We have the infrastructure for ubuquitous Internet Access

Monday, 5th May 2008, 12:30hrs. Listening to Groove Coverage, fiddling with the media player window on my Ubuntu 8.04 system. I’m dead bored. My phone is displaying the "G" sign, which means there’s a GPRS network available. I have ₦1,250 worth of credit, 30% of my monthly allowance. This means I could browse the web for quite some time, even at these ridiculously high rates (60k per kilobyte on Glo Mobile).

Its quite a pity really, that Glo Mobile chooses to use a poorly configured (or purposefully restricted) proxy server for their GPRS access point. This means, the only thing I can do with this Internet connection I am literally carrying in my hands is to read web pages. I cannot use email, unless of course, I use inefficient webmail, which is a no-no on such expensive connections. I can’t chat (yahoo, googletalk) either, because the proxy server only allows connections out of port 80 (which is what is used for the standard web). I can’t read news feeds via RSS.

No, I am not using one of the  highly overrated blackberry devices, I am using a simple, inexpensive, Nokia 6300, which can do all these things because it supports Java applications, and it supports GPRS networks.

I have always complained about the restrictive nature of Glo’s GPRS network, but always to people who didn’t care, or couldn’t do anything about it (my friends). MTN was like this too, but they changed sometime in the recent past. Their GPRS is open for you to do pretty much what you will with it, except that their charges are 10k (ten kobo) higher per kilobyte than Glo’s, thus making an expensive service even more expensive.

As I wonder how I could possibly go about lobbying Glo Mobile to open up their GPRS network, I decide to temporarily switch my SIM card to an MTN one (I never liked the idea of carrying two phones). This SIM card had ₦120 on it. That should be enough to check my email, and chat. Using Gmail for Mobile on my phone, after swapping to an MTN SIM, I check my email, reply one, and then on a whim, decide to interface the phone with my computer, because the Internet is much much more useful on a real computer.

It is surprisingly easy to connect using the computer, all it requires is the GPRS access point name, and the password. I thank Nokia for making the phone behave like a simple, standard modem, freeing me from the hassles of looking for drivers and special software. Now, browsing the Internet via the phone is nothing spectacular as most of you well know, but if you pause to consider the fact that there are close to (or more than, I didn’t verify) 40 million mobile phone users in this country (Nigeria), and we are humble enough to admit that Internet access in Nigeria is very poor and limited first, then  also add the inconsequential observation that MTN Nigeria has GPRS coverage in almost all areas where they have GSM coverage, which is a good part of Nigeria. Glo Mobile also has GPRS coverage over a good part of Nigeria. MTN and Glo have 3G coverage in select cities in the country.

If you also note that Glo Mobile together with MTN Nigeria connect close to 70% (again, an unverified statistic) of the mobile phone users in Nigeria, you just might realise that we have in place the infrastructure to deliver easy Internet access to (about) 30,000,000 Nigerians, and pretty much anyone who cares to purchase a relatively inexpensive mobile phone, and an almost zero-cost SIM card.

We are being held captive in the dark ages by a combination of restrictive network use policies (of questionable legality) in the case of Glo Mobile, or incompetence (another possible explanation for why Glo Mobile’s GPRS will only permit basic web applications), and a myopic pricing policy (both billing their clients per kilobyte, at rates which make the service pretty much too expensive for anything which could be of value to the user).

Now, granted, pre-3G GPRS doesn’t offer stellar speeds, but in the hands of an Internet-starved population, anything is a good start. 3G is on the horizon, and promises more. Colour me blind, but does it make sense to anyone that charging for instance, ₦5,000 flat per month, for anyone who wishes to make use of GPRS in a potential market of 40,000,000 people is a pretty good revenue source to tap from an already existing infrastructure, which is already paying for itself (voice calls)? Or does it make more sense to charge 60 or 70 kobo per kilobyte, and make random streams of money from people who in moments of desperation, spend ₦100 to check and reply an urgent email, and then forget it, because its just too expensive?

Now, I wish I had more knowledge about GSM networks and GPRS, and maybe I would know better why things are the way they are, but if I am right, then for heaven’s sakes, somebody (who can do something) please do something!!!

I am currently pondering the down sides to switching my phone number yet again, since this time, I intend to switch to MTN, simply because their GPRS is open, and much more useful to me. One of my reasons for sticking with Glo was because it was (as far as I know) a wholly Nigerian company. That reason doesn’t stand up to the utility I wish to derive from my mobile phone, sadly.

End note: The Internet on my computer connecting through the phone was good for about 30 seconds or so. ₦100 vanished into thin air just by loading www.google.com, and doing a simple search. To get an idea how expensive 60k or 70k per kilobyte is, compare this: assume www.google.com is about 25 kilobytes when you load it. At 60k per kilobyte, it costs you ₦15 just to open this page. The results page is upwards of 25 kilobytes, depending on the success of the query. Assume that the results page is 50 kilobytes, it will cost you ₦30 to display this page. That is ₦45 just to do a simple search, you haven’t even viewed any one of the results yet. You’d weep if you found out you had to download a 200 kilobyte PDF. Just multiply each kilobyte by 0.6.

© 2008, Fanen Ahua. Permission is granted to reproduce this essay, as long as you reproduce it in its entirety. If you will publish this essay, I will appreciate some notification to the effect, but this is strictly not necessary. I just wish to know if someone else is reading this, so I can ponder the chances of there being change in the industry.

Fanen Ahua
Random quote: Your boss climbed the corporate ladder, wrong by wrong.