The Cloud

Digital TV: The poster child for DOC incompetence

Posted: January 14th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

If you want a shining example of the continued inefficiency of the South African department of communications you need to look no further than the migration of the country to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

I was going through some old articles I wrote and I came across one that I wrote for Fin24 in August 2008 (I couldn’t find it on the site but it was tagged as a Fin24 article so it may or may not have been published). It was a report on a briefing given by the then minister of communications Ivy Matsepe-Cassiburri and director general in the department Lyndall Shope-Mafole on the progress towards the switchover to DTT in SA.

According to the info in the article (I can’t remember what was said exactly because it was quite a while ago) we should have been able to buy DTT-enable TVs and set-top boxes by the second or third quarter of 2009. The DTT signal was supposed to be switched on by the end of 2008 and the analogue signal switched off by the end of 2011.

Fast forward to 2013 and we still don’t have digital TV up and running. Subsequent ministers have meddled with the plan and as a result we will probably (and I say this is the most charitable fashion) miss the deadline set by the ITU for turning off the analogue TV signal.

The latest debacle involves minister Dina Pule appealing a ruling by the South Gauteng High Court that e-tv, along with other broadcasters, is meant to decide how the conditional access system on the set-top boxes will work. Having had her case thrown out by the court the minister is going to further delay the roll out of DTT rather than moving quickly to ensure that decisions are made and the country can move forward.

The bigger problem that this poses is that it further delays the turning off of the analogue signal and the opportunity to use that liberated spectrum for broadband communications.

While I am not a hard-core libertarian the continued incompetence displayed by government shows that telecommunications is one area where a hands off attitude would be better for all concerned.


Cell C good, everyone else not so much (or my thoughts on acquiring an iPhone)

Posted: January 9th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Cellular | Comments Off

At some point in the next few months my cellphone contract will expire and I will be free of the shackles of contractual obligations and able to forage for the best cellular deal on the market.

Even though I have brief intellectual flirtation with the idea of switching to an Android phone or even a Windows Mobile device the reality is that I am far too deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem to really want to switch. That and the added value that other operating systems and ecosystems offer is not sufficiently better (or not better at all) than what I can get on an iPhone.

Right now I am on Vodacom (although with an independent service provider) and while I am not unhappy with the service I have received the simple fact is that you can get a decent deal if you take out a new contract, simply renewing a contract will get you a much smaller subsidy.

I am also not afraid of porting networks. This is in spite of my two previous experiences of porting: From Vodacom to MTN (where the phone didn’t work for the better part of the month) and from MTN back to Vodacom (where I couldn’t receive calls from MTN for about two weeks). You might say I am a sucker for extracting maximum value from my service provider.

When it comes down to the decision there are a few issues that come into play.

1)    Network coverage at my home: Vodacom coverage is not great and MTN is not much better. 8ta voice coverage is OK but without an external antenna data coverarge is weak.

Cell C is the clear winner in this race, it has a tower at a nearby shopping centre and I never see less than four bars of signal on my iPad (which uses a Cell C data sim)

2)    The combination of monthly cost and bundled services.

It is actually the cost/benefit ratio that is the real kicker because I can live with less than optimal coverage if I feel like I am getting value for money. I have found that if you moan enough to the networks they will at least make some sort of effort to improve their service at you location.

So it comes down to the offerings. I am starting with Vodacom and MTN because they have the least imagination when it comes to structuring packages.

I am topping out the budget for this exercise at R529 a month because that’s what it would cost me to get a 16GB iPhone 5 from Vodacom on an iPhone 120 package (120 minutes, 100 SMSs and 500MB of data), there are cheaper ways to get an iPhone from Vodacom, the cheapest being R399 a month on a SmartData Lite package (75 off peak minutes, 100 SMSs and 100MB of data) but considering that I can only just get by on 500MB of data that seems like a good place to set the benchmark.

