Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “telecommunications”

An open letter to Telkom

This should really have been sent as an e-mail to Telkom, but Telkom play “hard to get” with their subscribers (or “customers” as they like to call them in these days of neoliberalism) and the e-mail address they give on their web site is invalid.

It is also an instance of the kind of occasion in which e-mail is a better form of communication than a voice phone call — see Millennials hate phone calls — and they have a point, so in what follows I shall try to point out why that is so, and some other more general observations which I would not normally include in an e-mail to Telkom, but which the people at Telkom probably ought to know.

Telkom provide us with a fixed line voice phone service, which also includes ADSL for linking to the Internet, and Telkom is also our ISP, so we use their services for e-mail, the Web and other Internet services. We recently signed a new contract with Telkom for a higher-speed connection by fibre-optic cable when the physical infrastructure becomes available (they are still digging trenches for the cables in our neighbourhood).

On Tuesday 3rd September I could not access my e-mail. I reported this to Telkom by e-mail to, and included a copy of the error message I received when I tried to download e-mail:

02:00:52.125: >> +OK
02:00:55.203: >>
-ERR login failed

The aim of this was to give them specific information to help them to detect and fix the problem.

There was no response from Telkom, and I repeated the fault report the following day. I tested and found that outgoing e-mail was working, it was just incoming pop3 mail I could not get.

The next day, the entire ADSL system stopped working. Not only could I not download e-mail, I couldn’t conntect to the web, or send e-mail.

At that point, I used Telkom’s SMS reporting system to report the fault, which is not specific, and only allows vague specification of the fault. I indicated that the voice service was working, but ADSL was not.

On 7 September I got an SMS from Telkom saying fault Ref 2991487 has been restored.

I tested it, and it had not been restored, so I reported it to them again.

7 Sep 2019 06:28 AM — received another SMS from Telkom giving new reference 2992412.

On 11 September there was still no Internet service.

On 12 September a technician arrived, sent by Telkom.

Before he had even looked at any equpment, he asked how old our contract was, and then said that the problem was our ADSL modem, because the contract was more than two years old. After your contract is 2 years old, he siad, you must get a new modem.

He then connected his modem, and it didn’t work either. It looked considerably older than ours, so why didn’t he have a new one, I wondered.

He then phoned someone, and asked them to reset the ADSL password. After that, he entered the new password in his modem, and it connected to ADSL. He then tried to fiddle with my e-mail program, but was obviusly totally unfamiliar with it, and got frustrated, took his modem and left. I asked him to stay long enough to see if our modem would work with the new password, but he would not. Fortunately I had written it down, or he would have just taken it off with his modem.

When he had gone, I entered the new password in our modem, and it worked, in spite of the contract being more than two years old.

But e-mail still did not work.

Eventually, two days later, I managed to phone through to a human being at Telkom after several attempts at pushing numbers on an SMS to try to let them know that the technician they had sent had failed to fix the problem.

The human reset my e-mail password, and then I was able to download my e-mail, but all e-mail between 3rd September and 11th September had been lost.

The next thing was that we were billed for an unnecessary call-out for the incompetent technician who had come and failed to fix the problem. We went to the nearest Telkom office with the bill to query it. But all they did was press a button so that someone would call on a cell phone.

Eventually, after waiting half a day for a call that never came we tried again an managed after several attempts to get through to a human being. And I tried to explain all that is written above, which the person at the other end was trying to type out as I spoke, and I wondered what sort of garbled version was getting written there.

Meanwhile, if Telkom had responded to my first e-mail, which had a detailed description of the problem, they could have reset my e-mail password within 10 minutes, without, on their own initiative, not at my request,unnecessarily sending an incompetent and rude technican, and then wanting to charge for an unnecessary call out.

Everyone’s time was wasted because they wanted to use voice calls or button-pushing instead of e-mail, and they are too incompetent even to put their own e-mail address correctly on their web site.

Telkom try to encourage people to use the debit order system, but when they add contestable items like “unnecessary call outs” to the bill one can hardly trust them enough for that. And when they threaten their subscribers with dire action for unpaid bills that the subscribers have not yet received, no wonder people are looking for other service providers than Telkom.

Pre-1994 — or pre-Thatcherist?

In a somewhat disingenuous article, My Broadband accuses Zumas government of returning to a pre-1994 structuring of Posts and Telecommunications:

Zuma going full circle – from apartheid telecoms and back:

Unbeknownst to many people, Zuma returned to the structure used under the apartheid government, which had a Department of Communications and a Department of Post and Telecommunications.

