The curse of King Tantalus and the Internet

HERE’S the rub, according to Greek legend, King Tantalus was condemned by the gods for file-sharing. Okay, its a modern version of the old legend. But this part is true. In one version, Tantalus (from whence the English language evolved the mythos related to the word Tantalising), was given an unusual punishment.

Forced to stand in a pool of water, from which he could not drink, under an apple tree from whose fruit he could not eat, Tantalus found to his horror, that whenever he reached down, the waters receded, and whenever he reached up, the branches lifted so that whatever he did, his actions were thwarted by some unseen power he could not comprehend.

South Africa recently saw the commissioning of the 1.26Terabyte Seacom Cable. The service will only be officially launched later this month. If Seacom were the only cable connecting our continent to the rest of the world, we will have surpassed our previous national bandwidth capabilities by a thousand fold. Seacom has apparently 28times the capacity of Sat1. According to the laws of supply and demand, prices for connectivity are meant to come down. They have not.

This is not the only intercontinental fibre optic project to arrive on our shores. There are at least several other projects, each one, in and of itself, capable of reducing the digital divide to zero, as the Internet becomes a real-time event and no longer the World Wide Wait. The West Africa Cable System (WACS), previously known as Infraco, in which Government, Telkom, Vodacom, Nortel and MTN are investing, was recently extended to South Africa. WACS will link SA and West African coastal countries to Europe, offering the highest capacity of all the African undersea cables at 3.8 terabits per second.

Glo-1 another spanking new west African undersea cable system that will connect Nigeria to the UK, with additional landing points in Portugal, Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa,  has a capacity of 640 gigabits per second.

Another robust cable is MainOne, a 1.92 terabits per second line that will connect Portugal to Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Gabon, Senegal, Congo, Ivory Coast, Morocco and SA and which is scheduled for completion in the second quarter of next year.

In addition, France Telecom-Orange is building the African Coast to Europe (ACE) cable system, which will link 20 west African countries to France, with a possible extension to SA. Consumption of French Baguettes and membership of the Alliance Francais is predicted to increase.

Then there is the EASSy cable, which will link SA and east Africa, with landing points in six countries, providing a capacity of 1.4 terabits per second, which is expected to go live in the second half of 2010. What a treat.

The East Africa Marine System (TEAMS) will link Mombassa on the cost of Kenya to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates will have no direct impact on SA but will increase the overall capacity of the African Internet and presumably result in an influx of cybertourists to the South. There is also a Far East Cable project linking the island of Mauritous, India and Kwazulu-Natal, and the hotspots of Mumbai.

Predictably, the mandarins in charge at Telkom and other telecommunications operators want us to continue thinking in terms of scarcity and Mbs per second. In fact estimates about the growth of web-use by South African’s over the next five years already seem like attempts to downplay the new capacity which is already available.

Lets take a step back. Verizon recently unveiled a 1Gbs service in New York. Enough for a hot New York Minute. Compared to the average 40Mps here this is more than quadruple the speed of you average household cable and as capacity increases, expect to see downloads occurring at light speed. Yes, that’s right , the difference between copper cabling and fibre optic is startling and represents not just a paradigm shift, but a quantum leap forward towards a post-scarcity economy, at least in terms of broadband connectivity.

It does not take a Steven Hawking to explain the modus operandi of the corporate executives who wish to profit from their investments until the seventh generation. The current owners of the metred IP system based upon copper cable are keeping mum. Even though the the roll-out of fibre by companies such as Dark Wave Africa is creating expectations on the ground of immediate access to the African Information Superhighway, consumers are unlikely to see any of the benefits of realtime IP, because like King Tantalus, we are all being punished for file sharing, downloading, and expressing ourselves by the people in charge. Telkom know they have us by the balls.

South Africa has always suffered from geographic isolation. As a long-haul destination, most of the free World is a 14 hour flight away. Our neighbours such as Mocambique, Botswana, Namibia, the so-called Frontline states, are relatively underdeveloped and dependent upon us for exports. Worse, we have a basket-case Zimbabwe 0n our doorstep and a constant flow of immigrants, refugees and exiles fleeing repressive government, conflicts and wars up North.

The Internet is the only technology capable of changing this equation of underdevelopment, but by bringing the world closer, we will share both the benefits and the problems of West. Can South Africans cope with the inevitable culture shock? Can the rest of the world cope with digital Africans zipping around on the Information Superhighway and demanding goods and services?

The danger of doing this in a phased transition might outway the problems of a Big Bang. Imagine arriving your African destination from a first world country with progressive communications and open-access Internet services that run at light speed. You are likely to find the following;

  1. Newspapers which are out-of-date by a quarter of a century.

  2. Stagnating development in which most people cannot name the most important Scientific inventions

  3. Technology which has long since been relegated to the arc or the city rubbish dump, still in service.

  4. Inability to comprehend the global vernacular which is being created by services such as Twitter, Yahoo, Myspace and Facebook.

  5. In our strange land, where none of the major innovations have reached the majority of citizens, a casual tourist from the future might relate the following story:

“[South Africa] is a beautiful country. Its citizens are like docile sheep. They willingly pay taxes to a telecommunications elite who control all the money and let them rule but without passing any of the benefits on to the majority who  suffer and languish as is they were still caught-up in the 16th century.”

A pretty picture indeed. This is what the big media houses want, a phased transition that locks in profits while keeping consumers entertained with content that is created in Hollywood instead of being exported by the netizens of the future.  Life goes on, profits are what is important, not people, and who are we to think different?

Tantalus is no longer King, but rather the tantalizing fate of everybody living in this transition to the light-age.

Medialternatives challenges you to question the status quo. Feel free to raise uncomfortable questions.