‘Best effort’ should be considered as critical for the telco of tomorrow

Many in the industry shudder at the concept of ‘best effort’, but this should change in future when latency can be billed as a business case.

The concept of ‘best effort’ is perceived in different ways partly reliant on whether you consider the glass to be half-full or half-empty. Those of a pessimistic nature will hear the term ‘best effort’ and decide those sitting on the other side of the table are unreliable. The more positive side of the population will consider their partner as a person who will try their utmost to provide the best possible service.

This conflict is unavoidable as it is embedded in the personality of the individual, but according to Crystal Web Founder Paul Hjul (pictured) embracing the concept of ‘best effort’ is critical for success in tomorrow’s digital economy.

Crystal Web is much more of a South African challenger ISP than anything else, having only launched commercial services in 2014. It bills itself as a business which operates differently and Hjul certainly lives up to that reputation in his public appearances and thoughts on the industry. With Crystal Web being free from many of legacy restraints which plague traditional telcos, and Hjul’s differentiating mindset, the company is free to operate in a unique manner. This is partly where Hjul’s thoughts on ‘best effort’ are derived from.

To validate the best effort approach, telcos have to appreciate there are two ways to deliver connectivity in the future. There is the commoditized delivery of the internet, and value added services with enhanced connectivity. One has a dumb pipe, while the other has a smart one which can be glorified with the network slicing euphoria. This is where ‘best effort’ should be applied, and is built on the demand for latency.

Many telcos want to avoid the dumb pipe, but why should they? A dumb pipe can effectively deliver on data demands for the vast majority of consumer cases, many of which are not reliant on latency. If it takes an extra five seconds for a WhatsApp message to be delivered, or an extra two seconds for a website to load, it’s not the end of the world. These are scenarios which can be tolerated, and the business case for the dumb pipe and ‘best effort’ can be realised. Building this dumb pipe and effectively utilizing the internet for this segment is perfectly acceptable, and allows telcos to concentrate on other aspects of the business.

The smart pipe is where money can be made. Telcos can work with enterprise organizations who cannot use the public internet for a variety of reasons, or on consumer usecases which require low latency, through the smart pipe to ensure enhanced connectivity. This is where latency plays a factor, but for every nine which is added onto the reliability and resiliency, more money will have to be charged. The usecases here are relatively obvious, autonomous cars for instance or transmission of sensitive data, but each have additional demands on latency, security and reliability.

According to Hjul, there is nothing wrong with a dumb pipe, as long as it is built smartly, but the business case for tomorrow’s telcos has to be established through separating the various usecases. Dumb is only as dumb as the business case which underpins it.

Telcos crave innovation, but start-ups find the maze impossible to navigate

If anything sums up the telco industry, it is the pursuit of innovation coupled with the failure to be a leader in emerging segments. The solution might well be working with more start-ups, but are they accessible enough?

To be fair to the telcos, this gripe is not solely one for the telecommunications industry. Navigating through the red-tape maze to engage any large, traditional business with a new idea or technology is a tricky task. But it is an issue none-the-less; it is incredibly difficult for start-ups to engage the right person and pitch the value of their technology to the business.

A couple of sessions in AfricaCom caught our attention. With the AHUB section of the conference specifically designed for start-ups and entrepreneurs, this rarely listened to segment of the digital ecosystem has a voice, and it raised one worrying issue; pitching telcos is an incredibly difficult task.

One start-up suggested there is a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude with some telcos, perhaps not rewarding the full value presented. Another said there is a risk of technology being copied or ripped off. But one gripe which was brought up several times was the difficulty in engaging telcos and presenting new ideas.

The main reason for this is the complexity of telco operations. This are usually massive businesses, with decision makers scattered all over the place, siloed departments without a cohesive objective, internal politics which can threaten any conversation, an insistence by some to maintain the status quo or a procurement process with levels of red-tape jam sandwich-enthusiasts in Brussels would find impressive. Irrelevant of the reason, the telcos are ultimately the ones which will be punished.

This is an industry which is crying out for innovation, because more innovative players are swooping in and stealing potential fortunes. It’s the story we’ve been hearing for years; telcos are building the connectivity foundations for the digital economy, but the OTTs are the ones who are reaping the greatest rewards. Something has to change for the telco industry, and the pursuit of innovation is feeding this desire.

While some of the larger vendors are very effective at producing new ideas and products, a lot of innovation comes from the start-up community. These are guys who play around with new concepts and explore dark corners not of interest to the major vendors until the value has been validated. This could be an advantage for the telcos, if only they were any good at engaging the little guys.

