Friday, April 20, 2007

The ICT Pugilists Sharpen their Claws

The ring-side bell is currently ringing. The pugilists are in the ring, jogging on the spot. Muscles are rippling. Mouth-guards are been prepared and eyes are flashing menacingly as they size each other up.
It is now obvious that the ICT industry in Kenya is undergoing a major shakeup. The competitors are many and offer varied products for example leased line, ADSL, CDMA, internet and general IT services.

So who are they?

The hard-hitters are - Africaonline, UUNet, Swift Global, Telkom Kenya (of course!), Access Kenya, Safaricom, Celtel, Flashcom, Popote, Wananchi, Afsat, Form-Net, Symphony, Seven Seas and I-Connect.

The first punch was thrown by Transcentury some time late last year when they teamed up with Wananchi Online to jointly bid for African Lakes, the parent company of Africa Online. They however lost out to Telkom SA after a bitter bidding war.

The second punch is on its way and it’s from Access Kenya. This company is elbowing its way through the crowd to get at the telephony cake. Its initial public offer in the NSE, which began on the 19th of April, is meant to raise enough capital muscle to enable Access tough it out with the overgrown bullies of this neighbourhood (Safaricom and Celtel). I will be assessing Access Kenya’s future prospects in a future post.

The third punch comes from our previous cohabitants. Transcentury (together with a few other weighty ‘investors’) is to ‘amicably’ buy out Wananchi Online. Their target seems to be in the broadband Wi-Max internet network and Fixed Line Voice services for home and corporate users. This is not accidental considering the 3.5 billion National Fibre Optic project recently launched by the government. This project aims to link 124 districts and create a national grid.

There is going to be a vicious cat-fight and the arrival of even one of the three anticipated submarine cables will cause a frenzy. This in itself is not a bad thing. Consumers will benefit. However the institutional and regulatory framework needs to be developed so as to be at tandem with these rapid developments.

We need the recently proposed ICT Authority up and running post-haste. As an example, with the whole process of market opening and unbridled competition, the interconnection of disparate networks will become an important issue. This interconnection requires fairness, transparency and consumer prioritization if price and quality are to benefit Kenyans. In other words we need a referee. CCK is not upto the task, what with its well documented SNO bungling.

The ICT authority would be responsible for investigation of consumer complaints against operators, disputed bills of services, resolving technical encroachment and many other problems. We are currently about to proceed into a slug-fest without any referee - such fights usually turn messy and someone’s ear is bound to get bitten off.

NB: I would like to congratulate Mr. Alex Gakuru on the recent launching of the Kenya ICT Consumer Association. As the pioneer chairman, I would beseech Mr. Gakuru to get busy as soon as possible. I was looking for their website but I haven’t found one yet. Consumers have rights that need protection. This body will safeguard their interests because many nasty things are bound to happen to them out there in that vicious digital jungle. All the best Gakuru!!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Wooden Beams

Major developments are happening in the Kenyan ICT sector. Let me list some of them.

- Publishing of the ICT Policy and Strategic Papers by the Ministry of Information and Communication.
- Introduction of the ICT Bill 2006
- Development of the Kenya fiber portion of the East African Backhaul Transmission Link. This is a SDH (Synchronous Digital Hierarchy) based optical network that has been constructed from Mombasa to Malaba (Kenya - Uganda border) through Nairobi with spurs to major towns within the country. - Zero-rating of computers and peripheries to encourage accessibility to all.
- Development of the ESSAY and TEAMs submarine cable projects that will provide an undersea fiber optic cable linking Kenya and its hinterlands to the global super highway.
- The implementation of an e-government programme that has acted as a catalyst for widespread ICT uptake by the business sector and the public.
- Inception of the ICT Board that will market the country as an ICT destination, outline guidelines, set parameters and market the use of technology in economic growth.
- The April, 2007 launching of a multi-billion project to put ICT centres countrywide by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK). The project to cost Shs 12 billion ($ 180 million) will see all the 210 constituencies in the country have modern communication facilities and enhance universal access.

More developments are on the way and excitement is in the air. However as we march on resolutely towards the bright and shiny digital sun let us pause for a minute and consider a very important deficiency in this whole scenario.

Any building that is meant to withstand the vagaries of weather and constant usage needs a strong foundation. We are busy with the wooden beams, the floor trusses, the electrical wiring and the laminated arches. The double glazed windows are quite impressive. It all looks good.

However we have forgotten the legislation. How come we have totally missed this aspect?

The ICT Policy (January, 2006) states that ICT is currently considered by the following Acts:

1)Science and Technology Act, Cap. 250 of 1977
2)The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation Act of 1988 and
3)The Kenya Communications Act of 1998

It is acknowledged that the above are woefully inadequate in dealing with issues of convergence, e-commerce, security, business process outsourcing, e-government and many other ICT functions. The ICT Bill of 2006 is still awaiting passage through parliament. I am not optimistic of that happening this election year.

What are the implications? One example has to do with Safe Harbour. These are basically a set of seven legal principles that are used by the EU and USA that concern data protection. In summary they state that for those countries outside the above two regions whose privacy practices (i.e. legislation) are not deemed “adequate”, transfers of personal information from these respective regions would be stopped.

Are our privacy practices adequate? Do we have readily available recourse mechanisms that can be used to resolve individual and corporate complaints in regard to data protection? Do we have legal procedures for verifying that intellectual property is safeguarded? Do we have procedures to rigorously pursue and prosecute online criminals?

Mr. Mutahi Kagwe and Dr Bitange have so far done a splendid job as IT champions in the government. They have however concentrated their efforts on the infrastructure (the wooden beams) instead of securing a stable and firm legislative foundation first.

We need to push for this legislation starting with the 2006 ICT Bill. The Computer Society of Kenya and the Kenya ICT Federation need to lobby intensely for more legislation. If we are not careful this discrepancy will come back to bite us - where - yes - at that place where it hurts most!!!