White Space

Dakar, Senegal. On my first trip to South Africa our flight stopped off in Dakar on its way between Washington & Johannesburg.

It lands at something like 12:30am local time, and I remember thinking to myself who on earth are these crazy people getting off this cushy plane at this time of night in what seems to be a very charmless airport. Well, now I am one of those people.
Sure, to be whisked away to a luxury hotel to hobnob. Well, actually to learn. There is a new technology that will be coming to market in the next few years, that essentially uses a part of the radio spectrum that has been used (inefficiently from a technical standpoint) by TV broadcasters for all these years.
This conference, sponsored mainly by Google & Microsoft (yes, working together!), was a gathering of African regulators, business, media, and academics, to talk about some of the trials going on in South Africa, updates from equipment manufacturers, etc. It was largely designed to spur discussion and insights, and also to create some energy, momentum, and urgency amongst the regulators in attendance.
I was a speaker on a panel about the business implication for this TVWS technology. I agreed to do this although I had no idea what I was going to talk about, because being forced to present made me do my homework. When I discovered that another guy on the same panel who I had met my first week at Skyrove, and had authored a seminal paper on the topic I started to feel a bit, not intimidated, just unqualified.
But whatever, I did what I had to do; I learned a lot, enjoyed my rest week, and I got quite a lot of good response to the presentation. By the last night we were pretty much all together having dinner, I was happily debating regulatory policy as if I knew what I was talking about.
I remember a time when I didn’t know that Wi-Fi was radio, or what a point-to-point link was, or what backhaul even meant. And now I found myself on a boat called Beer talking to the head of Ofcom’s Spectrum Policy Group (Ofcom is the UK version of the FCC).

Great conversations with one of the Pauls about the crises of confidence that executives face (at least the good ones, apparently), the other Paul about positioning and figurative arms dealing, and just when I was getting used to the French it’s a bit sad to leave it. It is a language that grows on you.
I guess the thing that gets me the most isn’t anything other than a big: ‘So what?’ So now I feel like a member of the African telecommunications industry and I am starting to know the industry really well. We may even dip our little Skyrove toe outside of South Africa soon, who knows? But none of that changes the day-to-day business realities of what I am trying to do, and none of it changes how much work is to be done.
I have some big dreams, but I also have some big challenges, which can generate laughs over a breakfast buffet in Dakar. The fundamental thing is this: if you’re in business, your business is everything. But your top priority is not the top priority of your customers, and you can’t make people buy, either at all, or on your timeframe.
One thing is that I’m going back to cold & rainy Cape Town with a renewed focus on getting my team focused for the two and a half weeks I’m going to be in Europe. I’ve got a very clear vision of what I need to be doing from a strategic, product, and partnership side. Hell, even that is fraught with assumptions that could be wrong, and all of it takes time. I envy these guys who plan to start up telcos in Africa because they have war chests. It’s a heck of a lot easier to start a new company than to keep the trains running while changing course. Changing the tyres on a moving car, indeed.
I had no idea what I was getting into. When I was interviewing for the Skyrove job I said I wanted a challenge. I knew from the start that I needed to broaden our offering to give it more appeal. I just had no clue exactly how complicated it was going to be to figure out target market and offering in a commodity space that continues commodifying rapidly. The news, for good or bad, is that everyone I floated my nutty idea past seemed to think it was really interesting. Now just to find out what’s involved and go sell it. Hey, you don’t get big by thinking small.
I guess this is a lesson in patience on the one hand, and being careful what you wish for on the other.
Rest week is over; I feel like a giant slug. Part of that has got to be the food; I’m somehow managing to be dehydrated and bloated at the same time. It’s amazing how easily you can stop feeling like an athlete and start feeling like a …. Well, normal person.
Maybe I’ll go drink a pina colada.
  • “Are you allowed cake?” – Sam
  • “You can’t rip off the star.” – Kerry
  • “You know what, I just realised that I should totally not write: ‘I was laid up with some food poisoning over the weekend’ in an email because that’s totally not what happened.” – Ellie
  • “It got to the point where I had to sort it out or it was going to explode.” – Tim
  • “You’ll probably get drunk with him at some point over the next three days.” – Dominic (I didn’t)
  • “For safety reasons, sleeping on the floor is not allowed.” – South African Airways
  • “We’re going to need a second table.” “What, for your second breakfast?” – Ellie & Dominic
  • “It’s like living in Cape Town when the action’s in Joburg. …. Not that I just said that!!!” – Ellie
  • “He’s saying cognitive networks won’t work because of the hidden node problem.” – Mike
  • “You’ve been quiet. Now you’re being cynical. Maybe you should go back to being quiet.” – William
  • “That’s a good answer.” “Isn’t it, though?” – Steve & Ellie
  • “The bean sprouts failed to germinate.” – Tim
  • “And then I found a burger!” – Ntsibane
  • “That was actually the first time we’ve had these three regulators talking at the same time about TV White Space.” – Charlie
  • “I’m planning to take over the world.” “Are you drinking the water here?” – Ellie & Christopher
  • “There’s jobs other people think are glamorous.” – Paul
  • “If I thought it was a terrible idea, I’d tell you.” – Paul
  • “There’s power in silence.” – Paul
  • “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” – Paul
  • “There’s no turnoff like a regulator saying ‘I want to do a trial.’” – Paul
  • “There’s no placating them.” – Paul
  • “They’re arms dealers.” – Paul
  • “I’m a wheeler-dealer. I can’t help it.” – John 


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