temperature extremes, elevation, wind speeds, security, distance from interconnection, population density etc.

Use of solar powered wireless equipment addresses two problems inherent in most developing countries - lack of reliable electricity (ZESA) and cost of laying copper. Solutions that can be solar powered remove power related obstacles in rolling out basic telephone services and even internet.

This approach provides a vehicle to implement say tele-medicine and other healthcare delivery services as well as agricultural education and extension services. Other services include distance learning and mass education programs. This means that the local rural clinic, local police, school, shops have access to a dial tone and email within a reasonable walking distance. This means teachers based in remote areas are able to access resources that can aid their curriculum. This means that health workers can disseminate HIV/AIDs info at the click of a mouse.

I thought that this was common sense! But I could be wrong.

But in Zimbabwe's case like most African countries, we have farmers with the most fertile land that DO NOT have access to information resources regarding commercial farming as a business. This is a serious matter. Most of the new farmers do not
have access to an email address! Having phone and internet centers at the community centers and even growth points, will mean that not everyone in that area needs to buy his or her own computer to access basic communication services but can use the public access system. This eliminates the excuse of computer cost being a major obstacle to development by default.

Lack of access to information contributes heavily to an extent similar to the perennial food shortages to a country that has NOT been experiencing any drought because of lack of information. Lack of information is directly proportional to poverty levels.

The Bible says “ .. people perish because of lack of knowledge …”. I will not expand on this self explanatory verse from the book of Hosea.

Telecom Center (Phone & Internet Center)

Think of a telecom center as a setup with phone, e-mail and internet services. This model is pretty common in urban setups. And this model could be used for remote centers and even some urban centers whose electricity supply is more often off than on.
As such the telecom center will have 3 distinct elements: phone center, internet center and the control system.

This test system is for 8 phones and 8 workstations.

Phone Center

The essential building blocks for the rural phone center would be based along these guidelines:

Housing booths - to house telephone handsets.
Solar module – this is a 3m long pole with a solar panel, a charger and batteries.
Wireless module - this could be CDMA or WiFi or GSM depending on what wireless technology is available.
Phone devices – these are the handsets that will be plugged into the switch on the local network.
Metering units – these could either be stand-alone devices or incorporated within the telephony devices to regulate usage.

Internet Center

The following make up the data side of the community communications center:

Mini PCs – these are fully functional computer systems that consume less. electricity but provide enough processor speed and capacity to be used for tasks like word processing and internet browsing and printing.
LCD monitors – these have a lower power consumption rates.
Switch – this is in the form of a PoE (Power over Ethernet) switch in which the phones can be plugged in directly with no separate power source as they are powered inline by the switch.
Accessories – ethernet cables and power strips.
Software – free tried and tested linux operating system like Ubuntu.

Control System

Basically this is the logical term for the systems that bring and or enable services to the end user stations namely the telephone center and the internet center.

Internet server – this is a Pentium 4 computer with at least 2G of memory running FREE open source Ubuntu Linux operating system. In short this system acts as the intermediary between the end users (stations) on one side and the internet and satellite dish on the other hand.
Telephony server – this is the call routing and call processing system that literally performs call origination and termination and all transcoding functions where audio signals have to be converted for GSM or landline systems. Typically this system is a dual core Pentium 4 kicking on at least 3 G memory.
VSAT system – this is a solar powered satellite dish maybe 1.2m wide with 1.5Mb/s down and 384 kps up and again its size is determined by the size of the center. The VSAT option is the wireless option if there is no GSM or WiMax alternative in that area.

I know someone out there is about to point out that the bandwidth requirements for both voice and data might not be enough. Well, VSAT and VoIP technologies have leap frogged with time. Five years ago when I started thinking of this project Facebook was not so popular then. But today it’s a different story. My point is that what you know NOT today could be a hit tomorrow. Present satellite systems do carry voice at lower bandwidth capacities than ever imagined possible – yes at 4kb/s. GSM uses 13 kb/s.

The beauty of IP telephony is that modern and efficient and cost effective voice compression schemes are now available that enable a number of voice calls to be squeezed into a smaller pipe than before – an interesting analogy would be like packing 20 people into a Kombi originally designed to seat 12 people .

VSAT systems have an option for CIR (Committed Information Rate) which literally guarantees a minimum bandwidth allocation for the end user – the community center. Of course CIR means a little bit extra dollars.

Solar system – this is an array of solar panels, chargers and batteries that are installed and sized according to the expected load of the deployment. This is measured in KWh (kilo watt hours). This depends on the sunlight and on the size of the panel’s surface area. Batteries are sized in such a way that the system can function even during days of low sunlight; in which case wind energy can be used by use of windmills in areas with low light. Usually areas that have low sunshine and more cloud cover will have higher wind speeds to make sense of considering windmills.

Use of VoIP

If the system described is deployed, then to make calls some telephoning system must be used. NOT Econet, NOT TelOne but some technology that allows you to carry voice over an IP network – VoIP - Voice Over Internet Protocol.

This is how it is setup. Lets say we want to have 4 telephones in our remote site in Gokwe to enable farmers to sell their cotton online and be able to make and receive calls locally and internationally. 4 VoIP devices are installed to provide the dialing tone on site. The actual phones won’t need any electricity as they are powered inline by the network switch. The devices will get their dial tone from the telephone server located locally on the same local area network. But the local switch is linked to other switches nationwide over IP and can communicate with the larger providers like Econet and NetOne. This is using the VSAT option where the GSM is unavailable.