The cabinet of FW de Klerk, which ran South Africa from 16 August 1989 to 11 May 1994, had Roelf Meyer as minister of communications and Piet Welgemoed as minister of post and telecommunication.

Zuma’s decision to go back to the pre-1994 structure is seen as a mistake by many commentators – and they have a point.

In South Africa, telecommunications services were operated by the South African Post Office until 1991. It therefore made sense to combine telecommunications and postal services into one ministry.

However, Telkom became a public company in 1991, which meant that it started to operate independently from the SA Post Office.

This is rather misleading, and the give-away is there in the text — it was F.W. de Klerk’s National Party government that privatised Telkom back in 1991, and the ANC government inherited that structure in 1994. The previous structure was not a specifically apartheid one, but was found in most Commonwealth countries before the Thatcher-era privatisation mania.

telephone-5579776Back in the 19th century post offices handled the delivery of written communications, whether physically, by means of hard copy, or electrically, by means of telegraphs. These were complementary, and the services were integrated. Later telephones added voice communications to the mix but in many cases the same infrastructure was used.

Was the apartheid between posts and telecommunications brought about by privatisation a good thing? Some, like the people at My Broadband, might argue that it is, but don’t try to muddy the issue by pretending that the integration had anything to do with apartheid in the past.

postboxThere are similar problems when it comes to moving people, rather than moving words and pictures. An integrated bus, train, and mini-bus taxi public transport system would arguably be of greater benefit to the travelling public. But such a thing meets opposition from vested interests in the privatised taxi industry, and those vested interests are sometimes prepared to use hitmen to oppose integration, where as those with vested interests in privatised telecommunications services have not gone as far as that. But in principle the issues are the same.

Across northern Namibia

This post is part of a photoblog of a holiday trip we took to Botswana and Namibia in May 2013. You can see a list of all the posts here, and this one is continued from Ovamboland, Namibia 17-20 May 2013, with flashbacks to the 1970s | Khanya.

Old road from Odibo to Oshikango

Old road from Odibo to Oshikango

We left Odibo at about 8:30 am on Monday 20 May, and took the old road to Oshikango, which was less car-shaking than the new one we had used before, and gave better views of the countryside, with more rural scenery. But it also went into a part of Oshikango with a market of corrugated iron shacks, new and shiny and galvanised, but ugly as sin. It looked even worse than Albania.

Oshikango - now a bustling commercial centre and  entrepôt

Oshikango – now a bustling commercial centre

Oshikango was much bigger than I remembered it, in fact I hardly remembered it at all, having passed through it only once in daylight, and then as quickly and unobtrusively as possible, to avoid being seen by the police, since I had no permit to be there. It seemed to be a brash frontier town, with big 26-wheelers queuing up to cross the border into Angola, and even that early people rushing around everywhere. Lots of shops had trilingual signs, in English, Portuguese and Kwanyama.

A busy entrepôt, but is it worth the price of autarky?

A busy entrepôt, but is it worth the price of autarky?

In some ways all this economic activity is a sign of prosperity and progress, but it is also a mixed blessing, and I can’t help thinking that the loss of the old autarky is the loss of something that was valuable. The locally-grown food was nutritious, and 40 years ago Ovamboland was one of the few rural areas in southern Africa where there was no malnutition. People went outside Ovamboland to work for cash to buy luxury items like radios and sewing machines to take back home. There was no need at all to import food. The local diet may have been boring but it was nutritious. In 1969 a deacon, Petrus Nandi, 90 years old, came to Windhoek for a synod, and he spoke of two things that struck him about his first visit to the city: magazine articles and pictures showing the first moon landing, and the first time he had tasted ice cream in his long life.

Now people buy food in Ovamboland, and there are supermarkets of the big chains like Shoprite there. What they buy is not local, but all imported from elsewhere. So there was the old boring but nutitious diet, and the new advantage of being able to buy junk food. And most of the economic activity seems to be service industries. Most of it doesn’t seem to be stuff that anyone makes, but buying and selling stuff that other people make. There were also signs of the growing Chinese influence and trade in Africa.

Growing Chinese trade in Africa

Growing Chinese trade in Africa: they sell their stuff in Ovamboland, but what do they buy there?

We saw only one petrol station, which seemed surprising for such a busy place, and went there to fill up for the trip to Rundu. Either their card machine was not working, or we had a problem with our cards, and we had to scrape together what cash we had between us to pay for the petrol, and left, somewhat relieved to do so. The place was just too frenetic and not conducive to a relaxing holiday.