MTN lists three options for the each of the iPhone variants and even though I would love a 32GB iPhone we are sticking with the 16GB for the purposes of the exercise.

For R429 MTN will give you the Anytime 200 package (R200 airtime value, 25 SMSs and 250MB of data) this is a better deal than the R399 Vodacom offering mostly because of the extra data and the fact that the airtime can be used at any time.

For R529 (the same price as the iPhone 120 package) you can move up to the Anytime 350 package (R350 airtime value, 50 SMSs and 250MB of data). Given that people like me rarely use more than our allocated amount of minutes it is really all about the data and not about the voice in these packages so at this price point I would be going with Vodacom because of the additional SMSs and the higher data allocation.

8ta is offering the cheapest way to get your hands on an iPhone 5 with the phone available for R358 on Smart Contract Basic (0 minutes, 0 SMSs and 350MB of data) with no included minutes the contract is going to cost you more if you actually use the phone but this actually amounts to 24 month interest free loan to buy an iPhone with a little data thrown in.

8ta’s highest end offering is for R458 on Smart Contract 3 (230 minutes to 8ta and landline numbers, 60 minutes to other numbers, 50 SMSs and 500 MB of data). If any of your regular calls are to landlines or 8ta subscribers those 230 minutes could come in handy.

I have left Cell C far last for a good reason, something about saving the best for last.

The little network that could is offering the iPhone 5 of Straight Up 200 for R399 (for a limited time) and with that you get 200 minutes, 200 SMSs and 500MB of data.

When compared to the Vodacom offering you are paying R129 less for 80 extra minutes, 100 extra SMSs and the same amount of data. And with the way Cell C let you bolt on additional services you could throw in an extra 500MB of data and still come in at R54 less than you would be paying Vodacom.

Sounds like a no brainer to me, in fact you would have to have a vendetta against Cell C or really crap coverage in the places you frequent not to take this deal.

Unless you are buying your iPhone for cash, in which case remember to shop around when your contract is up for renewal.

 


Tablets on Fire

Posted: October 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Comments Off

Having been the resident Mac fanboy for a number of years you would expect that I would have nothing nice to say about Amazon’s Kindle Fire, but you would be wrong.
I have had a bit of an epiphany of late, specifically regarding the future of tablets and how they will fit into our overall computing experience.
Lucky for us fanboys Amazon has created a device that could possibly be even more locked down that the Apple ecosystem. Hell even if it isn’t, the point of the Fire is to provide an access point to Amazon’s content services, which includes ebooks, movies, TV and music, so if you bought a Fire and it was more locked down that you would expect from an Android tablet you hardly have room to complain.
The most important part of the Fire is not its form factor (hardly exciting) or its operating system. One: it is designed to be a true cloud-based tablet where everything you have bought from Amazon is accessible as long as you have a network connection and two: it is dirt cheap.
Pricing the Fire at $200 is a stroke of genius as it will very effectively segment the market into three groups of people. Those that want a true multi-purpose tablet (and they will mostly buy iPads), those who will buy the Fire (because it is cheap and connected to the Amazon service), those that will buy a tablet because it is cheap (as in cheaper than the Fire) and finally those that will shell out above the odds to buy an Android tablet because they can’t bring themselves to buy an iPad.
The one thing that got me thinking, however, wasn’t anything that any vendor has released over the past year, but rather a rather engaging piece of pulpy science fiction I read.
The books are from “Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” by Nathan Lowell and you can listen to the free audiobook version of them on Podiobooks.com.
However, part of the shipboard life detailed in the books is that most of the interaction with the ship’s systems happens via a tablet. The tablet is not described but it is clear to me that if you were expected to have this tablet on you 24/7 then a 10” tablet would be impractical.
This ties into my view of how our computing experience will change over the next few years. I think we could do it now but practically it will probably take 10 years for this to happen.
The core of our computing experience will be a portable device, either a smartphone or tablet. The desktop and the notebook will be dead and instead we will have a device that will be able to drive an HD TV, a monitor and keyboard or simply operate in stand-alone form for when you are on the move. The device will know when it is in range of an authorised display and offer you a range of options for how you would like to compute. Want a touch interface on a screen? Done. Want a full desktop computing experience for some heavy lifting or a long days work? Done. Want to watch your move on the HDTV? Done. All of it driven from a single device that smart enough to know where your data is (local, on the network or in the cloud) and able to deliver that media to the display of your choice.
You see the computing paradigm of the future is not about the device. Its about the display. Your smartphone could theoretically be powering a dumb tablet display, rather than having to buy a tablet and a smartphone and a notebook.
There are clues to this all around, look at apps like Airvideo on iOS where you can stream your video to your iPad almost seamlessly. Look at the Kindle service (spotlighted with the Fire) where you can start watching the video on your tablet and finish watching it on the HDTV.
The thing is all the building blocks are already there. What we need is the portable compute power to deliver the service (and I think we are getting pretty close) and the operating systems that can seamlessly switch from a tablet environment to a desktop environment (and I think Windows 8 might be the first big step in that direction).
In fact, I think the biggest hurdle will not be hardware or software, it will be battery life and the only way I think we can get around this is the massive deployment of a standards-based inductive charging technology.
Imagine that almost every surface that you put your phone down on (and I mean any phone) is a charging station. Your desk, your car, your coffee table. So it is less an issue of remembering to charge your phone, but rather an issue of remembering to take your phone out of your pocket or handbag when you get to a flat surface.
When it comes to tablets I think we are seeing glimpses of the future today, better voice control, better media integration and the ability for operating systems to perform in both desktop and tablet mode. We still have some way to go, but Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are showing the path forward.


