Free…as in costly

Every year, IBM creates a “Global Innovation Outlook” in collaboration with many deep thinkers around the world. One of this year’s topics is Africa, and although the GIO process is still running, IBM is already encouraging senior technical people to begin mentoring students in Africa, through a program called “Makocha Minds” (Google tells me that “makocha” is Swahili for “coach”).

I volunteered to participate and was matched up with someone from Kenya; we’ve had a few email exchanges, but I find it very helpful to actually speak to the other person, at least occasionally. I noticed that he had a Skype username in his mail signature, and so I suggested meeting on Skype, since calls within the network are free.

But when the appointed time rolled around this morning, I couldn’t find him on Skype. So I called his cellphone, and we chatted briefly, and figured out the problem — I had the wrong username. We hung up, connected on Skype, and found the connection unsatisfactory, for many reasons — lots of latency, lots of background noise on his end, and lots of dropouts. So we dropped the voice connection and went to chat, which worked fine…until he told me that he had to stop because he’d run through his paid-for Internet time! He suggested I phone his mobile late this afternoon (my time, 0200 his time!).

When I phoned him, I discovered that “free” wasn’t at all free for him. I’m used to the US model of broadband access — all you want for a flat monthly fee, available at home, at work, and now with my iPhone, almost anywhere (though EDGE isn’t really broadband). But in Kenya, things are different. His only consistent access to the Internet is through a mobile phone, at about 1 cent/megabyte; he can do dialup at a similar price, or go to an Internet cafe and compete with 30 other people for the broadband line out of the place. That’s what he was trying this morning — which explained the noise, the latency, and the dropouts, as well as the time limit.

Of course, my phone call wasn’t free to IBM — Kenya (and many other countries) treat incoming phone calls as an invisible export, and charge high rates (I don’t know what IBM pays, but my VoIP service at home would have charged me 55 cents/minute). But IBM can afford it.

I wonder how many other things I’ll discover during this relationship?