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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: connectivity

Affordability and the Future of the Internet

The first few decades of the internet has been about getting the signal everywhere. The current decade is about making the internet affordable to everyone. The internet will be free, and the future belongs to those with the courage to create and fund the business models that support creating an onramp for that last blue ocean of internet users.

It takes someone in Africa four days of work to earn 1Gb of internet. In the US and Europe, it takes just two hours to do the same. (note: see bottom for the math on this)

Connectivity can be generally broken down into two buckets:

  1. Accessibility – which is generally about having the signal for the internet and the devices to connect to it.
  2. Affordability – the ability to pay for the internet.

There’s a good piece in Wired about the slow down in connectivity around the world. We’ve made great progress in the initial half of the world connecting to the internet, but the remaining half is coming along a lot slower, and at a decreasing speed each year.

“The data shows that growth in global internet access dropped from 19% in 2007 to less than 6% last year” The Guardian

Why?

For the last two decades we’ve been focused on some pretty big population numbers as well as more wealthy demographics; connecting cities (in both first-world and frontier markets) and the relatively prosperous populations of the world wherever they may be. Currently, on the accessibility front we’ve been forced to work in harder areas with less population density, where the numbers for a cell phone tower are slower to show their ROI, and where frankly it’s not worth using our older technology and our older business models to unlock the internet to that population.

So we come to an interesting time in history, where there is a lot of discussion about, “connecting the last 3 billion”, but not a great deal of courage in doing so.

Sidebar: since I’ve been sitting on an airplane for many hours, I watched the movie 1970 movie Patton, which is likely why I’m thinking so much of courage. In it he quotes Frederick the Great (possibly wrongly attributed) as saying:

“L’audace, l’audace. Toujours l’audace.”
“Audacity, audacity. Always audacity.”

And it is about courage. Most people look at the problem of the internet and think about current tech, or even future tech. They try to do something a little bit cheaper, maybe the go all out and and try something truly mind-blowing, such as balloons, satellites or drones. And, they each do play a small part. But, that’s it, small. We’re at a point where even these seemingly world-changing technologies are relatively small since there is a bigger picture that eclipses tech accessibility.

The big picture is that the internet will be free. Everywhere. Eventually.

Which means connecting the next 3 billion is a business model problem, not a technology problem.

If the is true, then let’s keep investing in these marginal accessibility changes. We need them, we truly do. Every time we get a new Viacom satellite, a Safaricom cell tower, a Google Loon balloon, or a new terrestrial cable dug across Africa or Asia, we get a needed marginal improvement. We push the costs down and the accessibility equation goes a tiny bit higher.

But back to courage. In our plans to connect the world to the internet, it doesn’t take a great deal of bravery to invest in a little bit more infrastructure. For these types of initiatives we’ve had our formulas for a decade or more, and we know they work. A few accountants and legal to check the boxes and a couple million more USD gets spent. We know how to charge for it, and that business model has seen but iterative change in two decades. We’ll always need cables and satellites, but in the world where the internet is free for everyone, it’s the business model that needs the most work.

So, how do we solve this business model for free internet? After all, the internet isn’t free, someone always pays.

It doesn’t come from charging a consumer who has limited disposable income. Just like the internet is moving to free in most public spaces in the US and Europe, I believe it will be the same in most of the rest of the world. The answer comes in looking for indirect revenue streams, and there are multiple paths to this.

This is where the big companies have let us down. Not due to their lack of investment, but to their lack of creativity. Whether it’s with satellite companies who provide low cost subscriber models, helping a moderate percentage more of the population get online regularly, or the Google Loons that side with telecom oligopolies, or the ISPs and mobile phone companies that are too deeply entrenched in their legacy business models to make any meaningful change.

Large organizations have a lot of resources. But… these same large organizations don’t think creatively enough about the solution.

Too many resources tends towards lazy problem solving. After all, if you’re a heavyweight going up against a featherweight, your only strategy need be bludgeon your competitor to defeat. In our world, a lot of money starts feeling like a hammer that you can start bludgeoning with – which tends towards solutions like the original “Free Basics” from Facebook, which looked a lot like an organization trying to do the right thing and then realizing that they couldn’t afford to give everyone the whole internet for free, so instead tried to make a good bit of it free – and ended up with a useful walled garden that set a lot of people on edge.

Compounding this is that the people making decisions around the initiatives at these larger organizations are not the entrepreneurs who built the company, they’re middle managers who like to reduce their risk profile inside the organization so that they can maintain their nice salaries and perks.

But, we can make the whole internet free, and we don’t have to buy it. What we need is a bit more creativity in coming up with new business models that represent the future of connectivity, not the past.