Fixing maths

Posted: July 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

It’s a funny thing when you are passionate about things that you have historically sucked at.

This is, however, pretty much the history of things that I love. I love gaming, but I only play single player games (or co-op games) because put me up against another human being and I end up a bloody stain on the floor. I love rugby and even though I played for my school first team it wasn’t a very big school and it sounds better than it really is. I love technology, but I have no gift in the programming department. If anything describes what I do best it is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and I am a very dangerous person.

The same is true with maths and science. I am obsessed with reading about advances in science and tech, I firmly believe that the next big leap forward is just around the corner and I keep telling my kids how important it is to do well in maths. However, if you had to go back into the deep, dark past (1989 to be precise) and look at my matric certificate you will see that I got an E on Standard Grade (it was a F on Higher Grade that got converted) for Maths and a D on Standard Grade for Science.

You would think that with marks like that I would hate those subjects but the allure of numbers is something that I can’t avoid. Sitting, as I do, a few metres away from the editor of The Teacher (a sister publication to the Mail & Guardian) I hear about all the different methods that people are employing to help their kids.

There is Mathletics but that costs money, and then there is Singapore maths, which some people swear by and has resulted in Singapore producing amazing results over the years.

Then I was reading an article in Wired which introduced me to The Khan Academy. The story is basically guy starts making videos for his cousin to help her with maths, everyone else starts watching them and before he knows it The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving him money and he has 2 400 videos up on the site and millions of people are using his service.

The great thing is that while many other maths tutoring systems cost money Khan Academy is free and kids (and adults) can watch the videos over and over again until the get the hang of the problem. There are also tests that you can do to check how well you understand the material. Because you are advancing at your own pace the smart go quickly and the not so smart can get there when they get there.

The problem with South Africa is that in the (lets call them) less well-resourced schools kids simply do not have access to decent teachers or the internet. Any one of those would be enough to make a dramatic difference to the quality of education that they receive. If many of these kids had access to online service similar to the Khan Academy all they would really need is a tutor to help them over the hump, this tutor wouldn’t even need to be a qualified teacher, just someone that has mastered that particular aspect of the problem.