In terms of countering this trend, the general feedback went down two avenues. Firstly, have an innovation-enthusiastic management team. Many companies would suggest they do, though in reality most are focused on oiling the cogs as opposed to searching for new engines. Some certainly do, MTN Zambia was highlighted as a company with a particularly enthusiastic CEO who has embedded himself into the start-up community, though the majority do not.

Secondly, there are telcos who have created their own venture capitalist or technology research business units. Orange is one example, and in these cases the team explicitly and proactively searches for new technologies to incorporate into the machine. These are the telcos who will be making waves for years to come.

Whichever route is taken, the outcome is similar. There is a platform to engage start-ups and less established businesses who can help the telco remain relevant in the digital ecosystem. The big question is whether the telcos are open to change and disrupting their own business.

Biometric adoption needs to speed up to exploit the digital bonanza

The idea of biometric identification is not new, though to realise the full benefits of the digital economy, adoption needs to increase and move away from hardware.

Speaking at AfricaCom, Barbara Iyayi, Chief Growth Officer for Element, didn’t so much attempt to justify biometric identification and authentication, but pushed for wider and more rapid adoption. As a disclaimer, it should be worth noting that Iyayi is pitching the case for her business to make more money, but there were a few useful points to be taken away from the presentation.

First of all, let’s set the scene. The world is becoming increasingly digital and companies are spending less time in front of their customers. This of course has its benefits, but at the same time a connection is lost with the customer. This connection not only depersonalises the situation, but also makes it difficult to track customers. As Iyayi pointed out, if you don’t know who your customer is, you’re in a pretty weak position.

This is not a new point, but occasionally it is worth restating the obvious. There are of course various means to identify and authenticate customers, however, there isn’t a perfect scenario right now. Some of the ways in which customers are being identified and authenticated is through the SIM or social media accounts. And here is the issue, neither of these routes are immune from abuse. If your SIM has been used to authenticate, losing your phone could mean losing your digital life, while social media accounts are all too easy to fake; we’ve all watched an episode or two of Catfish.

This is where biometrics are increasingly playing a role. Every new phone can now be unlocked by facial recognition or the users finger print, which is specific to that individual, but this is local to the device. The identifiers are locked into the hardware and not transportable to other areas of the digital economy. Iyayi’s pitch for her business is on the software side of things, removing the authentication from devices and creating interoperability throughout the entire digital economy. Again, it is worth noting this was essentially a sales pitch at the conference, though that shouldn’t take away from a very valid point.

Digital profiles are already being created dependent on the services you use online, your financial and employment histories and also your interests. However, without linking these profiles back to an individual, the system is open to abuse, and the accelerated value of the digital economy cannot be realised. This is where biometrics, in a software world, can play a role.

It is a simple idea, though adoption might not be as high as some would hope. The other issue which needs to be addressed is user acceptance of biometric identification and authentication. While Iyaya played down any resistance to the technology, we’re not as convinced. Digital natives might well be open to biometrics, which is of course promising for the future, but what about the generations who existed before the always-connected era. Perhaps anyone from the age of 40 upwards would be sceptical about such a scheme. It is more invasive that identifiers of previous generations, and there will of course be Big Brother conspiracy theorists out there…

Stories from some of the more freedom-adverse countries such as China will not help. Here, the government has been collecting identification data on individuals for what most would only assume are monitoring ambitions, though India has also been attempting to build its own database for less nefarious reasons. Some generations might be sceptical, though the same could have been said about texting taking over as the defacto means of communicating. As the younger generations get older, such ideas are adopted as the norm.

This will probably be the case for biometric identification and authentication. Soon enough, biometrics will penetrate such areas as payments, though for this to happen there needs to be more openness. Iyayi is right, biometrics are crucially important for the digital economy to reach the promised peaks.

Speak to the right people and Africa is about much more than just the digital divide

Yesteryear’s conversation in Africa was all about balancing the commercial realities of bridging the digital divide, but this year’s AfricaCom has showcased the bigger ambitions of South Africa.

Perhaps we haven’t been giving the right people the podium in the past, but the conversation in Africa has always been focused on the same thing. How do you deliver connectivity to the masses on a continent which has significantly lower ARPU than more developed regions? While this is still a priority, this year’s AfricaCom conference is demonstrating there are bigger ambitions than simply enhancing coverage.

Yesterday we heard MTN’s ambitions to create a more agile organization which operates in the OTT space and can be branded as a digital services beast, and this morning’s presentations had a smart city twist. It might seem odd that we’re discussing such advanced ideas when basic connectivity is an issue, but why not? If Africa is going to compete in the digital era these conversations need to happen now, and these individuals need to be given their time in the limelight. The smart city segment in South Africa is an excellent example.