But for other settings a WiMax backhaul is used to connect directly to Econet. This could either use LOS (Line of Sight) or NLOS (Non Line of Sight) to propagate the signals. LOS refers to a direct point to point line between a transmitter and a receiver with NO obstruction in between such as trees, mountains or buildings. WiMax which is another wireless technology has the capability of good connectivity for up to 50 km.

Calls made within the VoIP network from one farmer in Gokwe to another one in Wedza are almost free. Because the phone call path does NOT leave the private network based on open standard and open source technologies. Naturally established telecom operators do NOT like open source based VoIP when used by potential competitors BUT they themselves use the same technology to lower their origination and termination costs which they don’t pass to the consumer.

Cost

The project management teams is more interested in this one. The costs obviously includes all of the above plus labor, security installations, transport, meals, air time etc. Nothing is new here. But of importance to note are the monthly recurring costs that should be built into the budget when this is planned.

Connectivity – if the VSAT is used then there is a monthly service fee that goes with use of the service. This depends on the amount of traffic that traverses the network.

Telephony – calls made between similar systems on the IP network are free, but not really free since their connectivity portion takes care of it. Ok let me break it down to simpler terms. If a system community communications is deployed in Jambezi, Gokwe, Wedza, Guruve and Madlambuzi for argument’s sake, calls made between these centers are technically FREE. And now calls made to other networks like Econet, NetOne or TelOne are charged at whatever cost the service providers would have agreed to charge RURAL originated calls.

Electricity – FREE. Not really the recurring costs here will be for the service technician to do rounds making sure batteries are charging ok. But there is nothing to fix on the panels. Sunrays do not break or get damaged!

Wages – naturally there would be at least 2 people manning the center: one to assist and the other for security purposes. The if’s and how’s have to be worked out by the ICT in liason with the community – that’s out of my scope.

Software – no license fees are paid as these systems use open source software.

Other – literally other costs that could have been over looked.

ROI

It would be very essential to look at the return of investment for such a project from a developmental point of view and not a monetary one. The extent to which this digital initiative will enhance and improve people’s lives, has no monetary value that can be attached to it – literally.

With say 100 public users of the communications center that include teachers, A2 farmers, policeman, nurses, local government and villagers etc a fee of $7 per person per month could recoup a big chunk of the running costs after the first year when usage is high and appreciated.

The funds are available, according to POTRAZ, so it makes sense that for the first 12 months running costs are built into the budget in advance. AND when local people appreciate the strength and power of ICT they won’t hesitate to pay some $7 per month to access phone, email and internet services!



Way forward

Considering that the most challenging part of such an huge project – funding is presumably available under control, according to POTRAZ and the Ministry of ICT, what remains is precise project planning to match bring the right technology at a reasonable cost to the targeted population.

This entails doing some pilot runs at a small scale for proof of concept. Since the ultimate plan is to mass deploy these community communications centers, it makes logical sense to solidly conduct thorough pilot runs before committing millions to buying equipment for mass deployment.

Closing remarks

Successful implementation will require a coordinated approach involving close and ongoing partnerships between communities, government and industry providers.
Government – through legislative and statutory instruments. POTRAZ for example allocates the scarce resources to areas that have been identified for deployment, with the ministry coming in to actually put together a deployment plan from beginning to end. And not forgetting to ensure that the national fiber backbone construction to connect to the undersea cables in the Indian Ocean goes to completion. This is nationally important if the country is to have fast access to the Internet beyond our borders.
Communities – it is critical to involve the communities who are targeted for rural communications deployments via the existing community structures. This helps in short term assimilation of the technology and long term ownership of the systems.
Industry – these include service operators who will provide the technology and equipment and other players who will supply different products and services including experts in different technologies referenced in this article.
Media – both print and electronic news providers play a very crucial role in reporting progress or lack of it in any of these deployments.
Naturally a varied version of this plan should be adopted for the urban population to avail internet access. Like using “Tower Lights” in high density suburbs as base stations for WiMax and WiFi – about that in my next article.
Contributions for requests for info, omissions and additions most welcome.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Internet Telephony

This is the first article in a series of articles discussing use of Internet Technology in making telephone calls.I will begin discussing what Internet Telephony is with an aim of explaining how you can make use of this technology to setup your own telephony network - be it for a company , organization , school , college , private group etc.

VoIP - stands for Voice Over Internet telephony.This is use of existing data networks originally designed to carry data from one point to another to carry voice.

Traditionally companies like AT&T , BT have networks that use satelite , copper wires , fiber optics to transmit voice conversations.The networks are owned and managed by the operators and until now - one was forced to use these networks to transmit voice.

Enter the Internet and the playing field changed over night.It is now very easy to use the Internet to send voice from point A to point B.Ever had of Skype ? Yes thats one example of use of Internet Telephony.WIth Skype you can call anyone who has a Skype account and start talking as long as they have a decent internet connection.

But the tools that we will discuss here will enable you to be a service provider and not just and end user.In other words you will be able to run your own Skype or Vonage !

The tools and software used are open source and FREE !

Sunday, March 22, 2009

ICT Guide – Zimbabwe

March 22 - 2009


Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is an umbrella term that includes all technologies for the manipulation and communication of information.

Recently the Minister of ICT, Hon Nelson Chamisa announced a need for a national website, in order to put Zimbabwe back on the global map. He was speaking to ICT stake holders in Harare recently. It was an important stance by the Hon Minister in so far as top level awareness that something needs to be done to bridge the digital divide in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe already has thousands of websites that are either hosted locally in Zimbabwe or outside the country. So it’s not so much about the need of a national website per se but rather a broader surgical approach to the ICT challenges that we face.

The digital divide or gap is set to widen even further if we don’t take it upon ourselves to come up with specific solutions for our specific challenges.

Problem resolution at this level, calls for a sober, firm and accurate understanding the variance between what is on the ground and what needs to be achieved. Any half baked attempts to address the digital divide or gap will not only waste resources and opportunities but literally take the nation a few decades backwards in terms of development.

A sound ICT policy impacts all sectors of the country from the economy through health right up to mining and farming.

In this article I will offer a bird’s eye view of key issues that impact and affect digitalization efforts. Hopefully this will help the ICT leadership clarify, categorize and prioritize delivery mechanisms.

Zimbabwe just like most African countries basically faces a number of hurdles in order to roll out effective computing technologies to the general population. Rollout issues and challenges do include but not limited to;

- cost of computers and equipment
-inadequate access technologies (data & voice)
-inadequate electricity
-poor national & international bandwidth
-regulation and licensing
- Censorship and control
-brain drain & lack skilled manpower & I.T. certifications
-poorly designed and optimized websites
-egov

In this article I address some key elements that affect internet penetration and telephone usage. You will note that the main factors that affect telephony also affect data communications. ICT has challenges in both the data and voice arenas. When we talk about bridging the digital divide we seek to reduce or eliminate entry barriers that the people face in both data and voice. A number of terms will be used loosely in both areas.

It is important however, for the ICT ministry to be able to dissect and separate common issues and independent issues that affect data and voice. This approach is necessary so that the issues are addressed at a root cause level. We seek to deal with the root problem like inadequate infrastructure manifested symptomatically as congestion or slow connections. Voice and data networks are fast converging and this calls for a smart unified communications approach whose success hinges on reliable, fast and robust network infrastructure.

Internet Access

In Zimbabwe just like most African countries most people who access the internet do so via Cyber cafes, colleges, varsities, work place an some at home. The limiting factors are basically cost and unavailability. Most urban dwellers either can’t afford it or the ISPs serving them are out of capacity as discussed further below. There are people who own farms who could easily afford it, but can not do so from where they are because there is no network coverage of one form or the other in their area.

As a result internet penetration is very low due to a number of issues. One of ICT’s core tasks is to help present operators unclog their stuffed networks and also adopting the concept of cyber cafes for many communities whose chance of using a computer or accessing the internet are next to none.

Donating computers to schools is great. More could be done in the form of setting up computer centers at libraries, district offices, ALL colleges using the cyber café approach. This has the advantage of also spinning some business to the struggling ISPs.

Hopes are hinged on the 3G data access. All I can say for now is that we hope Econet will not make it an elite service for the business brass. Last year when I was in J’oburg I was pretty impressed about how easy it is to connect to the internet MTN’s 3G using a USB dongle with a 3G capable SIM card. Because right now in Zimbabwe before we even have 3G, is it possible to walk to a distribution shop and buy a SIM card ?

Telephone Access

Teledensity is a metric that is used to broadly estimate the number telephone lines per 100 individuls. Presently Zimbabwe has a teledensity of about 3 .This means that there are about 3 telephone lines per 100 people. This figure heavily depends on the accuracy of the actual number of telephone lines divided by the total population.

Now this is a very tricky estimation as millions of Zimbabweans have left the country while mobile operators have availed more lines. The teledensity metric has been used as an indicator of economic development or governance.

Current voice providers include Telone , NetOne , Econet , Telecel. Now wireless usage in Zimbabwe has indeed enabled many people a means of communication. Wireless growth rate is highest in Africa because cellular phones offer any one within coverage range an equal opportunity to communicate. At this stage Zimbabwe has serious complications that basically point to a collapsed economy. Cellular operators have managed just to stay afloat in a very un-business like environment. This has made it impossible for the operators to increase both capacity and coverage at a time when spares and maintenance were made in hard currency whilst end users were paying in a currency that long lost its value.

Stabilization of the economy should allow cellular companies to increase their coverage to more areas.

Cost of computers, equipment and software

Computer and internet penetration is very low in Zimbabwe due to the cost of owning a PC or MAC and the cost of having an internet connection .What is needed in this area is for the stake holders to identify equipment manufactures that can supply Zimbabwean market PCs in bulk and at competitive rates. Secondly in most developed nations people throw away their PCs just to get a new one. Most of these PCs are recyclable easily and the Ministry can setup collection centers in the US and UK to pick these PCs – clean them up and store them in a container before shipping them to Zimbabwe. This is already being done in Kenya and Ghana.

Thirdly the ministry should encourage local companies to team up with PC manufactures and open up assembly plants in Zimbabwe. This should be one of ICT’s long term plan and has bankable off shoot benefits like job creation , local availability of PCs , generation of forex through exports and generation of revenue for the state via the taxman. The more people have access to PCs whether publicly via schools , libraries or internet cafes the better. One way of doing this is availing mobile digital libraries. Take an old ZUPCO bus. Refurbish it , install like 30 computers in the bus and pull a diesel powered generator at the back. These mobile libraries are used in Rwanda to visit remote areas with no PC access.

