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Farm-e represents my first foray into developing decision support tools for agriculture. Talking to growers in agricultural areas of Fiji (and also Cambodia and Timor Leste) has given me insights into the numerous challenges they face. I’ve only become more convinced of the relevance and need to develop more tools in this category, as a means of helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

7-19-drought.jpg@crop,640,360,cIt is impossible to have a conversation with growers without mention of the weather and its impact on determining their fortunes. Reliable information on weather data is difficult to access. Initially, our office went to the Fiji Meteorological Service in an attempt to get weather data only to be dismayed by the prohibitive and lengthy process involved in acquiring information that should rightly be in the public domain.

nws header

The mandate for met services like the National Weather Service in the United States is to provide consistent and reliable weather data to service providers. The result is a thriving ecosystem of companies involved in working with this data to make it available to the wider public.

Some time after this, with this problem in the back of my mind, I got in touch with a friend who I know does work in this area. Peter Shin has been a researcher at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla for more than ten years. His recent work includes hardware and software development for remote weather sensor networks. He has been instrumental to deployments of such systems in Taiwan. I suggested to him certain agriculture-specific applications of his system that would benefit emerging market contexts—as a means to strengthen weather information infrastructure in countries where  this information is not efficiently delivered.

The discussion sparked mutual interest and we promised to keep each other updated on developments.

As it turns out, restrictive policies toward access to data (in a time of growing uncertainty from climate change) are just one side of the story. On the technical side, we see that closed and proprietary systems developed by companies such as Campbell Scientific make it very costly to gather weather data—and when acquired, difficult to share.

Peter’s work involves building open source tools that builds upon software development already done by the Open Source Data Turbine Initiative. The work has been funded by the Moore Foundation and based out of the SDSC. The resulting hardware and software systems have been deployed in different environments. But, the result is a low-cost, flexible, open, and highly functional system for collecting and sharing weather-related data.

Peter checking an installation and training counterparts in Taiwan

Peter checking an installation and training counterparts in Taiwan

It seemed logical to me to try to bring this kind of innovation to Fiji. So, the plan is to go forward with a deployment of such a system for Fiji. We’re both excited by this prospect. 

In western nations, government weather services generally provide increasingly complex weather data for free to agriculturalists and other service providers. In fact, there exists a healthy ecosystem of information providers who utilize this information to offer financial and other products to their customers. The recent $1.1 billion acquisition of Climate Corporation by Monsanto highlights this connection between improved weather data and financial products aimed at farmers.

But is Development the right pathway for pursuing this initiative? I hope to be able to tell you in a few months. 

The gestation period for such projects can be quite lengthy and results are mixed. I can say this much. Peter and I are trying to compress the deployment of a very complex system that collects and reports data from sites located in numerous locations all over the country and bring in private sector support for this venture into the extremely short timespan of just a few months. This last element is absolutely crucial for the long-term viability of this project.

This site will feature continuing updates on our progress over the next few months.

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Definitely, reason to celebrate

The recent defeat of South Africa’s Springboks at the Rugby World Cup may have resulted from their players’ desire to return home quickly and snap up some very enticing new pricing plans available for broadband service. Despite the rugby loss, South Africa is poised to become the Southern Hemisphere’s leader in telcoms.

A retail pricing war is underway in South Africa. Vodacom, MTN, incumbent carrier Tellkom, iBurst, and others are dramatically lowering prices while improving consumer choice and service quality.

An example of some of the changes:

…stepping up to the plate is MTN, which has launched an unlimited and uncapped data promotion that gives customers navigating options on MTN’s network at peak HSPA+ speeds from as little as R289 (FJD 70) a month.

And iBurst has also introduced new data packages ranging in price from as low as R49 (FJD 11) per month for 1GB to 50GB at R445 (FJD 105).

New devices such as smartphones and tablets drive consumer demand for data. Serame Taukobong, MTN South Africa’s chief marketing officer, said that with the increase in smartphones and tablet technologies data usage has gone up:

“We have seen a significant number of our customers taking up latest smartphones, tablet PCs, wireless routers and laptop deals that MTN is offering. This promotion is a response to the increased data appetite that comes with the usage of these devices,” he said.

At the same time, the Vodacom Apps Store has reached 100,000 downloads in its first month of operation and the company is now launching a program to support local talent in applications development.

New devices driving consumer demand for data

South Africa has achieved that enviable balance where the pipes are in place, and there are adequate numbers of players at wholesale and retail level to drive widespread adoption. As more consumers buy smartphones and tablets, increased data usage will enable even more volume discounting. Most importantly, there will be a user base in place to support an app development community that will have a local market of millions who are in position to buy their creations.

This thriving ecosystem is something the Pacific Islands can only dream of—as I was reminded by a local telecom CEO who said, “we don’t do applications and services”. You might as well be telling me that you don’t do the future. So much for all the empty rhetoric on ‘innovation’. 

Several weeks ago, I came across this new Submarine Cable Map from Telegeography Research. It’s a great visualization for understanding how the underpinning physical layer of the Internet actually works. By clicking a cable on the map, you can view when it came into service, locations it connects and the companies that own it. Note that cables appearing in gray are projects expected to come online in the near future.

The map reveals a lack of infrastructure in the Southern Hemisphere while, the East Asian corridor reveals the most number of new cables coming into service.

Around the time I started writing this blog in 2006, S. Hemisphere nations of disparate size such as Fiji, Australia, and South Africa faced the same dilemma: lack of cable infrastructure resulting in very costly wholesale pricing.

Cable projects ready for service in the near future shown in gray

In that time however, Australia and South Africa have pushed forward with several new cable projects. In October 2009, Australia added the Pipe Pacific Cable-1 (Read 2009 CW Post) and has since seen dramatic reduction in Internet costs for users.  South Africa has several cable projects that will be ready for service in the near future. As a result, their consumers are beginning to taste considerably lower prices.

Meanwhile, Fiji and New Zealand, without real competition at the wholesale level lag considerably behind as seen in this table comparing budget plans:

Fiji Australia NZ South Africa
$ FJD/Mo. Data Cap $41/2 GB

(Mobile)

$55/20 GB

(Fixed Line)

$80/5 GB

(Fixed Line)

$11/1 GB

(Mobile)

Sources: Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa

This is not the best comparison as the pricing for Fiji and South Africa are from mobile service providers, while ANZ pricing is for fixed-line service. Still, it does help to paint the contrasts. South Africa is poised for major competition as one mobile provider now offers an unlimited cap service for FJD 70. 

If there is one variable that has the most effect on retail Internet pricing, it is competition in wholesale.

Barring that, only an effective regulatory intervention can bring about a more competitive outcome. It is no coincidence then that New Zealand and Australia have been at the forefront of movement to enact functional separation of incumbent operators.

Taking a closer look at the South Pacific region reveals some interesting information. If you recall, the SPIN project promised to connect New Caledonia to Tahiti, via the islands in between. It does not appear on the map and its unlikely it ever will. The Governments of Vanuatu and Tonga are investing in cables connecting to Fiji’s Southern Cross Cable connection that should come online in the next two years. Other cables that have come online in the past few years are Gondwana (New Caledonia – Sydney), Honotua (Tahiti – Hawaii) and ASH (American Samoa – Hawaii).  

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