In the Wired article it is made clear that there are educators that are less than enamoured with Khan’s approach to education (and to be fair Khan says that he is not a trained teacher he is just doing what he thinks needs to be done), but in SA we don’t have the luxury of debating educational methodologies especially when it comes to maths and science.

If kids come out of school feeling like they love maths, that they are confident that they can master their exams and that they can add 2 and 2 (or x and y) then we will be better off than we are now. Maybe by figuring out how we could use, or replicate, this kind of online service in SA we would be laying the foundations for a South Africa where everyone is prepared for the future and not one where more than half the population is left behind.


Only for squares

Posted: October 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Media | Tags: , , | Comments Off
First published on MyBroadband | 01 October, 2010

If you are on Twitter and you follow a reasonable amount of people at some point you will see a tweet that looks something like this: “I’m at Joe’s Burger Barn (888 Fattie Street, Johannesburg). http://4sq.com/…”

Most of the time you mutter a little curse about people cluttering up your Twitter stream with useless foursquare updates and on the odd occasion you realise that you and your buddy are in the same shopping centre and you can hook up for a coffee and a catch up.

From my perspective there seems to be a reasonable amount of foursquare users in SA. Personally I enjoy checking in at places just for the fun of it. I honestly don’t expect to find anyone else there and I rarely send my updates to Facebook or Twitter, where the majority of my social contacts hang out.

I was wondering, however, what would it take for a real location-based service to take off in SA? And is it already too late for foursquare to become that service for the majority of users.

Although there are two main location services around at the moment, on an international level, foursquare and Gowalla. Some people like one or the other but I am squarely in one camp (bad pun intended).

For South African users there is one important thing to take into consideration. At some point in the near future the peeps over at Facebook are going to expand the reach of Facebook Places from its current US reach and take on the whole world.

The question is: How long will it take Facebook to complete its rollout? Will foursquare be big enough to hold off the irresistible Facebook and will South Africans ever embrace location services?

My answer to these questions are as follows. Facebook will take as long as it please to roll these things out. And like all Americans they probably think that Africa is one country so we will get it after the Europeans, Australians, Indians and Brazilians. That said it should be available pretty quickly and we won’t have to be the guinea pigs like those nice folks over in the US of A.

Sadly, despite the fact that I am rather fond of foursquare I don’t think it can stand up to Facebook. Unlike a service like Twitter, which seems to have excelled because it is simple, the issue of location services is one that will become exponentially more valuable when tightly integrated into a Facebook style social network. Unless there is a sudden run on location-based services in ZA over the next six months and everyone signs up for foursquare, Facebook will launch Places and we will all move invariably across, because we are sheep.

The real question is: Will South Africans embrace location-based services? This largely comes down to the push by the networks to get people to use them. Already we have services like The Grid, but in the face of international competition I don’t think this will last. What will make the difference is the adoption of smartphones by SA’s mobile users. The more people use their phones to access Facebook apps and the site itself the greater the amount of people that will start using Places.

That is unless Twitter and foursquare merge, then all bets are off.


Cancel your cell account? Don’t make me laugh

Posted: September 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Cellular, Telecommunications | Tags: , , | Comments Off

First published on MyBroadband | 29 September, 2010

One of the dangers of being a parent is being exposed to innumerable children’s TV shows and movies. In Beauty and the Beast there is a line, which I like to ponder on every now and then, where the villain – Gaston – says to his sidekick: “LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking,” to which Lefou replies: “A dangerous pastime.”

Well, I have been thinking and that is a dangerous pastime.

Mostly I have been thinking about how I am going to lay my grubby hands on a phone to replace my current one, which is over two years old. I can either wait until December for an upgrade, till March to take out a new contract, buy a new phone out of pocket or cancel my contract and start over again.

I am by nature a curious person so I decided to find out what it would cost me to cancel my contract. This is a little exercise that I go through once every two years to confirm to myself that nothing has changed in the cellular service provider industry.