Windows based software is generally pricy because of licensing fees. The ICT ministry must encourage and even fund open source software initiatives in Zimbabwe. This literally means that refurbished computers that are shipped into Zimbabwe can run on free BUT extremely loaded Linux based like uBuntu.Ubuntu is a community developed operating system that is perfect for laptops, desktops and servers. uBuntu comes loaded with thousands of FREE open software applications like word processing , spreadsheets , presentations , databases , web servers , email servers , fax servers , call centers , phone billing , internet café billing , hotel reservation , project management , programming tools , educational and scientific software and many more.

Cost of software as a stumbling block in ICT development can not be used as an excuse.

Electricity

All ICT gadgets use electricity to function. Inadequate power generation and unreliable transmission and distribution capacity has a direct impact on ICT development strategies. This means that there can be no meaningful digital revolution if there is no electricity full stop. This calls for an elevated sense of urgency to resuscitate and improve power generation, transmission and distribution capacity. It is too obvious that Zimbabwe has to look explore and improve the present forms of power generation methods that may include but NOT limited to water , solar , wind , biogas and even nuclear energy.

Mail servers , web servers , routers , switches , base stations etc all need electricity to operate. So before we even worry about creation of a national website , it is necessary that we have adequate electricity to power the servers that will serve the web pages !

If people can not access the website because the hosting ISP has experienced a power outage, then our problems are a lot wider and complex to be solved by having a national website.

Now erratic power supplies has made life horrible for ALL telcos or ISPs as they are forced to install alternative power sources mainly diesel powered generators. This has pushed operation costs for all companies to go up. Not with standing that the diesel in question was at one stage scarce and only available via the black market. This is one of the many problems that have pushed the price of the service as soon as use of forex was officially approved.

Access technologies

Lack or unavailability of telecommunications infrastructure makes it difficult for remote areas to access e-services like the internet or even basic email. Some farmers can afford PCs but how are they can not access the internet because either the telephone infrastructure is inexistent, broken down or unreliable in their areas. This points back directly to telco providers ComeOne ,Telone, Econet, NetOne, Telecel, Transmedia, Powertel, Africom, Ecoweb, ZOL, Mweb and Telecontract just to mention the main players. It is very tough for these fellows to maintain their network infrastructure because of overheads like electricity for plants and base stations.

That aside , there is need for Zimbabwe to pursue more rigorous wireless last mile connection technologies like Wi-Max , Wi-Fi , 3G , CDMA etc. Already Powertel and Telone are involved in CDMA rollouts in and around Harare. The access technologies are further discusses under sub heading Broadband below.

National & International Bandwidth

Not withstanding the limited access technologies available by remote stations to access e-resources , there is the question of available national and international bandwidth.
Your connection speed to you ISP might be 56k but the speed with which you access local and international websites will solely depend on the available capacity on the network you are connecting to. It means that to pull a page from Harare ISP will depend on the traffic congestion between your access point to the web server which heavily relies on the number of connections made to that site. Failure to connect to you ISP might be caused by total capacity of the access network to handle your call. This is a national bandwidth issue. Zimbabwe has limited access points and this literally means a lot of people are competing to gain access to a thin pipe. I am sure you know how frustrating it is to try and drive your new BMW in a very congested road with pot holes!

To access emails from the web you will send a request via your ISP who will in turn forward your request to your email hosting service. Now the issue of contentions comes into the picture again with internationally hosted sites. You have to compete with other users from your ISP and other ISPs to access websites via the international gateway that maybe a satellite dish in Mazowe! So international access bottleneck add to the other national bandwidth whores caused by few POPs (point of presence).

What is needed then is an increase in access points and using thicker bandwidth pipes between these POPs. Between main centers Zimbabwe uses fibre optics as the back bone. Also satellite alone can not meet Zimbabwe bandwidth needs.

ICT must look into ways of connecting via fibre to the undersea cable in the Indian Ocean. The cables at the sea connect to the rest of the world at lightning speed. Why fibre? Fibre has a higher carrying capacity. A fair comparison between using copper wires and fibre would be comparing a wheel barrow to a “gonyeti” to carry 100 tons of sand.

In a nutshell ICT needs to do some audit of both the national and international bandwidth info. This audit will point out major bottlenecks that choke Internet usage in Zimbabwe. The solution after the audit should include amongst other things the following fibre network links:

Harare to Mutare to provide a link the Indian Ocean under sea cables in Beira.I am reliably informed that AfriCom is doing this project already.
Bulawayo to Beitbridge to provide high speed link to SA fibre network. South Africa is Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner

Having multiple gateways will assure and ensure that Zimbabwe does not experience total black out associated with network failure. Investing in fibre optics today is not an option but a must/

Broadband Access

To address the slow speed and low bandwidth challenges that Zimbabwe faces , all efforts MUST point into the availing of broadband access.

The term broadband commonly refers to high-speed Internet access. Technically this refers to data transmission rates of at least 200 kilobits per second. When you connect to your ISP you have to values that you deal with , download speed (down stream) and upload speed (up stream).As the names suggest , down streams refers to the data transfer rate when you are pulling resources from the internet to you PC like downloading email, downloading software , listening to music or watching a video from Youtube.

Up stream refers to the data transfer rates when you are pushing or publishing content from you PC to the Internet. Examples here including sending email , posting your profile to Facebook and publishing your website.
Pull and push. In general most internet users pull that push to the internet and as a result the rates of downstream rates are higher than up stream rates.

Broadband allows a higher data transfer rates than dial up rates .An interesting comparison would be that of trying to empty a 200L drum full of water using a hosepipe or a drinking straw!

