This article was originally published in March 2005 under the same title, Bridging The Internet Divide In Africa with mobile data.

The need for Nigeria to bridge the digital divide and improve internet penetration has been discussed for years. The need is immense and it looks like our leaders are yet to really identify any clear means of doing so.

My opinion is that the coming of GSM mobile technology to our shores about 3 years ago opened up a new vista that can help bridge that chasm significantly and speedily.

The American Model
Mobile data is not a big hit in the US because most business premises and homes are already wired or connected wirelessly.

The Japanese Model
The Japanese model is definitely something we can learn a few lessons from. The Japanese – adults or kids – are probably the most connected set of people on this planet. And this is because of data via mobile phones. As a matter of fact, the Japanese mobile industry is driven not so much by voice traffic as by data on CDMA, i-Mode and 3G platforms especially. People access their mails, make online payments and access a wide range of information via mobile phone data services.

Bridging the Internet Divide: Which Way Nigeria?

Here in Nigeria, our environment and present circumstances are just right for mobile data to be a big hit. Very few homes around the country have any form of Internet access. Even scarier is the fact that most business offices have no form of internet access as well.

The cost of acquiring a PC and subscribing for internet access alone is so unthinkable for the vast majority of people and businesses that it is clear that is not the way to go if we are serious about catching up with the rest of the world in cyberspace. Add to that the pathetic fact that one would also need to purchase and maintain a power generating set to be able to put one’s PC and internet connection to any productive use, and that case is lost.

Enter GSM Data
The average mobile phone on the market is either CSD-enabled or GPRS-enabled or both. Every network on ground in the country provides at least WAP access, and in other cases full internet access. In my opinion, most people with a mobile phone are walking around with the world in their pockets. All they need do is harness the potentials of their devices and network services.

Networks & Pricing
It is clear that the mobile networks need to work out subsidized tariffs for data calls (in the case of CSD) and connections (for GPRS). This will encourage the average Joe to put those data facilities to regular use.

Current trends show that at least 2 networks in Nigeria are driving GPRS-based data to be taken up my a huge chunk of their subscribers. A 3rd network appears to intend to limit GPRS services to “premium” customers, an action that will be tantamount to shooting themselves in the foot, if I may say so.

Possiblities
It is amazing what information is available on such a simple basic platform as WAP. Subscribers can do Google and Yahoo! searches, access and respond to mails, check currency exchange rates, stocks quotes, update themselves on news from around the world, and join worldwide discussion forums. In particular, these forums are veritable learning centres where we can tap into free and useful information that drive today’s world. As a network administrator, I even found a WAP site from which I could ping my clients’ hosting accounts to ensure they are running fine, and a couple of others from which I can run domain name searches! Even WAP is no longer as basic as it used to be.

With the advent of full websites that can now be accessed via WAP, the limits on WAP are fast fading (visit www.mobilityarena.com on your WAP 2.0/XHTML mobile phone to comprehend this). Of course, there are more and more phones being released with full Web browsers, further expanding the horizons of mobile data.

Conclusion
It is my submission that our country needs to take a serious look at how we can harness the power of mobile data in moving forward. In particular there is an urgent need for mass enlightenment of our population in this matter. Maybe, just maybe then we will truly be using what we have to get what we want.

This article was originally published in June 2005

Wireless Network icon

Tayo Ajakaye’s article titled Value Added Services: Who Uses Them? took a critical look at the value-added services being provided by network operators in Nigeria. I found it interesting reading, and also quite agree with him that more often than not those services leave a lot to be desired. I know. I have been at the receiving end of poor delivery of those services.

However, that article gives the impression that the right thing for those operators to do is to ignore value-added services altogether until they are in a better position to make them work right. I may be wrong on that impression, and stand to be corrected, but I am of the opinion that there is a better approach. Permit me to comment on a few things touched in that article, as someone who has used a number of those services regularly for years.

Mr Ajakaye says:

During the early stages of its operation in Nigeria, MTN in collaboration with a IT solution provider launched the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). The service did not really fly. Not many people could perform the smallest task online, like checking e-mail, through the system. The fault might not be that of the telecom operator.

It just is not true that not many people could use MTN’s WAP and CSD platform. It was (and still is) rather a case of many people not being able to afford to use it. The tariff was (and still is) madness, in my opinion. However, I used it consistently, browsing WAP and managing my office mails at home and on the move. As a matter of fact, MTN’s CSD service is one value-added service that was (and still is) more reliable than the core services of many ISPs in Nigeria that I know of.

Mr Ajakaye further says:

What Okoruwa did not include is that the problem might be with the inefficent way these VAS are offered in Nigeria. And after trying one out with money gone and no results found, Nigerian subscribers are learning to restrict themselves to just the basic use of the phone as much as they could.

