Monday, July 01, 2013

Strive Masiyiwa: Blessing that can become a curse
Sunday, 23 June 2013 00:00

“INNOVATE or die,” Mutambara retorted dismissively in response to bankers’ complaints against the EcoCash platform. While it indeed might be true that the banking industry is protesting merely out of capitalist envy, they may have inadvertently stumbled on a serious regulatory issue.

If Econet is not reined in, it will soon present a significant national security threat. Yes, a national security threat.

Mutambara, despite his impressive technical background, has allowed the Econet PR machine to blur the facts of what is actually happening.
This is not a question of innovation; there is ample innovation within the mobile money sphere.

The point of contention is the USSD protocol and how Econet is trying to frustrate financial institutions that want to take advantage of USSD to create their own applications.
The USSD protocol cannot and should not be monopolised by a mobile operator.

Econet has managed to get away with their anti-competitive mischief by obfuscating the argument into one of integration with EcoCash.
This has absolutely nothing to do with EcoCash integration.

When questioned about these issues Econet misleads journalists by pointing to banks that have integrated with EcoCash.
USSD has nothing to do with EcoCash.

Financial institutions are interested in implementing their own solutions via USSD and Econet is frustrating their efforts.
A simple way to understand USSD is to think of it as an SMS service that can send commands and data to a computer. The computer then responds with information or a request for additional information.

The difference is that USSD creates what are known as sessions whereas SMS does not.
In an SMS you send a text to another phone while USSD involves a user interacting with computer software.

This is a crude abstraction but should be enough to give the technically uninitiated some insight into what is actually happening.
It would be outrageous if Econet refused to allow a competitor offering a rival product unfettered access to SMS.

This seems obvious to most of us as we use SMS daily and it seems intuitive that the service should be open to as many as can afford to pay the associated charges.

The same way subscribers feel about having unfettered access to SMS to conduct their daily business is precisely how software developers feel about USSD.
ZimSwitch has implemented its own mobile banking product that rivals EcoCash but Econet refuses to cooperate to allow its network to be used for unrestricted USSD operations outside of EcoCash. This is scandalous.

Telecel and NetOne have fully opened up their networks and ZimSwitch Mobile has already deployed on Telecel but the growth of their product is threatened because the largest network provider is being anti-competitive and is frustrating their efforts.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am talking about mobile-to-mobile payments on bank platforms as well as Zipit to mobile payments. Econet is the only operator in Zimbabwe that is refusing to allow these types of USSD transactions to operate on their network. When questioned, they offer slanderous and shamelessly dishonest excuses such as allegations that their customers will be spammed. This is nonsense.

It’s our spectrum not yours

It is important to realise that the spectrum that Econet is using belongs to the people of Zimbabwe.

There is a limited amount of spectrum and those who are given the privilege of being allocated usage of that spectrum must understand that they are leasing a resource that belongs to all Zimbabweans.

It is our spectrum; it does not belong to Econet.
It is because of this fact (the limited nature of spectrum) that network operators are obliged to allow access to the networks they develop.

This is the price they must pay for enjoying the privilege of having allocated space.

They cannot monopolise their networks through uncompetitive practices as Econet is currently doing.

The capital to set up the network might belong to Econet, but the right to use the limited spectrum is a privilege with carries with it a number of responsibilities.

Those responsibilities include providing access to other operators at reasonable cost. Econet is refusing outright to do this.

Regulating the Econet beast

This brings us to the wider issue of regulation.
While we applaud the growth of Econet and the many jobs it has created, we must also have the foresight to realise that this growth presents a number of regulatory challenges.

If we extrapolate the growth of Econet from the past five years into 2020, it is clear that it will soon completely dominate the market.
This is dangerous.

While Econet might seem very much benign with their cheerful ads on social responsibility, there are already some troubling indications that it is abusing its dominant market position.

The USSD battle with financial institutions is a clear example of this.
The authorities need to do more to create very vigorous regulatory framework to govern the operations of companies that gain a dominant market position like Econet.

This is not to suggest that they should be frustrated in their operations, far from it.
We simply need to ensure that they play by the rules of fairness and equity.

NetOne-MTN merger

It is quite unlikely that the management at NetOne (political as it is) will entertain a merger with MTN or another powerful player given that means they will likely lose their jobs.

Apart from political resistance, our indigenisation laws also present a number of complexities that would stand in the way of such a merger.
This is unfortunate.

A NetOne-MTN merger would rebalance Econet’s dominant position and ensure that a well-equipped rival keeps it in check. It would also offer mobile phone users more choice.
I am not in the know as to why the regulators are unwilling to allow a fourth player into the industry but I could bet a tidy sum that it has more to do with protecting incompetence and mediocrity than protecting the interests of ordinary people.

National Security

These past few weeks we have all watched in disbelief as Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, detailed how PRISM, a covert spying operation by the Americans, is collecting mobile phone metadata and Internet communications and storing it in vast data centres. This has been facilitated through Internet companies and mobile phone network providers such a Verizon.

To put it in simple language, the United States has all the information that Walter Mzembi, Saviour Kasukuwere, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki or any other public official has ever exchanged via services such as Yahoo, Gmail and other large internet companies.

We know that Verizon has been named as a co-conspirator as regards mobile phone metadata but cannot be sure that it is the only company that has co-operated with the Americans.

This brings us back to the issue of having a single dominant player who controls such a large amount of mobile communication data.
Given Masiyiwa’s cosy relations with the Americans one can be forgiven for being concerned.

The solution is not a direct assault on a particular operator.
Instead, what we need are broad regulations that impress upon all operators, encouraging open network as well as, perhaps even more importantly, robust competition.

Without that we risk entrusting one company with 80 percent of our national data.

Not entirely apropos

Talking about national security, I heard someone propose a communications interception centre of some sort.
Such a facility would chew up to US$22million

To me that would be a waste of funds.
We have plenty of office space at Mukwati Building.

What we need are competent computer scientists, software engineers and mathematicians.
Spending those millions on tempting back whiz kids like Tendekai Muchenje and other sharp minds who have been lured by Microsoft would be a far better use of funds.

The problem with information systems is the dynamic nature of the industry.
Hardware is not the issue.

You need to keep up with the leading technologies. Knowledge is the problem, not hardware. Many of the viruses wreaking havoc on the Internet are built in bedrooms and basements.

Many of the most prolific hackers do not even have offices.
It would be much more beneficial to invest those funds in human resources.

These talented minds will not subject themselves to poor salaries when they know full well what they are worth.
This is why GCHQ is now paying industry level salaries.
We need more brains and less bricks.

This is my own estimation; I hope time will prove me wrong.
Still deviating off topic, I remain puzzled by Strive’s self-imposed exile.

Unless he has done something particularly sinister that we do not know about I cannot see why the authorities would wish him ill.
Nigel Chanakira, who actually suffered scrapes with the law, lives peacefully in this country.

Geoff Nyarota, who did Strive’s Daily News dirty work, equally lives in peace to the point of actually seeking public office (an ambition sadly put to rest in the recent MDC-T primaries).

His political proxy, Tsvangirai, has cosied up to Mugabe and would have more reason to fear harm from an STI than fate at the hands of the security services.

He (Strive) has not been charged with any crime, nor has any public official made utterances that could be read as hostile.
Job Sikhala routinely calls Mugabe a murderer, but is allowed to carry on unmolested by the security services.
So what exactly is Strive afraid of?

Ndatenda, ndini muchembere wenyu Amai Jukwa

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