Types of broadband technologies

The term broadband describes the data transfer rates but does not describe the under lying technology (physical and data link layer) used to achieve high data transfer rates. The main broadband technologies are briefly summarized below.

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line ) is a wireline transmission technology that transmits data faster over traditional copper telephone lines already installed to homes and businesses.
Coaxial cable make use of cable modem service enables cable operators to provide broadband using the same coaxial cables that provide cable TV
Fibre optic technology converts electrical signals carrying data to light and sends the light through transparent glass fibres about the diameter of a human hair.
Wi-Max , Worldwide Inter-operability for Microwave Access, is a telecommunications technology that provides wireless transmission of data using a variety of transmission modes, from point-to-multipoint links to portable and fully mobile internet access. The technology provides up to 72 Mbit/s symmetric broadband speeds without the need for cables. This is the way to go especially for metropolitans. The technology is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard (also called Broadband Wireless Access).
3G networks are wide-area cellular telephone networks that evolved to incorporate high-speed Internet access. Theoretically data rates approach 14.4 Mbps down stream and 5.8Mbps up stream. Econet already has the 3G license in Zimbabwe and we await its delivery. The other 3G license was granted to Powertel using CDMA .This service is only limited to Harare/
CDMA – Wireless land lines using Wireless Local Loop 450 MHz system used as last mile connection by Telone in the wake of copper cable thefts and shortage. Only available in Harare , Chitungwiza & Ruwa.
Satellite broadband is another form of wireless broadband, also useful for serving remote or sparsely populated areas .This technology basically uses satellite dishes pointed to the sky to connect to a geo-stationery satellite orbiting above the earth.
Broadband over Powerline (BPL) is the delivery of broadband over the existing low and medium voltage electric power distribution network.

Broadband is always on.Does not block phone lines and no need to reconnect to network after logging off.

Summarily connection bottlenecks exist at an access level , national bandwidth level before you even look at the international portion of the game. What we need is a bottom up approach and not top to bottom approach.
So after rolling broadband access architecture, the national network connecting to the international network MUST not act as a bottle neck.

A typical scenario in most African countries is that you can use Wi-Fi to connect your laptop to your access point at 54 Mbps ! WOW that’s a lot ! Nope.If the connection from your ISP to the internet is 56kbps then your broadband connection speed to your access point is NULL & VOID.

Regulation /Monopoly/Licensing

Most African governments really put a tight lid when it comes to regulation of telecommunications and media. That alone is a major obstacle in reducing the digital divide. For some strange reason or another most African governments via the regulatory bodies tend to become an obstacle to innovation and development. Part of the fear is unfounded in that some authorities fear that opening up the telecommunications will either threaten government owned establishments or also fear of not being able to control information flow.

Of course this is insane. Only those who do evils stuff should be worried about a liberal telecommunications environment. Naturally national security is a top priority for the regulation body. I must mention of that of late POTRAZ has indeed tried to catch up with reality as I am aware that a few more companies have been granted different licenses to operate different technologies in data, voice and wireless arenas like Econet doing 3G and AfriCom getting engaged in VoIP.

Considering that some of the operators who have monopolies have failed to meet their service obligations to provide reliable and affordable communications, ICT ministry should explore ways of allowing smart partnerships between ISPs with local authorities/communities to provide telco service for their areas. For instance if the wireless company can not afford to put a base station in my home area Jambezi or Lower Gweru , smaller operators must be allowed to run and own base station in an area and share the profit with the back bone operator. What I mean is at a district center, small operators will install a base station, a data link and a power generator if need be. Then connect to the big operators switch via Wi-Max or microwave. These small operators can’t afford to do a national rollout so they can manage to setup their own base stations for their respective areas and then connect to the main carrier. How the revenue from that base station is shared can then be worked out. These are the ideas that ICT should be researching and establishing their viability potential.

Telone, Powertel and Transmedia

These 3 companies enjoy unmatched monopolies based on their origins or parenting company namely PTC , Zesa and ZBC. These 3 companies have a combined capacity to reach all corners of Zimbabwe by virtue of their infrastructural inheritance for both data and voice.

The ICT ministry must carry out very thorough performance audits these seasonal failures. It is an open secret that their failure is mainly due to political meddling and interference which makes them operate more like social clubs than companies.

Despite their failure for years to provide, adequate telephone services, electricity, radio and TV services these companies have moved into the Internet market with, remarkable speed.

It is clear why NRZ has not conceived a Telco business unit based on their own data network for the rail system? Well Transtel would be a great idea but likely to be plagued by the same virus that affects its other 3 cousins.

Licensing and external investment.

The issue of regulation will not be complete if no mention is made of the prohibitive nature of the licensing fees in the range of several million US dollars. What makes it even more complicated is that should one wish to partner with a foreign investor, the imposition of fixed percentages for local ownership stake makes this really look like a circus. Which sane investor is interested in investing in an environment where he /she are expected to invest more dollars but get the minority share? 51 % local sounds really attractive and nationally correct since Indigenization is the core agenda of empowering locals.

That however does not mean replacing common sense with hollow pride which has so far worked negatively against Zimbabwe.

Pride alone has never fed any nation.




802.11 – Wi-Fi

It appears that the ruling in the 90s to ban or restrict use ISM frequencies 2.4 GHz and 5Hgz was not meant to protect scientific equipment used in hospitals from interference but a strategic move to monopolize the bandwidth to Transmedia. It is the national broadcaster of television, radio and Internet access services in Zimbabwe on the afore mentioned frequencies. So one wonders what suddenly happened to hospital equipment protection.

