Less structure is more for telecoms?

There was so much to do today I almost did not have time to digest some of the important information in the news about security. Take the BBC report about Somali telecoms for example, which they gave the rather suggestive title “Telecoms thriving in lawless Somalia”.

Mr Abdullahi says the warlords realise that if they cause trouble for the phone companies, the phones will stop working again, which nobody wants.

“We need good relations with all the faction leaders. We don’t interfere with them and they don’t interfere with us. They want political power and we leave them alone,” he says.

There’s something beneath the surface of this story that I can’t quite put my finger on yet, but I find it disturbing. Communication and media control is almost always one of the main tenets related to seizing political power, and yet we are told that the “warlords” don’t want to interfere with phone companies? This conclusion defies logic, and so I feel like I’m searching for a better explanation or understanding of market/political forces going on there, and why the telecoms are so resiliant that they have no need for physical security.

“All the infrastructure of the country has collapsed – education, health and roads. We need to send our staff abroad for any training.”

Another problem for companies engaged in the global telecoms business is paying their foreign partners.

At present, they use Somalia’s traditional “Hawala” money transfer companies to get money to Dubai, the Middle East’s trading and financial hub.

With a government would come a central bank, which would make such transactions far easier.

The article goes on to say that the telecoms look forward to taxes, once a government exists again, but hope that the percentage of their revenues will remain low while all the infrastructure of the country is rebuilt. Wishful thinking.

Here is an alternative theory: Somalia is evolving into a new structure that we might benefit from evaluating without any preconception of what constitutes a “nation” with taxes and fair “representation”. For some reason this reminds me of the origins of the nation-state in Italy when small groups of “freemen” joined in a common purpose, expressly independent of a monarch but without much else defined. Perhaps Somalis are not only ready to revisit that problem, but come up with new answers based on a new market of information and technology.

The shockingly lower market costs of cell service are really not all that new, I guess. Cell phones have been wildly successful in many countries where infrastructure is seen/made to be prohibitive. Brazil, for example, had a waiting list of years and a slew of high fees for any kind of land-line, yet the introduction of cell service meant just about anyone could afford to have service in a week’s time or less.

Here’s another odd story along the same lines (ha ha), from the Register, called “Need cheap DSL? Go to Rwanda”:

Wyler arrived in Rwanda two years ago, looking for aid work as a teacher. While hunting down a job, he ran across a project to put computers in Rwandan schools and link them to the internet via satellite connections. The plan, which included the purchase of $2,300 PCs, appeared too expensive and inefficient to Wyler. Why purchase expensive computers and then deliver just 64kbps connections to the students?

“The thing is that money is not the problem,” Wyler said. “The problem is the way they spend it. You’ll find that a lot of money goes to consultants and to buy $2,300 computers when a $500 computer will do. So, I started a company to try and give them an idea of how to do this.”

Wyler zeroed in on building out the country’s networking infrastructure. If you’re going to buy computers, they may as well connect to the internet at a useful speed – 300kbps and up – and at an affordable price.
Over the next few years, Terracom will work with Sun Microsystems to put 20,000 thin client computers in hundreds of Rwandan schools. The thin clients do not have power hungry processors, disk drives or fans and require about 20W as compared to a 200W PC. The power savings should make it possible to run the thin clients on solar power, according to Wyler.

Fascinating project. The people with access to this infrastructure will undoubtedly benefit, as will the telecoms, but will their country? Note the irony in Wyler’s concern about pre-existing infrastructure:

“Everybody wants us to do this in their country,” Wyler said. “In order for us to even think about expanding, the country would need to have a political environment that is clean and forward thinking. If we can get the computing density up in Rwanda, then it’s a great model for these other countries.”

Ah, but what if you don’t start off with the presumption that stability of a nation is required, just the ability of all the warlords/politicians to agree to leave telecoms alone for the greater good? Here’s an analogy that might help make the point, although I admit it is a bit esoteric: In western/european music drummers are basically required to keep time in a rigid structure that presumes everything is a subdivision of a universal law/rule. If the tempo is 100, for example, then you can play at 50, 25, 10, etc. or sometimes even in thirds if you want to be a little crazy and try to bend the rules. African drumming, on the other hand, is based on a phrase (sample) played by someone that runs in a repeating sequence. The other beats are thus played in relation to an agreed-upon phrase, not really a subject of the phrase or defined by it, but more in a kind of agreement not to be too far off a common/shared goal (rhythm). It looks like chaos to the outsider who has been trained to dole out the Western tempos into legal parcels of time, but some might argue that the Africans actually end up with a simpler and more resiliant structure that produces a comparable, if not superior, output for consumption.

A whole new way of governance might someday emerge from the creative use of information technology to break down the sense of nationalism that we all now take for granted. If nothing else, radio transmissions will continue to seriously challenge anyone who hopes to secure information.

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