Africa Tech News Roundup 1.21.09

contour sketch, via Meg Rorison's photostream

Apps | Google Launches New Services for SME's [Africa Business Daily, 1/20]
"Small Kenyan businesses can now access cheaper software and customized Web products following the launch of several new solutions from Internet firm Google."

Mobile | Are Mobile Companies the New Treasuries of Africa? [ICT for Development, 1/15]
Adam Denton, of GSM Association, argues that "mobile phone companies are mediating – and could mediate – fiscal relations between governments and citizens." Mobile companies provide 7% of the tax base in Africa. For the first time, a fiscal decision will have a direct impact on citizens in Africa, since the tax burden of phone companies directly affects millions of citizens.

Infrastructure | Ethiopia's ETC: The Elephant in the Room Slows Down Economic Development [Balancing Act, 1/19]
Ethopia's incumbent telecom provider ETC was one of the first adopters of fibre networks in Africa. However, today it offers the worst quality and highest cost on the continent. This is holding back Ethiopia's many talented tech entrepreneurs.

Finance | Safaricom Weighs Debt Option in Tough Market [Africa Business Daily, 1/20]
"Kenya's top mobile phone service provider Safaricom is weighing its financing options as it seeks new cash to power its growth in a market where competition has intensified with the entry of new players."

Politics | It's a War of Attrition [Daniel Kalinaki's weblog, 1/19]
Two weeks ago, Daniel Kalinaki, one of Uganda's most important journalists, was summonsed to police headquarters for publishing a certain story about northern Uganda. His narration of his interregation displays the tenuous state of press freedom in Uganda.

Politics | Advice to Obama's Africa Team: Don't Change Much [CDG Blog, 1/15]
"Rather than shy away from the continent's problems, [Bush] launched several major new initiatives that recognized Africa's significance to America. The aid budget to Africa more than tripled on his watch and the pipeline has been sufficiently filled to put the U.S. well on its way to meet President Bush's pledge to double aid to Africa again by 2010." At her confirmation hearing, Susan Rice, the next UN-Ambassador signaled that she would help Africa help itself through supporting regional bodies like the African Union.

Culture | Africa's 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century [Zimbabwe Int'l Book Fair]
"To mark the beginning of the 21st century, and encouraged by Professor Ali Mazrui, the Zimbabwe International Book Fair launched the international compilation of 'Africa's 100 Best Books.'"

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Shaping Young Minds

Tonight I start my teaching career. Alongside my frequent collaborator, Patrick Meier, I am creating a teaching a course to Tufts University undergraduate course entitled Digital Democracy:

In the last five years, text message campaigns, online social networks, and citizen media have played a major role in world events including a democratic revolution in Ukraine, a humanitarian emergency in Kenya and the election of the first African American President of the United States. This course explores how digital technology changes both the mode and the meaning of democratic participation. We will conduct this inquiry through the exploration of case studies and by putting an experimental social networking application to the test, exploring its use in civic projects throughout Boston.
Patrick posted the syllabus here (pdf). I'm incredibly excited, not least because no one has really figured out the effect of the Internet on politics yet. Andrew McLaughlin, my boss at Google, once said: "We are only in the most vague sense conscious of what the Internet's disruption means in the real world." There really is no better way to attack these unanswered questions than by getting a bunch of smart, open minded people together in a room to talk about it. This will be fun.


Darn, No Kayaking to Inauguration

historic map of Washington D.C., circa 1916

During my senior year of college, an intrepid local entrepreneur asked me start a kayak touring company on the Potomac River. I loved the idea. It combined my dream of being paid to be outside (I had worked at the climbing wall and bike shop at the Outdoor Rec center for several years), with my urge to geek out on political and natural history. A few weeks into my research, my financial backer bailed for unrelated personal reasons, and the project never got off the ground.