Transmedia owns and operates all terrestrial broadcast infrastructures and as a new strategic business unit of ZBC it bridged VHF and IP so as to tap into wireless access.
Because of monopoly of this frequency band, wireless broadband has not grown as expected. I doubt if Transmedia has more than 800 customers with their tower located at Pockets Hill with no line of sight complication?

The ICT ministry together with POTRAZ must revisit the maximum power levels for Access Points to allow other players to beam data and voice over using 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz (Wi-Fi). This will go a long way in enabling ISPs to connect more people using wireless broadband. Right now ISPs are trapped between a rock and a hard place as their last mile connection solution is limited to mainly to twisted copper wires since both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz are locked down to one provider Transmedia.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

Voice over IP is still a grey area in Zimbabwe. Obviously its success depends on reliable network infrastructure. With 3G on its way, POTRAZ should allow people to connect over IP and make calls. Also a smart combination of wi-max and wi-fi can bring voice to many people that presently have NO hope of getting a Telone line via copper or wireless CDMA.

Businesses and organizations might be forced to install a satellite dishes and then use their IP connectivity for both data and voice and by pass the national operators because they can’t get service from them!

Besides the obvious use of VoIP for voice , other spin offs can be realized in Zimbabwe like the deployment of call centers .This allows local companies to generate employment for the local community , generate scarce forex and revenue for the state in taxes. I used to think that this was common sense but it appears common sense is not so common. Presently most favored call center destination for call centers are India, Malasyia, Philiphines and of late Kenya and South Africa – thanks to their open VoIP policy.

VoIP opens so many avenues of communication between end users. For instance through use of open source PBX like Freeswitch, one can easily provide free voicemail mail service. This is how it works. A Linux server running a PBX is a capability of creating infinite user extensions. So a particular user can sign up and be assigned an extension say 600244 and a PIN code – 9561.Now this user will have to call an access number say 011 800 600 to check and or send voicemails. If he does NOT have a personal phone this user can still use any phone just to retrieve his messages from the system. So in short this person can advertise whatever business he is in and then specify his details as “Please call me on 011 800 600 ext 600244”. Callers will be greeted by an interactive voice response system that will ask them if they want (1) to check messages or (2) to send a message to another user.

Brain Drain & Skilled Manpower

The effect of brain drain on the digital revolution is obvious. As the country continues to lose more and more skilled and trained personnel, it becomes difficult for the nation to move forward in an attempt to turn around the economy. This applies to all sectors of the economy and not just ICT. The GNU should be creative enough and try and lure skilled personnel back by coming up with a well thought out “come back home schemes”. I am talking about highly trained professionals from all walks of life. Trust me there thousands of Zimbabweans inside & outside the country prepared to help rebuild the country.

The question of patriotism comes up. “Ask what you can do for Zimbabwe and not what Zimbabwe can do for you?

That’s fair enough.

Trust me most skilled professionals would not mind an incentive in the form of some small piece of land somewhere in Mvurwi or Insiza. If we expect to lure patriotic professionals to leave their well paying jobs at Cisco or Microsoft or BT and join the ICT in Zimbabwe. Patriotism is a two headed beast.

ICT training & Certification

ICT training and development has not been spared the economic wrath that affects the whole country. As part of a long term plan Zimbabwe ICT must look into establishing more ICT based institutes and academies as part of the digital empowerment plan. Software programming is particularly one area in which ICT must look. Writing a computer code requires very few resources other than a computer and programming knowledge of certain languages like C++ , Java , Python , Perl etc.

What is needed is that the ministry of ICT at a government level must travel to India and strike deals to have Indian programmers to come and train students at various training academies mentioned.

Software is a great product that is easily exported. This is where the Hon Minister should be setting his eyes as a long term plan. There is need to promote establishment of MORE academies that can provide ICT certifications that include but NOT limited to A + , N+ , Security + , Linux + , Cisco etc.

Web Presence, Promotion and Optimization

Designing and placing a website on the internet is very simple and straight forward.

But what matters is whether the website has been designed properly and optimized well so that it is searchable on the internet. People use search engines to look for information, products and services. A poorly developed website will affect that website’s visibility on the internet. Most search engines like Google , Yahoo , MSN and Dogpile use various algorithms to rank websites. But key making our website visible includes search engine optimization .This involves items like :

- using certain key words in your website title and header and also depends on the
- number and quality of links on your web page
- the actual content and relevance of your web pages
- registering your website with different search engines

Linking out to other websites and have them linked back to you is useful in making your website visible on the internet.

A good website must be able to retain visitors and even encourage future visits. A good website must not only disseminate information to its visitors but must be able to call the visitors to action .Like “click here to subscribe for free reports” or “click here to place a donation “ or click here to get a call back from us” or “enter your cell phone here to receive promotional info via SMS” etc etc.This makes the website interactive and not static.

Website Standards

Zimbabweans are a very tech savvy people. You don’t need to look far. Zimbabweans based both in Zimbabwe and outside run fairly successful websites ranging from news and media through money and shipping services right up to digital telephony services. News websites dominate the number of websites ran by Zimbabweans on the internet.

Since Zimbabwe government ministries and departments already have dozens of websites that are hardly searchable on the web, the ICT ministry must come up with a minimum standard guideline for website deployment.

