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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: network

O3b Satellite Internet (Finally) Launches

5 years ago I wrote about the news that Google had invested, along with others, in this new internet connectivity via medium-orbit satellites for the parts of the world that were hard to reach with terrestrial cable or even mobile phone towers, called O3b Networks.

Last week O3b finally launched.

A Russian Soyuz-STB rocket launched from Kourou in French Guiana today, 25th June 2013 at 19:27 UTC.

The rocket carried the first four satellites of the O3b Constellation. O3b will provide internet access for hard to reach parts of the world. 8 more O3b satellites will launch in a further two launches later this year and then in 2014.

Who are the first users?
First is Telecom Cook Islands, who will receive the first commercial signals across the network this summer and then Maju Nusa, soon to roll out a state of the art 3G backhaul network in Malaysia built on O3b’s low latency capacity.

The plans originally were to have these over Africa as well, let’s see if that happens.

Location, Mobiles and Social Networks

It’s all beginning to come together, at least on the fringe where all of us technocrats live. Social networks have been humming along quite nicely, many people you know are now part of a service like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo or Mxit. On the edges, some applications have started to pair up location-based services around them, thus the rise of smaller applications like FireEagle, Loopt and Brightkite.

What’s always seemed to be missing is a way for location, mobile phones and social networks to coalesce. A way for you to communicate with people, be it updates, comments or chat – and then apply location to that as you chose. Those social networks that tried to do it all couldn’t do it at this level, because they didn’t have critical mass (such as Brightkite). Those that had reach, like Twitter or Facebook, don’t have a simple way to play with location for everyone.

Enter Google Latitude

Just over a week ago, Google Latitude launched. It’s a location-based service that mashes up Google’s own mapping products with Google’s communication products; Gmail and gTalk (chat). One week later, they announced that a million people were already using the service in the 27 countries that they had released it into.

Google Latitude Screenshot

While people are discussing how great the technology works, and it does seem to be quite impressive if you carry one of the supported smart phones platforms (BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android), I believe there’s something even bigger going on here. Google has not had much success in the social network space, so they are taking a rather nontraditional approach to getting embedded into people’s lives at a much more foundational level. Gmail has a base of 50 million+ accounts, and each comes with a chat service, which has gained quite a bit of popularity. Not to mention, SMS was enabled within chat just a couple months ago, in December.

What Google appears to be doing, is leveraging its massive user base, tied together through email and chat services, and pairing it together into a larger community that works within it’s mapping infrastructure.

(Putting on my Ushahidi hat, this has some pretty big ramifications for disaster and emergency work in locations where Google use is heavy.)

The competition

It also has the potential to change the game for some other large services. What happens if people start using Google Latitude for their status updates instead of Twitter and Facebook? What service do you use to find out what’s happening on a Friday night?

It will be very interesting to see what types of reactions to this service arise out of the large social networks, especially those with a large international footprint. Getting location, mobile and social networks to play together isn’t easy, yet these organizations will not sit by as Google whittles away at their empire.

Here’s something to think about. If you didn’t realize this before, pay attention: the big international showdown in this space is between Google and Nokia in the coming years. They have been gaming each other for over two years, and as the race to the edges begins, you’ll see them come head-to-head more often.

Nokia Ovi

1.5 years ago Nokia bought mapping service Navteq in a mega-deal at over $8 billion. Last summer they launched Ovi, which allows remote sync capability for photos, contacts and calender, gains access to music and games, and marries up their mapping and sharing capabilities. It’s what Nokia is banking on for their consumer value-added services in the future.

I’m not sure who will win out on usage in the end, but I do think that Google’s Latitude is an incredibly strong and under-the-radar type play that should be watched very closely. One thing is for sure though, the organization that opens up for easy third-party development on their platform will have a better chance.

Thoughts and Talks at web4dev

I’m in New York City for the next few days at the web4dev conference taking place at UNICEF. I’ll be speaking tomorrow on Ushahidi and using technology for monitoring and evaluation. I got in a little late, so I’m only throwing up some of this afternoon’s notes.

Clay Shirky is leading this session, of whom most know I’m a big fan of his book. My favorite quote:

“Access to information is such an abstraction, but mainly what people use communications platforms for is for communication, which everyone seems so surprised about.”

Participation vs Information

Steve Vosloo, a Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa leads off this afternoon’s discussion around the importance of access to participation, not access to information. He’s not saying that access to information, especially in an African context isn’t necessary, but that when there is a network of participation, it is much more powerful.

Steve asked, “are we a participatory culture (in Africa)?” Yes, we are. It just looks different. It’s mobile and it’s light, low-tech and works in ways that those with a Western paradigm find it hard to grasp. Nothing new, but different: cheaper, easier, faster, more visible and has the potential for more people to be included.

The Challenges in Rural Africa

Grant Cambridge, of Digital Doorway, makes tough, rugged computer terminals for rural Africa. He spends a great deal of his time talking about the reality of doing tech work in rural Africa, not the fantasies talked about in the gilded halls of the West (like here in the UN…). 🙂

Some takeaways.

On internet and computers:

  • Virtually no access to computers
  • Limited access to knowledge and information
  • Where a child’s potential to learn is directly proportional to the knowledge of the teacher
  • Many people have never typed their names on a keyboard
  • Where the edge of your world is as far as you can walk in a day

On mobiles:

  • Reasonably widespread due to prepaid approach
  • Seen as a status symbol
  • People walking up to 3 miles several times per week to recharge the battery
  • Users sometimes forgo basic necessities and skip meals to maintain the phone
  • In rural communities, resources are diverted to purchase airtime

On challenges:

  • Exposure to technology is limited
  • Hard to get parts, things break way out there. Servicing.
  • Information literacy and computer literacy
  • Connectivity: cost, bandwidth, theft of copper & optical fibres, vast distances
  • Robust solutions for harsh environmental conditions and vandals
  • Cost (affordable, local manufacture)

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