With six months to go I would have to cough up R5 301 to cancel my current contract. The nice man at the contact centre was nice enough to explain how this figure is broken down: R3 051 in rentals up until the end of the contract date and R2 250 for the phone. This is with Altech Autopage Cellular (which has had my account for the past 4 years).

Luckily, I was sitting down at the time. It appears that the strategy is that to charge the customer the full outstanding amount plus almost the full subsidy that was part of the deal 18 months ago.

The problem is that this was all supposed to change ages ago. Icasa issued regulations that were supposed to ban these exploitative behaviours, but then Vodacom threatened to take them to court because the regulations were, admittedly, deeply flawed. Then at the end of last year Icasa issued a draft code of conduct to make sure that service providers behaved themselves. Clearly nothing has happened to get this code of conduct implemented either.

So, even though the service providers have known that the way they do business is not just flawed but wrong (even if it is a good way to squeeze money out of subscribers), for more than two years they have made no effort to change their ways.

They have continued to force people to continue to pay for contracts that they don’t want and don’t need. On top of this, they have made it impossible to cancel a contract (without paying up the remaining money owed in advance). They also charge onerous cancellation fees, in the name of recouping the subsidy that they gave you at the beginning of the contract.

There are any number of gratuitous x-rated descriptions of what these business practises entail but considering that this is a family site I will leave those up to your imagination.

The part of this that makes me really angry is that there are two very simple steps that any service provider could take to show that they are truly customer focussed. One: Allow the customer to cancel a contract at any point in the duration of the contract. Two: Allow them to pay back the subsidy that was used to give them a ‘free’ phone.

These two actions would enable the service providers to keep customers happy, while ensuring that they are not out of pocket from a subsidy point of view.

I would guess that the network operators (who shell out the subsidies and control the contract terms) are completely complicit in this little extortion scheme so this is probably not something that one service provider could do on their own. Still, I don’t see the MDs of any service providers (except maybe Virgin Mobile and they don’t really count) standing up and shouting for consumer rights. They are quite happy to sit back and screw the customer for every cent they can get.

In the end it comes down to one simple fact. Customer service in the cellular industry means keeping the cattle calm and peaceful while they are lead to the slaughterhouse. This is never going to change until Icasa gets off its ass and gets some meaningful regulations implemented.

Until then, keep the mooing down to a minimum because the bosses are trying to sleep on their bed of R200 notes.


Hell is an eternity of tech support

Posted: August 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | Comments Off

First published on MyBroadband | 20 August, 2010

Let me describe a situation that many of the exceptional individuals who frequent this site are probably familiar with.

You are sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon, the cars/bikes are lining up on the grid for the race and the phone goes. Invariably it is not one of your best mates asking if he can come round and watch the race at your place and bring beer with. Invariably it is a friend/relative/someone who you once went to school with who thinks you are god’s gift to technology and they are having some sort of technical problem with their computer and they are hoping that you might be able to help them.

So, being the good natured soul that you are, you ask a few vague questions in the hope that you might be able to figure out why they can’t print and before you know it you have missed, not only the start of the race, but also the obligatory first corner pile up and possibly the first set of pit stops and all you have left is the procession to the end of the race.

There is, of course, one thing worse than this situation and that is when you have volunteered to help out a mate/family member who needed help replacing their laptop and you stepped into the breach. To be fair you probably did this because you knew that if you left them alone they would buy some piece of junk and you would be left missing the grand prix because the machine they bought had just imploded and taken a whole day’s work with it.

But what happens when you get a great deal for a friend on a machine that you know that is pretty reliable and set it up for them and get everything up and running and all of a sudden they phone you up and not only is Window 7 randomly blue screening, but the printer doesn’t seem to work with Word or Acrobat (although it will print from Firefox and Wordpad) and half the USB ports just decide they aren’t going to work anymore.

Is it a dud computer? Has your friend done something monumentally stupid and ensured that you have to make a visit to their house and spend the better part of a weekend installing and uninstalling software, booting and rebooting the system? Or is this simply an issue that requires them to change one setting and everything will be all right?

