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Digital TV: The poster child for DOC incompetence

14 Jan

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.

Tablets on Fire

3 Oct

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

27 Jul

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.

Hell is an eternity of tech support

20 Aug

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.

Saving Telkom: Free the local loop

29 Jul

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.