If our company were alive and well today, we would be forced to miss out on significant business opportunity. According to DCist, the Coast Guard has banned kayaking as a form of commuting to the inauguration:
Well, so much for the bright idea of utilizing local waterways to break through the Inaugural gridlock on Tuesday. According to WTOP, 40 Coast Guard vessels will be stationed south of the Wilson Bridge, in part to patrol the waters for intrepid paddlers who thought that they could beat the congestion by kayaking to the ceremony.


Wanted | More Internet Without Wires

Working on technology policy satisfies the aspiring polymath within me. To be really good at tech policy, you need a significant grasp on engineering, law, economics, as well as the current political zeitgeist. While I generally write about African tech policy [here is my draft white paper on infusing the new USAID w/ the values and competencies of the African Digerati], I've also been thinking about how President-Elect Obama can choose regulatory policies that bring Americans more and cheaper Internet without wires.

This winter term, I took Yochai Benkler's Harvard Law School winter term course Communications and Internet Law and Policy. The goal of the course is to write a series of white papers to the new Administration on tech issues.

Our first white paper, directed to the FCC, presents a practical guide to expanding America's spectrum commons [the part of the airwaves that any wireless device could use]. Specifically, we analyze the FCC's recent white spaces order, and propose guidelines for managing the D-Block and AWS-3. Executive summary is below:

Across the Airwaves: Policy Initiatives for Expanding Wireless Opportunities Through Unlicensed Spectrum

Building on the momentum of the recent white spaces ruling and other resurfaced discussions about wireless, the FCC has a unique opportunity to designate the vacant 700MHz D-Block and the AWS-3 spectrum bands for unlicensed use, sparking a new generation of wireless innovation and creating new jobs while building out critical infrastructure to underserved communities and public safety officials across America.

This paper presents a practical guide for expanding America's spectrum commons. Part 1 situates broadband access as a critical input into a competitive and innovative economy, and describes the pressing need for America to reverse the slowing rate of broadband subscriber growth. This section describes wireless as a potential "third broadband pipe" to compete with incumbent providers and argues that transitioning from a property framework to a commons framework for spectrum management will lead to increased innovation, broadband penetration and consumer choice.

Part 2 offers a substantive analysis of the recent FCC white spaces order in light of the goal of using this spectrum to support low-cost rural access, advanced mesh networks and wireless distribution of in-home content. While applauding the ruling as a critically important step, this section recommends policy changes that will further the success of this spectrum, including increasing the frequency of testing new white spaces devices to increasing the fixed 40mW power level and changing the private-sector approach to geo-location database.

Part 3 argues that the recent D-Block and AWS-3 auction processes are built around special interests and are thus fundamentally flawed. This section recommends that the FCC drop the auction process entirely, and designate the bands for unlicensed use, subject to strict device testing, designed to limit the likelihood of interference. The D-Block should be converged with the adjacent public safety band, and the FCC should help create an interoperable standard that would maximize the use of these bands while ensuring that public safety communications are afforded priority during an emergency. Further, the FCC should work with Congress and the Executive to provide grants and bonds to local governments and private companies to build-out networks for the public safety community. Similarly, federal bonds should support municipalities that seek to use the AWS-3 band to build out and subsidize wireless connectivity for underserved communities.

In conclusion, the purpose of this white paper is to summarize the debates of three major opportunities available to build a spectrum commons in the United States, and to offer concrete policy solutions to the FCC that are immediately actionable. It aims to bring a non-partisan and academic perspective to the discussion, on topics that are of great interest and importance both to the FCC and the new Congress and President, and offer clear roads to achieving their stated goals.


Africa Tech News Roundup 1.14.09

Baltimore, via Meg Rorison's photostream

Infrastructure | How to Survive in a Low Growth Year [Balancing Act, 1/11]
Southwood explores what this year may have in store for fixed and mobile operators. "Defending revenues is only half of the game and probably not the important half. The other part is driving down costs."

Spectrum | Broadband in the White Spaces Going Global [Google Policy Blog, 1/9]
"The FCC is taking its work on "white spaces" global. This morning FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced the "White Spaces Fellowship and Training Initiative," giving the Commission a new platform to share advice and insights into "white spaces" with international regulators and spectrum experts." Will this lead to more unlicensed spectrum in Africa?

