Monthly Archives: May 2008

My take on Xenophobia

It’s the biggest word in most tag clouds in the SA blogosphere at the moment. I think it’s more about hate and desperation than fear.. as the buzzword suggests. Bad news sells, but like most bad news.. in a week or three nobody will really remember.

Yapping about the problem in blog posts can get some international press attention, but that’s about as affective as international pressure on Zim. There is no quick fix.

The solution is to make sure you vote next time you have the opportunity. Vote for Helen Zille and the DA.

Have a nice Friday kids.

Story Series Part 3 : Amobia

From the Story series..

The brief history of Amobia.

Before Amobia was founded

Early in 2002 David Jarvis contacted Joe after finding his personal homepage, looking for Linux geeks to help him build a wireless network in Cape Town. It sounded like a fun challenge, so Frogfoot started doing consulting work for Uninet.

We did network design, routing, QoS, proxy servers, VSAT configs for DVB decoder cards, weird and wonderful asymmetric source routing hacks, some Mikrotik configs, BGP routing etc.

David had just returned from Mozambique where he had built a similar network. This was an interesting time for outdoor wireless networks in South Africa because of the regulatory challenges and questions about the legality of building wireless network infrastructure. It was not even legal to use VoIP back then. A group called Megawan had attempted building wireless networks before and were shut down by the telecoms regulator. In many ways this was the wireless wild west and we knew a few of the cowboys.

We liked the new wireless toys, it was interesting technology and using it was legal in most parts of the civilised world. It was easy to argue that using it was “for the common good”.. and best of all, there was demand, which provided rapid growth opportunities. People were not happy with the incumbent monopoly telco and ADSL services were expensive.

Uninet was routing most of its outgoing and local traffic via Frogfoot’s network at the time and using a big VSAT dish for incoming international traffic. Frogfoot built a Linux QoS server for Uninet. This allowed Uninet to offer always on, rate based internet access at a good price.. an attractive value proposition.

We saw the whole evolution of outdoor wifi.. from PCMCIA cards in Windows PCs (crazy as it may seem) with long antenna cable runs, then simple (dumb) bridge devices, PPPoE, 2.4Ghz 802.11b, then the first wireless CPE routers, followed by 5.8Ghz 802.11a and eventually custom (managed) CPEs. (Customer Premises Equipment).

Frogfoot developed an embedded Linux CPE operating system, which later became the Blio CPE software.

We were happy to be the geeks in the background. David was a true pioneer.

A possible merger, Amobia version 0.1

In late 2004 it was announced that the legal landscape would change. VANS would be allowed to use VoIP as of 1 February 2005 and there were strong indications that VANS would be allowed to build their own networks. Actually I think it was announced that VANS could self provide at that point, but ICASA and the DoC seemed happy to maintain a state of uncertainty.

We started talking about a Frogfoot and Uninet merger. There was talk of using the Amobia brand for the new company. We never managed to make this idea work. Maybe the two company cultures just did not match.

The Amobia Brand

Joe came up with the Amobia name. It has a reference to the amoeba cell based organism. This was the third swimming animal brand… frogs, moon jellies and amoebae.

The Amobia logo was created by a designer we hired at the time.

The mustard yellow, black and burgundy red company colours were inspired by Joe’s favourite wine at the time: Waterford Kevin Arnold Shiraz 2002/2003.

Amobia Communications (Pty) Ltd. was registered in 2003.

Amobia version 1.0

After the Uninet merger idea did not work out.. we parted ways in a spirit of friendly competition. A few months went by and we found ourselves past the Feb 2005 date.

We wanted to build a wireless network to leapfrog the existing wireless providers with a “greenfields” deployment. Do it right, from the start. All 5.8Ghz, no legacy 2.4Ghz equipment.. fully redundant routing, dual backbone routers per site, a 3 layer network with a private IP network for management and a secure VPN layer. No PPPoE. A portal to manage configuration and field-upgradable CPE software. Simple.

“..there has been no case in history where the pioneer became the dominant producer, whether you are talking about a business or a science. The most successful innovators are the creative imitators, the Number Two.”

Frogfoot had the knowledge to design and manage networks, but let’s face it.. we were geeks with skinny touch typing wrists. We needed some muscle on the ground to physically build wireless networks. At one point we tried tracking down an old spearfishing contact, then a paratrooper turned sysadmin.