The endless highway, crossing northern Namibia from west to east

The endless highway, crossing northern Namibia from west to east

We drove about 14 kilometres on the road to Ondangwa, which was becoming quite familiar now, and then turned off to Eenhana and Rundu, along a fairly new tarred road (on our map it was still marked as a gravel road). After a while we left the urban sprawl behind, and passed a few traditional Ovambo homesteads, though many of them had one or two square houses in them, and some had the fences made partly or wholly of wire and old corrugated iron.

Ovamboland rural homestead

Ovamboland rural homestead

At Eenhana there were two large shopping malls, both looking brand new, and not much else. Perhaps the cash economy came here more recently, or perhaps it is because Eenhana is the capital of the Ohangwena Region, and they are expecting an influx of civil servants. Looking at the map, the Ohangwena Region seems to cover the part of Ukwanyama that lies in Namibia (as opposed to Angola), and is probably where most of the Anglicans in Namibia live.

Ovambo fences

Ovambo fences

We stopped to draw money from an ATM, so Val’s card still worked at least, to buy cold drinks for the journey, and went on eastwards, travelling quite slowly. Though the road was dead straight, without the gentle curves of the Trans-Kalahari Highway, it was still interesting, with gradual changes in vegetation, and passing through occasional villages, most of which had several of the shiny galvanised iron buildings, which must be horribly hot in summer.

Modern Ovambo village

Modern Ovambo village

As we travelled the day got cooler and rather overcast. We passed Okongo, the last Ovambo village marked on the map, and thereafter there was much less traffic, though we still saw cattle along the way, showing that the country was not entirely uninhabited. It was probably the western end of the Kavango region.

Ovambo cattle

Ovambo cattle

We stopped a couple of times to take photos of the different kinds of vegetation, and the sitplekkies at the side of the road, which, unlike South African ones, were invariably immaculately clean.

Roadside sitplekkie in northern Namibia - much cleaner than their South African (or Botswana) counterparts

Roadside sitplekkie in northern Namibia – much cleaner than their South African (or Botswana) counterparts

At one point we came to a confusing crossroads, with a sign showing Nkurenkuru to the left, and Tsumeb to the right, and we didn’t want to go to either place, as Nkurenkuru was shown on the map as way off to the north of the road. We nevertheless took that road, and eventually concluded that when it had been tarred, the whole road had been moved further to the north.

Roadside vegetation in northern Namibia. The variety is endless

Roadside vegetation in northern Namibia. The variety is endless

After that, about 140 km from Rundu, the country opened out, and looked very similar to the parts north of Pretoria, the less urbanised parts of the former KwaNdebele “homeland”. There were more traditional dwellings than in Ovamboland, and also some bars and shebeens with fanciful names, but they looked somehow more mellow and part of the landscape, and there were fewer of them, though perhaps that was an effect of the overcast weather. One of the most memorable was the “Best Gloomy House”, but we did not stop to take a photo of it.

Flat-bottomed trees found right across northern Namibia. Do they grow like that naturally, or is the bottom just the height that goats cannot reach?

Flat-bottomed trees found right across northern Namibia. Do they grow like that naturally, or is the bottom just the height that goats cannot reach?

At times we got glimpses of the Okavango river in its shallow valley to the north, with Angola on the other side. The vegetation changed occasionally, and at one point there were a lot of tall palm trees.

We speculated about what Rundu would be like when we got there. I had last seen it 44 years ago, when it was a civil service town, with a police station, a magistrates office, and a few other government officials and the main means of communication with the outside world was radio — it was only a couple of years later that the telephone line was opened, with a great fanfare of publicity and press releases. So I thought it might look like Giyani in South Africa, back in 1985, when we had last been there, or possibly like Oshikango. Val thought it might be like Tsumeb. In the end it turned out to be a bit like Oshikango, with uneven Albanian-type streets with drive-through potholes, and horrendous traffic jams, as half the garages seemed to have run out of petrol, and everyone was queuing to get to the other ones, and the main street was blocked to traffic while it was being rebuilt. It has also rained earlier in the afternoon, so the streets were muddy as well as crowded. It turned out that it was payday for civil servants, which was probably why everyone was in town to do their shopping and fill up with petrol. The rain was welcome, but too little and too late. There has been a devastating drought in Namibia this year.