So, if big organizations aren’t the answer, and old infrastructure models are just iterative change, then what is the answer?

It’s a combination. Matching up the resources (and capitalist business models) of these large organizations to get these new users onto their platforms, and the creative solutions that come from smaller, hungrier companies give us a wonderful blend. When these two come together, interesting and explosive change can happen.

I’ve seen all of this first hand. Both the marginal change of the aforementioned global organization efforts alone (or worse, paired with some other large organization), as well as the magic of what happens when one of them works with a smaller company that has a real ground game and understands the problem from a different level.

I’m convinced that we’re solving this right now at BRCK, and that’s due in no small part to the infrastructure team we’ve had the chance to work with at Facebook. We’re not the only ones either, I’m seeing some other companies working on some pretty neat solutions too that gives me optimism for actually solving this problem. The only thing we need is more of the large companies to embrace some of these changes and work together with the companies on the ground in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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Building the BRCK: A backup generator for the internet

Why do we rely on equipment made for the Berlin, Orlando and Tokyo when the conditions we have in Nairobi, Lagos or New Delhi are completely different?

The BRCK is Africa's answer to internet connectivity

Today we’re announcing the BRCK: The easiest, most reliable way to connect to the internet, anywhere in the world, even when you don’t have electricity.

We have a BRCK Kickstarter going, where we’re asking for your on taking it from prototype to production.

The BRCK is a simple, and it came from us asking:

“How would we design a redundant internet device for Africa?”

It would need to do the following:

  • A router for 20 people
  • With 8+ hours of battery for when the power goes out
  • That fails over to 3g when the Internet goes out
  • That travels, so you become a mobile hotspot
  • With cloud-based backend that supports every country
  • On device with both a software and hardware API

As a web company, being connected to the internet when you need it is a big deal, small outages cause lag that ripple through the organization. Even in Nairobi with it’s 4 undersea cables and growing tech scene, we still have power and connectivity problems. Could we do something to scratch this itch of ours that would help others too?

Since we travel a lot, we decided that it needed to work in every country. The BRCK had to work when the power was off for a full day (8 hours), had to fail over to 3g internet when the ethernet didn’t work, it also had to work in any country we were in, by just changing the SIM card. At the same time we wanted it to be accessible for both software and hardware extensions by others.

Having a BRCK cloud means that you can login to your device from anywhere in the world, load apps and services on to it, such as a VPN, Dropbox or other services and also control sensors and other devices connected to the hardware. We think that the BRCK model of both a software and hardware API represents the glue that will make the internet of things work.

As Ushahidi we’ve always used simple technology to create tools and platforms that work for us in Africa, and which is also useful globally. This holds true for the BRCK too. We’re redesigning technology that’s been around for years, but making it work for our needs in Kenya.

BRCK-header

Some History

A year ago I jumped on a plane from South Africa back to Kenya without my book and my phone battery almost dead. Funny enough, these happenstances which leave me bored and with nothing to do but think have lead to my most interesting ideas (I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…). I subsequently broke out my notebook and started sketching out what I thought would be a fun hardware side-project for Ushahidi’s core team that would give us something to work on, when we were too fatigued with the normal coding/work.

We live in possibly the most interesting time for technology in history, where we’ve created this incredible thing called the internet, connecting us globally while at the same time getting to the point where the people who can code software can also “do” hardware. An era where analog and digital are democratized and the making of both attainable by anyone with a computer.

Making things is hard. It’s harder in Africa. I can’t overnight an order of processors, boards or 3d printing filament here. There aren’t an over abundance of local fabrication facilities or tools, and the milling machine you find might be in disrepair and take you two days to calibrate. We’ve got our work cut out to create the right spaces for prototyping and small-scale fabrication on the continent.

We actually started with Jon Shuler doing a lot of the early builds being done by him at his home in California. I’d bring these builds back to Brian Muita and team in Kenya where he was hacking on the firmware to make the system work. All the while hoping that air travel security would let me through with what to all appearances looked like a remote detonation device…

The BRCK being built at the University of Nairobi FabLab

By prototype version 5 we were in Nairobi with a bunch of plastic, using the University of Nairobi’s FabLab to mill the body. There was a fair bit of repair and adjustment needed on the machines to make it work. Like most things in Africa, you either fix what you have or you don’t do it, because there isn’t another option. After a couple days we got it within close enough allowances that we could do it. It still wasn’t pretty, but we knew it would work by then.