Inefficient service delivery is not news to Nigerians, and so Value-added services should not be singled out when this is concerned. Many institutions and sectors are inefficient in the delivery of both their core areas of competence and value-added services: banks, insurance companies, ISPs, press and media organisations, religious organisations. It has been a general problem our society needs to address.

For example, when VSAT and other internet access technologies were first introduced to Nigeria, those of us who are in the know can attest to the fact that internet access inefficiently delivered to end-users. Terribly long downtimes were (and in a number of cases, still are) the order of the day. Internet access is not a value-added service for ISPs, who were licensed for that purpose, yet they delivered poorly. We did not condemn internet access in Nigeria to the graveyard because of those experiences. Today, things are slightly better. I submit that service delivery of value-added services will get better with time, with experience, and as competition grows.

Like I mentioned earlier, I have tasted of the bitterness of disappointment from some of these operators, but I must admit that my life and work has had real value added to them because those services exist at all. That’s why I say, Let the show go on.

I liken this issue of value-added services (and all modern services in general) to the relationship called marriage. In the early years, those involved may have to do a lot of shaving off the rough edges of each other, and with some tolerance, balanced confrontation and determination to make things work, the relationship not only lasts but gets better… and better… and better.

Mr Ajakaye wrote:

A telecom consultant who spoke with THISDAY on phone Tuesday night said “I cannot immediately think of one that has added value to what service.”

If THISDAY had spoken with me, they would have had a different answer. I have a fast-growing list of a number of people who are able to work better, more efficiently and more conveniently as a result of the value-added services on both GSM and CDMA networks in Nigeria. These crop of people see an opportunity and are taking advantage of it daily. And that, I believe, answers the all-important question that Mr Ajakaye asked, “Who uses them?”

For those who are in need of reliable internet services and mobility is a factor, WiMax services are currently available in Lagos, Abuja and Port-Harcourt.

WiMax is a non-line of sight standard for delivering broadband internet to end users. Usually, all that the subscriber needs is a plug-and-play modem, and he can connect to the internet within coverage area.

ISPs in Nigeria offering WiMax at the moment include among others: IPNX (iWireless), DirectOnPC (Unwired), and Swift.

I have been an advocate of convergence for years, and I have been very vocal about it. When I say “convergence” I mean the convergence of mobile voice and data. In layman’s terms, that’s having your voice, SMS, and internet needs met on one single mobile line.

I tried it out for several years, and I got my fingers burnt.

Badly.

As those around me know, data takes precedence over voice for me. I do more online than I could ever do with voice or with SMS. That would have been no problem, except for the fact that every now and then data services on one network or the other would simply go absent without leave. Then I would have to switch to another line (and network) to have access to internet on the move.

As such, most people around me keep wondering why they cannot reach me on the line they have. This cycle has gone on for about three years now – from GloMobile to Celtel, and now MTN. Just when people were ready to certify me deranged, I found the solution to my protracted problem – I gave up on convergence!

I simply decided that it was in the best interest of my stability and sanity to separate my voice/SMS needs from my mobile data needs. So, at the moment, I have mobile data via MTN GPRS/3G and voice/SMS via Celtel. Regardless of how MTN packet data behaves, my voice line will stay the same from now. My data line can change and somersault all it wants, and go round from MTN to Reltel to Visafone or no-phone. My family and friends will at least relax, knowing that I have not gone off the deep end.

Sigh.

The Treo 700p that Reltel packaged for its subscribers is a Sprint-customised device. It carries the U.S. carrier’s logo, name and branding on both its hardware and firmware.

After the Reltel internet techies configured my new Treo 700p for internet access, the guy who attended to me demonstrated how it works. To my surprise, the browser he opened was Opera Mini, and guess what version – v2.x.xxxx! Consider that Opera mini is now on version 4.0.9800, and you can understand how waaaaaaay back that browser installed by Reltel must be.

Anyway, I immediately took him up on this, asking about the built-in web browser, Blazer. He responded that the built-in browser could not be used, with the rider that “this is the way the phone came“. As such, to enable subscribers browse the internet on the 700p, Reltel had to install Opera Mini on the device (why they chose such an old version still beats me!).

Of course, that sounded like nonsense to me. If Opera Mini and the built-in email application could connect to the internet, it sounded absurd that the browser wouldn’t be able to do the same.

One of the first things I did on getting home was to upgrade Opera Mini to version 4. This was no problem. Opera Mini 4 on the 700p works, but with issues. The IBM Java VM on the device (which enables installation and running of java applications) can be quite unstable. The consequence is that browsing on Opera Mini is a laborious task. Besides the sluggishness, every now and then, Opera Mini simply freezes up, and the phone has to be reset. Bad. Very bad. Especially for someone like me who practically lives on the WWW.