Different ministries and departments do run their different websites, but some minimum quality standard or benchmark MUST be created by ICT ministry .If you look at the different Zimbabwe government websites, you will see varying designs which are not up to scratch if I could be generous with my comments. What is needed is a compliance standard that is set up by ICT.

Hats off to the webmasters who have managed to setup theses websites with little or NO training and resources. What needs to be done is to come up with a government website policy that clearly sets standards of design technique, layout, interactivity, promotion and optimization.

eGovernment

In 2005 an ICT Steering committee produced a detailed 124 page eReadiness report. This report sponsored by UNDP, covered almost all aspects of e-readiness like:

eAgriculture
eCommerce
eEducation
eMining
eHealth
eGovernance
eGovernment
eManufacturing
eTourism


Summary

The ICT Ministry must start by studying the eReadiness survey report (2005) and use it as a spring board to kick start the digital dream. The report is detailed and thorough but might need to be updated in order to keep abreast with current ICT realities on the ground.

Then the ICT Ministry must put together a team/board by pooling together highly skilled, competent and experienced individuals just as the Education Minister did. The Hon Education Minister Mr.David Coltart is a lawyer by profession and made a smart decision of putting together board of education experts to execute the technical aspects of the challenges facing Education in Zimbabwe. This approach could be used by all GNU Ministers so that the best brains, hands and hearts are pooled together to achieve a common purpose.

I must mention here that I deliberately did NOT discuss previous efforts by the government to censor, control and intercept internet and voice traffic in the spirit of the inclusive government.

Comments, corrections, questions and requests most welcome.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Promoting Your Website

Promoting Your Website – Zimbabwean Case

Introduction

If you have plans of promoting your business or services come FIFA world cup 2010 to be held in South Africa please print this article – It might be all you need to survive.

Are you a farmer in citrus grower in Mazowe trying to find an international market to sell your produce ?

Are you a talented sculptor with stunning pictures of your works and struggling to market your wares through your website?

Or you just are just a talented poet or writer yearning to promote his or her work on the global village via your website?

Having a website is one thing. Having your visitors visiting your website is another.

Here I intend to discuss how to make your website visible on the internet by making your website search engine friendly so that when potential customers search for stuff of the Internet, your website comes up as one of the listed ones!

Ever wondered why so many businesses based in Africa have websites BUT when you search for services in Africa – you get websites built and hosted in either America or Europe?

Most websites do not come up on search engine searches because they are invisible to the search engines. Of course if you advertise your website on forums, other websites, newspapers, billboards – you will get exposure in that respect.

First things first.

Registering a domain name

In the modern world of the Internet, where people automatically turn to the Web for information, it pays to have a domain name that reflects your site or business. You can register a domain name any where in the world. You can register a .co.zw in Zimbabwe , a .co.za in South Africa or a .com in the US.

Domain names can be of any length up to 67 characters. So you register a name as short as www.o2.co.zw or www.MyResortCampingSafarisInKaribaDam.co.zw !!!

But before registering a domain name think carefully on how you choose the name. Choose a name that will make sense with your target audience. You don’t need an unnecessarily long, hard to remember domain name. Keep it simple and stupid. The earlier you chose a domain name the better chances you have that it’s still available. Domain names are disappearing fast by day. There are free services online to check and see if a domain name is still available. This service is called “whois”.

Free “whois' services.

Zimbabwe - www.zispa.co.zw/find.html
SA – http://whois.co.za
UK - http://whois.co.uk/
USA - http://whois.net

Hosting a website

It might NOT matter where you register your domain. But it certainly does matter where you host it. If you are putting up a site to lure “would be visitors” from Americas and Europe, your site better be hosted in that part of the world for faster accessibility. At present Zimbabwe’s international bandwidth is pretty limited .The impact of this is that some web pages take for ever to come up on the screen if you are accessing them from OUTSIDE Zimbabwe. Do your homework and make sure where you host your website on a reliable and accessible platform.

Not only should the web host be reliable and fast, it should guarantee its uptime (the time when it is functional). Look for a minimum uptime of 99%.This of course is challenging if you host your site with a provider that is more off line most of the time than online.

Zimbabwe has reputable and fairly reliable hosting companies that will also register a domain for you these include the likes of Telco , ZOL , Econet and Mweb.

Hosting sites in US or UK is reasonably affordable .You are looking at no more than $ 20 per month for hosting a website. Dozens of Zimbabwean websites have taken the internet by storm in the last 4 years or so. Web sites ranging from news , social sites , reunion sites , forums , dating sites , business sites have underlined people’s determination of not being left out of the online reality.

Designing your site

You either design the site yourself or you hire some professional to do it for you. Most web hosting companies in the US or UK provide templates for web site owners to simply customize the content and then publish the website.

The appearance of your site has a lasting impact on your potential customers who will visit it.If your site is dull and unattractive , you are assured that those visitors will not pass good word about your site and that they wont be too keen to make a booking to come to your hotel. Your website is what visitors see about your business when they go online. So , if your website is shabby , there is no reason why a visitor should buy a service or product from you.
Promoting your site

This is the gist of this discussion. There are several useful ways to promote and market your site. I have listed some of the methods below.

Advertising on print and electronic media
E-mail lists
Posting on blogs , forums and chartrooms
Word of mouth
Linking your website from other website – Link exchange
Submitting to search engines
Web site optimization
\
I will delve deeper on the last two as this is one area that has been identified as the weakest spot for most African websites – Zimbabwe included.The other means of promoting your website are self explanatory.