ICT4D | Fund Loss Staggers Group Giving Laptops to Poor Children [Boston Globe, 1/9]
"[OLPC], the Cambridge foundation that sought to transform developing countries by giving free laptop computers to poor children suffered a devastating loss of revenue last year and has been forced to slash its staff in half."

Mobile Innovation | Ugandan Ministry of Health Introduces Telemedicine [Balancing Act, 1/11]
"The ministries of health and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are introducing telemedicine to extend quality health care services to rural areas. "Telemedicine is an important tool for providing healthcare services," said ICT minister, Dr. Ham Mulira."

Politics | Letter from Zimbabwe [World Bank Blog, 12/11]
"It is just after midnight in Harare. I have just returned from a midnight tour of the ATMs in Harare with a cousin. There are queues of people still waiting to get their weekly cash withdrawal limit of $100,000,000,000 (US$2.50)." See photos of the queues on Chris Blattman's blog.


Africa Tech News Roundup 1.06.09

side street language, via Meg Rorison's photostream

Ads | The Google SA Certification Controversy [IT Web South Africa, 1/3]
"Google South Africa set the cat among the pigeons when country manager Stafford Masie revealed intentions to moderate SA's search industry, saying some e-marketing companies were committing "fraud" against customers."

mBanking | Big Banks in Plot to Kill M-Pesa [Nairobi Star 12/23]
"The unexpected M-PESA probe ordered last week by acting Finance minister John Michuki may have been influenced by an informal cartel of local banks unhappy with the threat posed by Safaricom's mobile money transfer service poses to their business."

Infrastructure | Ericsson Parters With 21st Century Technologies (On Fibre-to-the-Home) [IT News Africa, 1/6]
"Apart from bringing the much needed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to the West African nation, the Ericsson-21st Century Technologies partnership will also see Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks being put in place."

Innovation | - Nigeria's First Real Mobile Community [, 1/6]
"A Nigerian mobile 2.0 community for mobile downloads (mp3s/ringtones, videos, apps, games)and discussions about anything mobile, a user powered community where anyone can contribute to every part of the site..."

Politics | Opposition Leader Declared Winner of Ghana's Presidential Election [NYT, 1/3]
"John Atta Mills of the opposition National Democratic Congress party narrowly won a runoff vote for the presidency of Ghana, one of Africa's most stable and prosperous democracies, electoral officials announced Saturday. " At this time last year, Kenya was smoldering. Its gratifying to see a peaceful transfer of power in Ghana.

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Quoted in Foreign Policy on Ushahidi

Juliana Rotich and my recent Berkman Center Kenya paper was quoted in the current issue of Foreign Policy.

Money quote:

With Ushahidi, information is available within minutes, and Okolloh says censorship isn't a problem because governments "are more interested in what's in newspapers than what's online." Kenya was the first testing ground, and now Ushahidi is jumping into other conflict countries as well. As of November, the group was already receiving an average of four reports a day from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This growing breadth could make Ushahidi something like the Wikipedia of conflicts, wrote Harvard researchers Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich in a recent paper. "They are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale." Ushahidi hopes to become a history worth contributing to.

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Preparing for Dystopia

Ben Kunkel has a great article in Dissent about recent dystopian and apocalyptic literature and film.

Money quote:

Now we are forced to admit that our own children's capacity to love and flourish may be undermined by the multiplication of new threats. Through the forty long years of the cold war it seemed that civilization might not be long for this world. Now it can seem to us again that we and the people we love (or would wish to love) will have to live with an anxiety every bit as pervasive as the old fear, though perhaps less acute. With luck some novelists will be able to reveal—and not only by accident—what this atmosphere of dread is doing to us.
In an age when no policy maker can claim to predict the result of changes in our weather system and few economists can claim to understand what is needed to calm a turbulent economy, fiction seems uniquely useful for imagining what might be to come. Some of the novels mentioned in the article include The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houllebecq, Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.