As a matter of fact, while at the Reltel office, I had overhead one miffed subscriber complain that Opera Mini had hung up on him several times that same day. That became my experience too. Meanwhile, try as much as I did, Blazer just did not load any webpages. I was at the mercy of Opera Mini, it seemed.

Looking for an alternative browser
Having a browser that freezes and crashes regularly was unacceptable to me, so my first option was to see if I could find an alternative web browser. There does not exist yet an Opera Mobile version for Palm. Neither is there a Netfront version for the Treo (though the same company, Access, makes the Palm OS and Netfront!). I also couldn’t find PocketLink or Eudora (both of them Palm-compatible browsers) to download. But I did eventually find a good browser named Xiino.

Xiino is good and fast, and offers a 30-day free trial usage. After that, one needs to shell out about $29 to get a lifetime licence. I don’t mind paying. But I have done everything I know till now to get to the developers and make the payment, without success. Plus, Xiino did not support secure web browsing, meaning I couldn’t shop online with it or access my online banking accounts.

Getting Blazer to work
Knowing that my 30-day trial of Xiino would soon be over, I set myself to find a way to make Blazer work. While going through the browser menu, I noticed it had an option to use a proxy server, so I got online and found a number of free proxies which I used to test it out. Guess what….

Blazer browsed! I visited site after site: YomiSays.com, MobileAfrica.net, DomainStandard.net, Google.com, and on and on. However, public proxies have their own disadvantages:

1. public, open proxies are not exactly safe; those who run the proxies may not necesarrily be straightforward people, and your data may fall into crooked hands.

2. public, open proxies are very unreliable. Uptime can be as low as 1%. The highest I have seen is about 48%. That means, half of the time, I’d be unable to browse. Sigh.

One of the proxies I tried out was CoDeeN, a private proxy server system created at Princeton and deployed for general use on PlanetLab. Being a private proxy and run by an institution like Princeton, there is a greater level of trustworthiness and reliability. As a matter of fact, it was online and available most of the time I browsed through it.

CoDeeN Caveats: CoDeeN limits the nodes you can access. I couldn’t login to members’ areas, post content, or access secure sites. A notice by CoDeeN explained to me each time that the limitation was deliberate. Of course, in my line of work, that wouldn’t do either. I wouldn’t be able to manage my blog, and carry out most of my web-based tasks.

Problem Solved: Blazer Works
Finally, I decided that the way forward would be to see if I could find any paid subscriptions for a private proxy that’ll give me all the priviledges I needed. Yes; I found a few, and eventually signed up for one for a small monthly fee. So far, I have enjoyed fast access; user logins; content posting, and secure sites access. No complaints (yet).

Contrary to what the Reltel guys said, Blazer works well. I have thrown a gamut of web activities and transactions at it and it has made a good representation of itself. There isn’t one thing I was able to do on the E61i’s s60 Web browser that I haven’t been able to do on Blazer yet (note that I’m still throwing more and more challenges at it, and this is not conclusive; I will give my final verdict in my upcoming Palm Treo 700p review). In some (not all) ways, it is actually more versatile than s60 Web.

So, my advice to Treo 700p users: If you are dissatisfied with the performance of Opera Mini on your device, you don’t have to endure it. Go get a proxy server for use with Blazer.

Instructions

Here are concise instructions for configuring a proxy server in Blazer:

1. Open Blazer, press the “Menu” button, scroll to “Options”, select “Preferences” -> “Advanced” -> “Set Proxy”.

2. Tick the “Use Proxy”, and then enter in the proxy server and port in the provided boxes.

3. Click “Okay” all the way back to the page view of the browser, and then try browsing to one of your favourite sites.

Here are some of the public free proxy servers that worked for me:
1. 128.208.4.99. Port: 3124
2. 63.251.15.23. Port: 80
3. 202.105.182.20. Port: 80
4. 189.38.2.146. Port: 3128

PS: If a proxy isn’t working, it may be unavailable at that time. Like I said, public proxies are not necesarrily safe or reliable. If you need something better, do a Google search for paid proxy services. All the best.

NITEL’s mobile subsidiary, Mtel, says that it has put in place GPRS technology on their GSM network and are planning to switch it on March ending!! I never thought they could spring something like this up on us, but it is a positive development. It is NEVER good to have only one operator offering a particular service.

Mtel GPRS

Let’s hope Mtel gives Glo a good run for their money on GPRS. But that has to be one big hope, considering Mtel’s penchant for talking the talk and not matching it up with action 🙁

Still, here’s to Mtel GPRS.