That was all just the hardware bit. Concurrently we wireframed the software side, ensuring that this device was much more useful than just a MiFi on steroids. The BRCK Cloud falls directly in Ushahidi’s software development wheelhouse, so we set about creating a simple responsive interface that would work on both phones and big screens.

BRCK setup - mobile web

The software side does three things:

  • A simple setup interface with only 3 form fields. Router setup is scary and hard, so we’re trying to take the pain out of it.
  • A dashboard, so you can see if your BRCK is running on backup or primary power, how fast your current internet connection is, your provider, and how all of these have done over the last hour, day, week and month.
  • A marketplace for free apps and services, as well as the place for others to offer up their own creations to the rest of the BRCK users around the world.

While having a device that was remotely programmable and that could run its own apps and service is important, we realized this was only half of the equation. We would need to create a similar interface for hardware creators and users. This means we needed the device to have hardware ports for everything to connect to, from temperature sensors to Raspberry Pi’s (as an aside, I want to get a Raspberry Pi hooked into the BRCK, thereby making a small, working server). We also decided to put special hex nuts at the top that would allow you to pop the top and get into the guts easily to do your own re-jigging.

The plan for the future is that you’ll be able to stack components under the BRCK like Legos, so that if you need an additional battery pack, a temperature sensor, solar charger, or other product you could do so with ease.

For a full rundown of the all that the BRCK can do, check out the Kickstarter. If you want to get into the real details, see the spec sheet.

Final Thoughts

This week I’m in Berlin to speak at re:publica – and as this post goes live I’m finalizing my talk. I find myself driven to tell the story of Africa’s great potential and growth, tempered by my experience building companies, communities and products here. I see the other entrepreneurs, hungry to create new products and driven by the same powers that are seen in their European and American counterparts. Here, it’s a harder road to hoe in many ways, it takes more grit, more determination and more belief in a future that is not yet realized to do it.

I look at the success we’ve had as Ushahidi and what this new hardware product means to us, and I’m humbled that we have the luxury to self-fund the R&D to get it to this stage, while so many my peers are struggling to take great concepts to even the prototype stage. The opportunities afforded us by our international awareness, the advantage of attracting and hand-picking the top talent that come through the iHub, the ability to have funds that we can risk on a half-baked original idea, a Board who believes in us and trusts our decisions – these are what I’m grateful for.

For this same reason, we’re committed to making a difference for our friends and peers in Nairobi. We’re going to build a makerspace through the iHub that allows others to start from a better position. A place that will give hardware hackers and entrepreneurs a chance to get trained on tools and machines, meet their peers and take risks on their own crazy half-baked hardware ideas. We’re calling this Gearbox.

Gearbox - an iHub Nairobi initiative for makers

We’re looking for corporate, academic and other partners right now to make it a reality. I’ll write about it more at another time (as this post is already too long). However, if you’re interested in being a part of this initiative, do let me know.

African Connectivity Visualized

Jon Gosier’s Appfrica Labs has put together an amazing infographic on internet connectivity in Africa. Amazing work!

Infostate of Africa 2009

“The African continent is rapidly changing. In the next two years 2 billion dollars will bring 12 terabits of connectivity to the continent. Will africa become the world’s newest outsourcing hub? Will it foster it’s own tech and startup culture? The image above explores the ‘infostate’ of Africa in 2009.”
(Read More)

Flickr set here
Full-resolution version here
Buy it in print here

Measuring Africa’s Internet Connectivity

ICTP Science Dissemination Unit has been monitoring and testing internet connectivity to 45 universities in Africa for the past 12 months. Using at tool called PingER Africa, they track real-time network performances in terms of response time (for a succession of pings) and packet loss percentages.

The 45-second video embedded below are their results.

If this type of data interests you, you should read their full report titled, Scientific Measure of Africa’s Connectivity (PDF – .64Mb). It’s an incredibly interesting report on their methods and findings.

The new millennium is beginning to see significant advances in Africa’s quest for greater connectivity. Nevertheless, although a substantial increase in the rate of expansion of networks is taking place, the ITU statistics on teledensity show that although there are 57.3 Internet users per 100 inhabitants in Sweden, 57 in the United States, and 34.7 in Italy, there are just 0.5 in Mali and 0.2 in Niger. The Internet tariff for the same type of connection is 1.1% of the Gross National Income in Sweden and in the United States and 1% in Italy, whereas it is 289% in Mali and 683% in Niger. The same differences are reflected by the Internet performance.

One other organization to pay attention to is AfrISPA (African Internet Service Provider Associations), run by Eric Osiakwan. They have been hard at work trying to build relationships between ISPs in different African nations, building an association big and strong enough to make serious change happen.

(hat tip Riyaz and Brough)

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