When the first telephone landline to Rundu had been opened, in about 1971, at a cost of R200000, only about ten or 20 people there had telephones. I was then working on the Windhoek Advertiser, where the chief reporter was J.M. Smith, commonly known as Smittie (it was said that the initials stood for “Jakkals Mal”), the craziest journalist south of the equator. The opening of the telephone line was front-page news for the Advertiser, and two weeks later Smittie had occasion to use it. It was said that a white man at Rundu had been charged with illegal hunting, and Smittie was trying to get the story. As the only whites in Rundu were civil servants, who all knew each other, they weren’t keen to answer questions from the press, and the line went dead. Smittie tried again to get the operator in Rundu, and yelled “Hellooo! Helllooo! Just say hello and at least we’ll be communicating.” He muttered, as an aside to those in the office, “Two hundred thousand rand we spend on this blerrie thing and you can’t even say ‘Hello'”. Then he tried again to reach the Rundu operator. “When I reach the hereafter there is one thing I will hear echoing in the distance, ‘Hellooooo, hellooooo, hellooooo.”

And now Rundu has its very own traffic jams. That’s progress for you.

We had booked to stay at the Kaisosi River Lodge, about 7 km outside Rundu, overlooking the river. Of all the commercial establishments we stayed at on our journey, it was the best.

Our chalet at Kaisosi River Lodge, Rundu

Our chalet at Kaisosi River Lodge, Rundu

We arrived about sunset, and we watched a professional photographer (we assumed) filming a group of people crossing and recrossing the river in dugout canoes. He would keep telling them to do it again, so he could reshoot the sequence — presumably they were paid extras. We took advantage of it to take photos of our own.

Crossing the Okavango River from Angola to Namibia, for the benefit of the photographer

Crossing the Okavango River from Angola to Namibia, for the benefit of the photographer

As we did at most of the commercial places we stayed in Namibia, we left some BookCrossing books, and, for the first time in the 10 years we’ve been participating in BookCrossing, someone picked up one of the books and responded — Ricochet |

For anyone interested, the story of our journey down the Okavango continues at Drowning in the Okavango: in the steps (and wake) of the brothers Green | Hayes & Greene family history

Technology and changing rural lifestyles

Twenty years ago, in an online discussion with someone, I expressed scepticism about the value of privatisation in telecommunications. Back then we were communicating on the Fidonet BBS network, which was a fine example of private enterprise socialism. Telkom, our telephone network, had recently been separated from the post office, and was being semi-privatised. There were ominous rumbles that they would be charrging the amateur BBS sysops business rates for their phone lines, because they were carrying “third-party traffic”, which Telkom thought ought to be part of their monopoly.

I thought privatisation of the telephone network would be a bad idea. The infrastructure of fixed-line telephones made it a natural monopoly. I couldn’t imagine five telephone companies setting up five different exchanges for our suburb, for a fifth of the traffic, and five times the infrastructure, five sets of lines to each place. And in rural villages with five subscribers — the school, the police station, the shop, the church and a couple of others, erecting five sets of phone lines would be wasteful. And if the shop-keeper wanted to phone the police, who were subscribed to a different company, it would probably cost more.

My interlocutor predicted that cell phones would change all that. Cell phones would make it possible to provide cheap telecommunications in rural areas. I remained sceptical, but his predictions have come true in ways that I doubt that even he had imagined, as this blog post shows: brett’s morning blend (25may10) | aliens and strangers:

This, though, may be the most surprising feat of technology: People who have never had a bank account, and never will, are using their cell phones to save money. They make their deposit at a cell phone store, and the money is kept in the phone network through their SIM chips. If they need to make a withdrawal, they go to a phone shop, and receive their cash. But increasingly now, they are not dealing with cash at all. Instead Tanzanians are paying one another by sending money from one phone to another. I pay for electricity here in Geita through my cell phone, and receive a code to enter into my electric meter. When I enter those numbers, my account is recharged with money. Pre-pay electricity through a telephone. That’s high technology, and people who’ve never seen a credit card are using it every day.

And there’s more. Africa leads the way in mobile money – The Globe and Mail:

It’s part of a phenomenon that has people in Africa adopting new technologies that have been slower to catch on in more developed parts of the world, where individuals and institutions cling to older, existing infrastructure. People in Africa who have never used an ATM card, banked online or even had a bank account are using their mobile phone for financial transactions, while Internet users are skipping cable modems and going straight to wireless broadband.

Five years ago we were planting a new church in Tembisa. Most of the people were unemployed, and one of them was a cell phone mast rigger. A couple of months later he got another job, and we haven’t seen him since — his job takes him all over the continent, where cell phone technology had begun taking off.

Update 20 June 2010

For an interesting post on a related topic see First World Technology in a Third World Country | Mission Issues

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