interview


Access field development director, Google: “We have to create more local content in Africa”

Kai U. Wulff, access field development director, Google

Kai U. Wulff, access field development director, Google is speaking on Day Two of the LTE Africa conference, taking place on 9th-10th July 2013 in Cape Town. Ahead of the show, we speak to him to find out more about his role, and why he is excited about Africa and its potential for growth.

In his keynote address at Mobile World Congress in 2012, Google’s Eric Schmidt declared that his company’s mission was to reach, “the next five billion”. Of the world’s population of seven billion, only two billion are online, presenting a huge opportunity.

One of the great Greenfield areas is, of course, Africa. According to Informa WBIS statistics only 4.27 per cent of households on the continent have fixed-line broadband internet access. While over 70 per cent have mobile phone coverage, this is almost exclusively basic feature phones – the seemingly near ubiquitous smartphone world of the US and Europe is an adventure that is only just about to start.

Clearly Google has a desire to help get the continent of Africa online as quickly and efficiently as possible and accelerating that process is the task of Kai U. Wulff, access field development director for Google, who is delivering a keynote address on Day Two of the LTE Africa conference, taking place on 9th-10th July 2013 in Cape Town.

Wulff says he is driven by Google’s famous mission statement, to organise the world’s information.” “You can only do this if [people are] brought online,” he says. “The second part of our mission statement is to make information universally accessible, and it can’t be universal if it’s limited to sub-set of people.”

Google is not a charity of course, and it naturally has a vested interest in growing its market, which Wulff admits. “Of course, Google is an internet company, so why wouldn’t we want to promote anything that increases the usage of the internet, as that what makes our company.” However, Wulff insists that his role is not to promote Google but to promote internet access in general. “My focus is not to bring people online to use Google products. Whether they want to use our products or not, it is my job is to bring more people online and then give them a much better experience online.”

But is internet access really a priority for people who might have more pressing concerns that sharing something on Google+? Actually, Wulff is certain that internet access is crucial for improving the lifestyles of those in Africa. “In today’s world I could not live without the internet in my job, so how can we expect to help to develop a continent if we are depriving them from access to the biggest source of information? You can’t solve the problem of poverty without giving people an incentive to use the internet. It may be a different incentive to the way the people in the Western world have it – people use it for pure entertainment, or a way to spend their money. In Africa it’s about how it makes their lives better.”

He gives the simple example of a tomato seller who can go online to check the optimal prices that he can sell his produce for, without having to spend a large amount of time physically travelling to the market. “I think that’s a tangible improvement in lifestyle.”

The LTE Africa conference is taking place on the 9th-10th July 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa. Click here to download the event brochure

Indeed he thinks that there are many in the West who might start to worry about competition from Africa once it really starts to get online.  “If we give them access to the internet and give them proper tools some people might start to worry about competition from those markets.”

For that to happen though Africa needs to have move online local presence. One of the things that concerns him is what he refers to as the ‘trade imbalance’ of content. “I’m a bean counter by trade, I’m not a techie. As a bean counter you learn that no market can be sustained if you have a constant trade imbalance. If you look at the internet and Africa then there’s a massive trade imbalance – 99 per cent of the usage is downstream. [That] can’t be healthy long term.”

It’s not just that imported content is not as relevant as local content he says, it’s also important for content to be stored and maintained locally. “It’s distorting the whole picture. It’s distorting the peering costs, the incentives that people have. I think it’s paramount that people put their content online and put it on the continent. This might be controversial because we have a lot of data centres in the US, but I think we have to create more local content in Africa and keep it there.”

Aside from simple coverage, one of the reasons that content sharing is not popular in Africa is cost. In the West, while we might complain about our data bundles we are used to being able to upload our pictures and videos without normally incurring large costs. But Wullf points out that in Africa every picture you might upload costs money and will compete with you being able to do something online that is important for the basic necessities of daily life. “That’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing,” he says. “To make usage easier, faster and hopefully cheaper.”

One of the key areas that Wulff is focussed is to try and promote network sharing agreements between telcos to make a more efficient use of infrastructure. Duplication of effort is, as he frankly puts it, “really stupid”. “[If] everybody has his own masts, his own backhaul, his own generator you’re tripling the cost to the market. Especially when you’re talking fibre deployments because one fibre deployment has [effectively] unlimited capacity and [instead] you have three fibre running out at a very high cost. It would be like everyone who has a supermarket building their own road network. It doesn’t really make sense.”

Aptly then what Wullf is working on is improving the lines of communication between telcos. “Before you run three fibre lines up a hill, think about it. Speak to each other,” he advises.

This cooperation could really reap benefits for everyone in the eco-system. “Only a very small portion of Africa is covered, so if we were to deploy the capital a little bit more efficiently across the continent then everybody wins – more users, more usage, more money for the operators at lower operation costs, and lower prices for the end users.”

With much work to be done in terms of bringing basic mobile coverage to Africa some might see LTE as a luxury, but Wulff thinks that LTE is actually a great fit. “It’s about cost-per-bit. It’s that simple. Cost-per-bit delivers. The first high capacity IP MPLS networks that Siemens ever deployed with state of the art technology was in Nairobi – it wasn’t in New York City or Berlin, it was in Nairobi. Why would somebody deploy technology that has a higher cost per bit with the argument that it’s ‘good enough’ for Africa? You always go for the tech that offers the lowest cost per bit.”

He does concede that it’s unlikely to make sense to bring LTE to rural areas, and that initially LTE will focus on the high revenue markets. However, it should enable Africa to essentially bypass the slow evolution of mobile networks that the West experienced as it moved from 2G, then 3G to 4G.

Putting a techie hat on for a moment, Wulff says that LTE ability to lower costs while maintaining quality is one of its key assists for Greenfield areas. “You can do air interface per device ,per end user, so you could theoretically have one LTE networks and five operators and they could sell five different offerings based on QoS, depending on how much they want to spend on their air interface. That’s pretty cool if you ask me. I’m not representing an operator, but I like LTE from that aspect.”

Ultimately, Wullf comes across as being very optimistic for the prospects in the region. He warns that African operators should be careful to tailor their offerings for their own market and not simply try and mimic what has worked elsewhere. “That’s [been] one of the problems in some of the deployments, where basically the business case is just a copy/paste of developed markets. And then people figure out that this was not a great idea. We need to depart from the idea that a five-year old version of a European business case will work in Africa. It’s something that needs to be very, very specific and then it can be truly rewarding for everybody.”

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