The problem for me is that I feel responsible for the computer welfare of some of my friends. I want their experiences with their machines to be as seamless as mine generally is. And to be totally honest, I want them to think that I gave them the best technology advice they had ever had and that things have never been better.

Sadly 99% of the times helping people out with their IT problems, or even being known as the guy that knows something about computers, only results in more calls on Sunday afternoon as the Grand Prix is about to start, and this is something that should be avoided at all costs.

From my perspective I have achieved one of my goals in my IT support life and that was getting my brother to ditch his dialup connection and get ADSL and I am still working on my other goal. Namely finding a computer simple enough that my mother can use without having to call me for tech support once a day.


BlackBerry Take 2

Posted: August 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Cellular | Tags: , | Comments Off

First published on MyBroadband | 13 August, 2010

Last week I wrote a column about the highs and lows that BlackBerry maker, Research in Motion (RIM) is going through at the moment and it would appear that some of the BlackBerry fanboys in the forums took offence to my take on the state of the smartphone market.

I was going to leave it alone, but then I was watching the Twitter feed from the Tech4Africa conference, where Justin Spratt, from Internet Solutions, was quoted as saying that by the end of next year BlackBerry will be in steep decline. I apologise to Justin if that is not exactly what he said, but it was tweeted by enough people that it should be close enough.

His argument seems to be that RIM are focussed on keeping the carriers happy and going forward it is much more important to keep the customers happy.

I don’t disagree with him, but I think that the fundamental flaw in the BlackBerry business model revolves around two issues.

The first of these, and the one that most people in the forums seemed to bring up, is the way that BlackBerry services are packaged. You pay a fixed fee for all the mail and internet access you can use on a monthly basis. For South Africans, who are used to paying through the nose for web access, this is a brilliant offer. No massive data bills and simple setup makes for a compelling offering. However, assuming that data costs are going to remain high indefinitely is a dangerous mistake to make. There will come a point when the lure of prettier and better handsets will overcome the attraction of fixed cost internet and email.

With Cell C and Telkom set to make waves in the mobile field it is likely that the one area that they might target is giving smartphone users a better deal in terms of voice and data bundles than they currently get.

The second issue that I have with BlackBerry is a direct consequence of the first. Because all communications to and from a BlackBerry user has to pass through a BlackBerry server, either controlled by RIM itself or by a company. For most consumers (not corporates) this means that there is not only a single point of failure for their email and internet access, but also a really attractive target for government snoops to use to intercept conversations.

Corporate types with their own servers are better off, but not everyone can afford to run their own server. So the majority of people will be feeding their information through a server that government spooks can get access to, if the government of the country you are in demands that RIM hands over the keys to the house.

Based on recent events, it would appear that RIM is not willing to lose markets in order to protect its users. If that is not worrisome then I am not sure what is. And I am not even a privacy fanatic.


Knives out for BlackBerry

Posted: August 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Cellular | Tags: , | Comments Off

First published on MyBroadband | 05 August, 2010

This week looks like a Charles Dickens novel for BlackBerry. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Just as RIM launched their big reveal of the BlackBerry Torch and the new BlackBerry 6 operating system, governments in the Middle East such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are threatening to cut all local BlackBerry users off because they (the government, that is) can’t snoop on the encrypted traffic between BlackBerry users.

The problem is that if RIM were facing this kind of issue in more open societies it would probably be able to challenge this through the courts, but given the autocratic nature of the countries in question it seems that it has two choices, comply or shut up shop.

Even more worrying is that it appears that more and more countries have suddenly woken up to how BlackBerry moves information around the world and suddenly they are jumping up and down and shouting, “me too, me too”.

How the company will deal with half the world’s governments suddenly demanding that they change their business practises and let governments snoop (at will) on people’s private conversations is anyone’s guess.