Website Optimization

This put simply refers to all efforts undertaken by a website owner to make her / his website visible and searchable on the web. Optimization includes less obvious but very simple techniques that will make your website search engine friendly AND it (optimization) also involves sophisticated strategies that are modeled around a firm understanding of search engine algorithms and intelligence.

Below I touch on very important aspects of how to make your website “Googlable “.As you might know – if you cant find it in Google – it probably does not exist. The Google search engine is a monster – literally! So would it not be nice to see Chibuku or Ingwebu beer coming up after a user in another country searches for natural beer or just beer? Yes it can be done. Read on.

Page Ranking – How does Google rank pages? This is where the tyre meets the road. Never mind if you won’t understand the algorithmic complexity of this basic explanation of how Google ranks pages. An algorithm is a set of well defined instructions to carry out a task. We make decisions in our every day life with specific patterns. In the computing world these instructions are represented as a set of mathematical & logic formulas and expressions. So Google uses about 200 mathematical calculations at lighting speed to determine the rank of your page. The most weighed component of that calculation are the links to and from your web page

In bound links – One of the ways in which Google ranks your pages is simply according to the number of links pointing to your web page. This concept is derived from a very well known foundation amongst academics – that “ .. the importance of a research paper can be judged by the number of citations the paper has from other research papers.” Simply put , the number of websites that refer to your farming produce at your Mazowe farm website adds weight to your ranking on Google search. Put in another way , the more websites you have out there that have links to your website the more relevant is your site on the Google search world. This sounds so trivial but you will be suprized as to how many Zimbabwean sites have other sites linking “ them to them “ – very few. This means that you must make sure your website is linked on as many websites , blogs and forums. For the citrus farmer this would mean exchanging his web link with businesses that she deals with like , transport company , bottle manufacturer , equipment supplier , food websites , farmers magazines and journals etc.

The title Tag - Google search engine appears to give weight to the title of your page. By title, I mean the text that is sandwiched between the HTML tags in the section of your web page. Place a meaningful title for your webpage with your keywords inside to reap the benefit of this feature. For instance if you are a citrus grower in Mazowe you could use one of these phrases in your title tag. “ Orange fruit juice , Africa citrus producer , Orange juice producers , Africa juice supplier , vitamin C juice suppliers , Sun crush Juice etc Have you not seen many websites with “New Page” as the title of their websites ?

Key Word Density – It is an open secret that Google considers keyword density a large factor in ranking pages in search engine results, more so than many other search engines. KD – can be considered to be the measurement in percentage, of the number of times a keyword or phrase appears compared to the total number of words in a page. It goes without saying that your web pages on your site must contain substantial key words in their title , meta – tag , links and the body of the page. Keyword techniques are NOT limited to placing these keys words in the meta tag alone ! Example – The following key words will make up the basis of key word density in your page title , meta tag , links and body of your website. Key words like “ orange fruit , africa citrus , orange juice , africa juice , vitamin C , sun crush , raspberry , imported juices , apple juice etc “ will have to feature prominently on all aspects of your websites if search engines like Google will find your site.

Submitting to Search Engines

Why submit my site to a search engine ? If search engines do not know about your website , then potential customers who use the internet to search for products and services will never know about your sculptor that you have posted on your website !

You might be the owner of the best farm that produces sweet potatoes in Ngezi and even if you have a website to promote your agricultural produce , it better be known by search engines.

Would people find you in a telephone directory if your name and number are NOT listed in the directory book ?

The top 4 search engines that you need to you to submit your website to include , but not limited to Google (67%) , Yahoo (20%) , MSN (7%) and ASK (4%) and other 2 %.These % are the market share values as of June 30 , 2008.

So how do you make your website known to the big 3 ? Below are the links where you need to go and register your website with a search engine for FREE. This is very crucial !

Google - http://www.google.com/addurl/
Yahoo - http://www.google.com/addurl/
MSN - http://search.msn.com/docs/submit.aspx

More advanced techniques would also involve creation of SiteStamps. Put simply a site stamp is a file that you upload to you web server and that file contains a list of all accessible web pages on your sites. So when search engine like Google crawls your site , it will register in its system the names and number of pages your site contains so that its visible.

This is called indexing - literally what an oxygen mask is to an under sea diver. If you do not register your website with say Google – it will not be known. It’s that simple. When a user types in a query into a Google search engine, the Google systems takes a second to query what are know as index servers. These servers located all over the world contain UP TO DATE index of all the known and registered websites in the web! Look at it like a catalogue book when you go into a library. Or an index at the back of a book – summarizing the contents of what is inside. Similarly Google search asks all indexed pages in its databases(index servers). In the citrus example this would be - who has registered pages with “ mazowe fruits “ ? . And the index server with the citrus orange pages will respond with a snippet containing a page title that is posted as a listing in the search results.

If you want to have an idea of the items I have discussed above simply open Google and search for “ Soccer World Cup 2010 Hotels “ and tell me how many Zimbabwean tour operators and hotels come up in the search results page.

Such technological initiatives we expect to be spear headed by ICT Zimbabwe which I am not sure is still in existence ?

The economic challenges Zimbabwe face today can only be resolved at the same level at which they occur. Only we can help ourselves.

Questions and comments are most welcome. Ngiyabonga. Ndatenda.

Robert Ndlovu © 2008
IT & Telecoms Consultant
New York – USA
ndlovu@ymail.com