Friday, November 19, 2010

Lack of access to the "series of tubes"

Airtel Ghana, the company formerly known as Zain Internet here in Ghana,* sells the majority of their mobile Internet plans as a maximum download for a 30-day period, e.g, 30 cedis for 1GB in a 30-day period or 60 cedis for 4 GB in a 30-day period. When the Zain technician installed the Zain SIM cards in the Ericsson W25 wireless routers in the schools, they were given an initial credit of 4GB for the 30-day period. Those installations proceeded from October 8th through the 15th. Anyone with the ability to do simple math realizes that we’ve now exceeded that 30-day window. In addition to the school’s Zain Internet plans, I purchased my USB modem on October 16. The importance of this information should soon become clear.

This week was supposed to be my chance to start helping the teachers use some of the Internet lesson plans that Liz has found for teaching math, science and ICT. On Monday, I arrived at Bantama Presby to find out that they’ve been out of credit since last week and have not purchased any more. Zain originally promised in the MOU (memorandum of understanding, a fancy term for a non-binding agreement) to “establish a fixed rate, with uncapped usage, for the selected schools”. It seems that the authors of the MOU were not technically adept, because when the technical folks revisited the MOU, they said that this will be pretty much impossible. Instead, we expect that the schools will get their fixed amount of download for a reduced rate still TBD. At the moment, the webpage that pops up for them to recharge their balances looks the same as my personal pricing structure, which means that this discounted structure is not yet in place.

I was well aware of the issues with Bantama Presby likely being out of Internet credits. My grand plan was to use my Vodafone USB modem to get to the Internet for teaching the lessons. It took three tries to find a computer that would allow the modem software to be installed properly. Murphy’s law was in full effect on Monday, because only a few minutes after getting the modem up and running, it stopped working, likely because the 30 days for the Vodafone plan started on Saturday morning, October 17.

I was also planning to use my Zain USB modem while the teacher used the Vodafone one, but it wasn’t until I plugged it into my PC at Bantama that I remembered that I had purchased and registered it on October 16th, meaning that I, too, had used up my 30-day plan credit. The range of plan choices includes a 90-day plan for 12GB of data for 150 cedis. Since that plan both saves money (10 cedi a month) and gives me uninterrupted service for 3 months, I knew I would be headed to the Zain office that afternoon to get the credits. I only wish that I had realized this before arriving at the school.

Getting 150 cedis to pay for the credits involved an extra trip home. As an obruni here in Ghana, the guidebooks recommend that I don’t carry around more cash than I will need for a day and that I leave the ATM card at home except when I plan to use it. Typically, I stop by the ATM once a week and pull out a few hundred cedis to cover me for a week or more. The day’s errands expanded to include having Akmed run me back home for money before returning to the Zain office for me to wait in line and pay for my Internet service. I am so glad to have a reliable, affordable driver like Akmed. His presence is helping me keep my sanity in the craziness of Africa.

Just to add to the fun and excitement, the power was spiking about every 20 minutes since I arrived at the school. It’s not strong enough to knock the computers off but just enough to cause the lights to flicker.

These thoughts remind me of an article I read the other day in the Daily Graphic (Ghana’s number one newspaper) about how important ICT will be to the country’s economy in the coming years. With my US-based experience of having reliable power delivery, I find it hard to understand how ICT can be considered a crucial piece of the economy if the country’s infrastructure is not upgraded to support the work. How can call centers for tech support to major multi-national corporations be set up in Ghana if the Internet connections fail multiple times a day? How can multimedia developers work on international marketing campaigns if they’re on mobile broadband plans that charge for every MB downloaded? How can ICT be a key part of the emerging market economy is power is out weekly on an unpredictable basis? But given how friendly and enterprising many Ghanaians are and how affordable their wages are as compared to the world economy, how can this country not become a more important player on the world ICT stage? Bharti Airtel seems to agree, given this article from less than a month ago.

*Earlier this year, Bharti Airtel completed their acquisition of Zains’ African operations. Zain is a Middle-Eastern corporation, while Bhana Airtel is based in India. Their corporate PR says that they’re very adept at building reliable, affordable networks in emerging markets and have a focus on corporate responsibility in these places. I’ll be very interested to see if/how this change in ownership affects the pricing structure and support that the schools are getting from Zain/Airtel.

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