Looking at Cape Town, Omeshnee Naidoo, the city’s Director of Information Systems, told the audience the city has a fibre spine 1000km long but the project is still at the starting gate. The infrastructure rollout is set to finish in 2021, while the team has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Google to provide public wifi. The next step is figuring out how the initiative can now incorporate the citizens.

Johannesburg is in a similar position. Lawrence Boya, the smart city Director, said the city also has a fibre spine 1000km long, and currently more than 1500 public wifi spots. The challenge now is optimising the infrastructure and making sure government services are making use of the assets not going down the private route. Boya also highlighted the team are trying to figure out how to take the concept of smart cities down to a personal level for the citizens.

In both of these examples, steady progress is being made and the idea of the smart city might not be that far away. More government help is needed, both from a policy side as Boya highlighted South Africa currently lacks the framework to make smart cities sustainable, but also collaboration. Naidoo suggested public sector across the board in South Africa is far too siloed. To be fair to some local governments however, data sets have been opened up to the general public, providing the fuel for these new ideas.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to be honest, but perhaps we are guilty of pigeon holing Africa. Too many people, and admittedly Telecoms.com does this too often, suggest the only challenges in Africa are focused on expanding the connectivity footprint. This is patronising and ignores the excellent work which is happening further up the stack. It’s not the case that these initiatives are difficult to find, but maybe we need to give them more airtime instead of taking the easy ‘Africa needs to improve connectivity’ angle.

We should be regulating AI, but no-one really knows how

A conundrum which has existed throughout the life of the technology and telco industry around the perfect balance between innovation and regulation.

From a technologists perspective, the question is a simple one to answer; don’t pin us back with red-tape, allow us to explore new ideas with complete and utter freedom. However, with technology becoming increasingly invasive, most sensible people would suggest there is a need to build a rulebook.

One of the main issues with regulation is the strength and depth. Striking the right balance between freedom and guidelines is an incredibly difficult task. Where the lines should be drawn is an answer which will vary dependent on who you speak to, as will the flexibility of these lines. And then of course you have the pace of change. Technology is constantly years ahead of regulation, so is it even a reasonable objective to attempt to achieve.

And then you have artificial intelligence. A technology which has great promise and is advancing faster than anything before it, but risks stripping people of their livelihoods, invading individuals privacy and compounding inherent human bias because written code. This is an incredibly complicated field, and when asked the question whether AI should be regulated, lawyers from Webber Wentzel gave a resounding yes.

Speaking to Webber Wentzel CIO Warren Hero after his presentation at AfricaCom, the issue with regulating AI is simply down to a lack of understanding and a non-existent conversation between the stakeholders in the industry. To build a reasonable legislative and regulatory foundation for AI, technologists, governments and consumer-interest representatives should all be sat around a table and contributing, but they simply aren’t.

Part of this is down to the on-going conflict between industry and red-tapers, but another factor to consider is understanding the technology itself.

“The ability to make a decision is based on the understanding of a concept,” said Hero. “Not enough people understand AI.”

Hero is 100% correct. Such a miniscule proportion of the population understand AI to the degree needed to make any decisions on the future of the technology making it is an almost impossible task. For AI to succeed, there will of course need to be rules to ensure responsible development, though there will also have to be freedoms granted. As we mentioned before, finding this balance is not simple and will require a deep understanding of the technology itself.

The issue which many governments are facing, according to Hero, is attempting to legislate and regulate in the same way governments have for generations. This might not sound terrible, but the digital economy is unlike anything which has come before, and AI presents a completely different dynamic.

Looking at the digital economy first and foremost, this is an area where technologies can continue to scale constantly. The virtual world offers no barriers, just take a look at the cloud computing segment. These companies are already incredibly influential, but how many of the worlds processes have been moved to the cloud. 10%? 5%? Less? The room for growth is exceptional, and should be treated differently to business segments of the past.

Now onto the AI arena specifically. While there are countless companies around the world who consider themselves experts in the AI world, in reality there are only a handful who dominate the space and have the scale to enforce genuine change. The likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft has created such a strong position at the top of the ecosystem, it will be almost impossible to break the vice-like grip. This concentration, and inevitable continuation, of power is unlike anything which has been seen before.

For both of these reasons, AI (and digital in general) has to be regulated in a different manner. The trend of building new regulations and legislation on top of existing foundations will not create an environment which is healthy for the industry or the consumer.

In short, yes, AI needs to be regulated, but at the moment, there isn’t the breadth and depth of brainpower capable of doing it.