South African-based Internet and connectivity supplier Internet Solutions recently hosted the annual Internetix conference and explored a number of burning issues that continue to impact on the current ICT landscape. IT News Africa had a chance to speak to Brian Pinnock, Internet Solutions’ Head of Innovation and Products, about where the Internet is going in Africa, future developments and the driving force behind innovation.
* What is Internet Solutions’ strategy for future innovation?
It’s a bit of a difficult one to articulate, but I think the art of innovation is actually understanding that it isn’t simple. Steve Jobs has done us all an incredible disservice as he created a view in the minds of CEOs that there is kind of an ‘Aladdin’s cave of innovation’ and all you have to do is know the magic password. And he was clever in doing that because he hid the hard part of innovation away from us. What we have learned over the years is that innovation is linked with product development. On the front end we have to look at a product and ask if it’s feasible, are we positioned correctly in the market to do those products. The back-end of innovation is the hard part. So unless you match the front-end with the back-end, you actually won’t get a lot of good innovation.
* How does Internet Solutions Labs help entrepreneurs make the Internet better?
IS Labs is a virtual incubator, so we don’t physically give anybody space, we don’t provide them with any money and don’t put them through any kind of program. What we do is provide people with mentoring and free technology. And the free technology is pretty useful to small start-ups. The other thing that we do is we put them in touch with venture capital community. There is probably a lot more that we would like to do with IS Labs, but we are looking at ways to take it up to another level. We would love to get in touch with other organisations who are doing something similar.
* How far does Africa still have to go in order to catch up with the rest of the world, in terms of broadband and connectivity?
I think that is a dangerous question. When you look at Africa, you kind of see it as one country, but you have to break it up into countries who are in completely different stages of development. African countries are on different stages on the Digital Index, but, unfortunately, most of them are still in the constrained phase of the Index. Africa has been so focussed on international bandwidth because, in the past, most countries connected through fibre. We have largely solved the problem in terms of connectivity. Although African countries are at different stages, when you compare us to the rest of the world – especially countries like China, Japan and Russia, we are still in the constrained phase.
* If you could change one thing about Africa’s Internet, what would it be?
Probably terrestrial fibre to every dwelling – but it’s very expensive and the economics are difficult to get right. I think if you could do that magically, without having to apply any capital, that would probably be the thing.
* As a leader in the connectivity field, what is the driving force behind Internet Solutions’ innovation?
We have survived very well by being the best of a group of telecommunications companies. What drives us to innovate are some of the highly innovative companies that are emerging out of South Africa in our market and in parallel markets, as well as just seeing what’s available out there. Yes, obviously, we operate in a highly competitive red-ocean type market, but other companies innovate at a pace that isn’t hard to replicate. The guys that scare us are the ones that can innovate at a rapid pace, because IS has reached the stage where we are a large organisation and we have to be careful because we have resource constraints and we have to look at where we apply those resources.
* Where do you envisage Africa’s Internet and connectivity to be in the next 10 years?
I’m not going to put a number on it, but you need to apply exponential growth to everything, because historically that has been where we have been at. So assuming that the Google model is viable elsewhere, that sort of thing you will see taking off in other parts of the world. Certainly we’ll see an explosion in connectivity speeds, but it’s going to be a bit more difficult in developing countries that are behind the curve. I think we are also going to see just more clever ways of the use of spectrum. The real trick for looking at the future is rather just look at the trends, because trying to predict an actual outcome is probably a bit fool-hardy.
Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor