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All aboard the telecom lifeboat

By Arthur Goldstuck

Britain’s premier literary award, the Booker Prize, has just been handed to Yann Martel for a novel called “The Life of Pi”.

It is the tale of a boy whose father owns a zoo in India and decides to emigrate to Canada – along with his entire menagerie. One thing leads to another, the ship sinks, and Pi is stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with, among other, a wounded zebra, a hyena, a seasick orang-utan, and a very large Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

If ever there was a wonderful allegory for the local telecommunications scene, this is it. The boy is the consumer, tossed this way and that by the promises, failed promises and false hopes of the regulatory storm that rages about us.

The wounded zebra is the second network operator (SNO), a blend of the old and new South Africas, local and international interests, and a compromise between the needs of government, business, and consumer. Thanks to all these conflicting demands, the creature is indeed walking wounded, and hardly in a position to compete with anyone.

The spotted hyena, a greedy bystander always waiting to feed off the next kill, is among us in the form of the numerous businesses, big and small, licking their lips at the prospect of all the business they are likely to do with the SNO. Especially if they can camouflage themselves in the fur of black empowerment, they will change their spots (remember, its the leopard that can’t change its spots) to suit the tender at hand.

The orang-utan is the magnificent looking beast which, in reality, is rather ineffectual, much like the telecoms regulator. Full of sound and fury, but when it comes down to making a real difference as well as the truly hard and courageous decisions, turns out to be just another monkey.

And then there is Peter Parker. Only one player in this landscape matches the description of the large and vicious Bengal Tiger, and that is Telkom. It uses all its power – from its effective monopoly and the regulatory regime it all but manages itself, to its massive size, revenue and control of infrastructure – to force everyone else on the lifeboat to play the game its own way.

When it suits Telkom, it can put almost anyone out of business. When it suits Telkom, it can enter into strategic alliances with anyone. While it talks the language of an alliance with the consumer, it is in fact pursuing only an alliance with potential future shareholders – it has IPO on its mind, and needs to maximise profits in order to maximise the success of its IPO.

The problem is, the Bengal Tiger really needs Pi, and an uneasy peace must exist between the two. As for the rest of the animals? Sad to say, in “The Life of Pi” the Bengal Tiger gobbles up the lot of them.

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and managing director of World Wide Worx, the leading independent technology and telecommunications research house. He can be contacted on mailto:arthurg@internet.org.za.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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