It’s not like RIM needs any more challenges at the moment. For the first time since the start of the crackberry addiction, more Android phones were sold in the US than BlackBerrys. Even with the bad press that Apple is getting around the iPhone4 antenna issue, the damn things are still flying off the shelves. And then there is Windows Phone 7 that is going to hit the stores later this year. BlackBerry needs to come to the party and it is hoping that the combination of the Torch and the new operating system will be enough to keep it in the game.

For the most part I think that if staying in the game is its intention then it has done enough. From looking at reports from the launch they have fixed a lot of the issues with the OS that irked me (like getting a real web browser).

That combined with a decent range of handsets, from the Torch to the Curve and the Pearl, mean that corporates and keyboard junkies will keep on buying handsets just because that is what they have always had or because that is what their corporate IT department says they need to have to see their mail on the go.

BlackBerry will, however, keep losing market share, simply because most of the new entrants into the market are choosing to go with the more attractive offerings from the likes of Samsung, Apple and HTC.

BlackBerry has, over the course of the last two years, moved from being the dominant force in the smartphone market, to  one that is constantly having to play catch up with companies that have a much better understanding of what the majority of users want and which are able to deliver it faster.

The jury is out on whether RIM is following the same path that Palm trod in the PDA market, but I, for one, am not planning to buy a Torch any time soon.


Saving Telkom: Free the local loop

Posted: July 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

First published on MyBroadband | 29 July, 2010

You have to feel sorry for Telkom. Nobody loves them, the press love to write bad news stories about them and even worse, nobody understands them.

One of the biggest problems that Telkom faces is the simple fact that not only do people keep stealing its copper cables and its customers keep abandoning their fixed lines but they can’t even charge customers what it costs them to keep the phone network up and running.

According to recent reports it costs Telkom double what they charge us in line rental to keep your phone connected on a monthly basis and it hopes that you spend enough on services such as ADSL or calls to your granny in Perth to make up the difference. With lovers of broadband it gets lucky, but people like my sister, who only has a Telkom line to open the gate at her complex, it’s probably a losing proposition.

So what is Telkom to do? One potential solution is actually very easy. Get rid of the problem.

No I don’t mean cut everyone off, but rather get on Icasa’s case to accelerate the process of local loop unbundling (LLU).

For those who don’t know what the local loop is, it is every part of the telecoms network from the local exchange to the phone jack in your house and LLU involves giving all telecoms operators equal access to this infrastructure.

Now there are a number of ways to get this done, firstly Telkom could set a price for access and other operators would have to pay it, secondly Telkom could create a special, independent, division to run this and it would set the prices that everyone – including Telkom – would have to pay for access to the local loop. Finally, and this is my personal favourite, Telkom would take its local loop infrastructure, spin it off into a separate company that would be responsible for installing, maintaining and repairing the entire local loop infrastructure.

At this point you may think that I have lost my mind, why would Telkom want to give up its most valuable asset and make it easier for its competitors to steal its customers.

Well it’s very simple, once LLU happens the real cost of maintaining the network becomes a matter of public record. Telkom, and all its competitors will now have to pay the full cost of running the network. At the moment if you use another ISP Telkom only gets a part of the revenue generated by your line. With LLU Telkom will only be subsidising the lines of its customers and will be able to choose which customers it subsidises and if its competitors want to buy market share by subsidising the access fee then they would be free to do it as well.

But more importantly Telkom would be freed up from worrying about silly little things like how to secure its copper cables and handling installations and fixing line faults.

There are a few issues that would need to be ironed out, though. Who would want to buy this and could they make it profitable?

How would Telkom get this past its unions, which would probably throw a temper tantrum of note when the word ‘restructuring’ is mentioned?

Would Telkom be willing to give up its stranglehold on the local loop and compete on an equal footing with the rest of the market?

What happens to all those people that Telkom is subsidising and who wouldn’t be able to pay the higher access fees?

The one thing that I think is clear is that with an independently owned and operated local loop the SA telecommunications market would be a better place for all operators and consumers, and yes even for Telkom.