We started talking to one of Frogfoot’s oldest clients about the idea: Cape PC Services. They were interested. We had a meeting and we started building the new company. It was a simple 50/50 deal.. over a handshake you could say.

Frogfoot would contribute, existing knowledge, management systems, design, marketing, sales and support. CPCS would contribute, network deployment, installation team management, billing and operational things.

We connected our first client in Nov 2005.

Early on we had the vision that wireless is not perfect and it’s hard to get right, but we would engineer systems around the technology to make it work. A wireless network fit for the the African continent.

Fast forward

Amobia received a VANS license. In 2006 a letter from ICASA made 15 wireless providers form WAPA. Amobia and WAPA found a super hero lawyer: Dominic Cull. Amobia connected 100 schools for the SchoolWAN project. We managed to attract a number of big corporate businesses as clients, mostly through our “can do” problem solving attitude. Amobia’s franchise model was a success. Amobia was included in the Individual ECNS license conversion process and we had some fun writing an 80+ page business plan in 5 days. WAPA and Amobia initiated high court legal action asking for a declaratory order on the rights of VANS to self-provide network infrastructure. Amobia now has infrastructure in Gauteng, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Province. We’re about to launch a wifi hotspot service as our “last yard” distribution model.

Our next major challenges are to get an ECNS license, maybe raise some money and grow the franchise business.

It’s not easy running a telecommunications infrastructure business in South Africa, but it’s very rewarding watching it grow and seeing the impact it can have.

Rock ‘n Roll.

I sold my shares in Amobia in early 2010.

WP CPT Meetup and GeekDinner

Turned out I was a bit too lazy to prepare two talks.. so I only gave a talk at the WordPress meetup and not the GeekDinner.

Here are my WordPress Security talk slides.

The WordPress meetup was fun. Way more people there than last time and I have a new tshirt.

The GeekDinner was cool, nice venue, tasty food and a good turnout of people for a rainy night it Cape Town. Thanks Mel, thanks Perdeberg.

I’ll put up some photos later.

Amobia Interview with Business Opportunities Mazagine

John Thwaits, technology journalist for BizAssist Technologies interviewed me about Amobia. The article should be in Business Opportunities magazine soon. I asked him if I could publish an online version here..

Amobia Communications Broadens the Wireless Horizon

Amobia Communications builds wireless networks to bridge the last mile gap. They have pioneered an innovative way to deploy wireless access networks and offer high speed wireless broadband services.

Amobia’s focus is on the emerging need for cost effective connectivity which can be rapidly installed. Amobia’s offering is the first practical alternative to Telkom’s Diginet leased line service. They have quickly built up a client list of “blue chip” companies simply because their clients prefer dealing with a smaller and more dynamic networking company.

The company has recently had growing media attention with the launch of it’s Johannesburg network, its contribution to a project to connect 100 schools wirelessly (SchoolWAN) and it’s part in the ongoing high court legal action to fight for the rights of smaller network operators to build their own network infrastructure. Johann Botha, one of Amobia’s directors speaks to BizAssist telling us more about their business.

How does Amobia differ from other wireless internet service providers?

Amobia’s wireless technology is cost effective enough to allow us to build network infrastructure with an organic business model. We have a vision of empowering local entrepreneurs to build and grow the Amobia network through a franchising model. Amobia has an inclusive business model, providing only infrastructure services in the business market. This allows us to partner with other ISPs to provide internet access to their customers.

When did you roll out your network?

We’ve been involved in the outdoor wireless business since 2002, but Amobia only built it’s own network in 2005. We connected our first customer in October 2005.

How does a client go about connecting to your service?

We install a CPE (Customer Premises Equipment) unit on a clients’ roof. The CPE device consists of a wireless transceiver with an integrated antenna unit, as well as a router board running our own custom embedded Linux operating system. Our software allows us to update and monitor the equipment remotely. The customer connects via a standard Ethernet point inside the building. Clients usually add a Wifi access point to create and indoor wireless LAN.

What is a ‘Last Mile’ connection?

‘Last mile’ or ‘local loop’, is a term used in building access networks. It’s basically how we distribute connectivity from a point of high density, usually an exchange or data centre, to the end user’s home or office. ADSL is another example of a last mile technology.

Is it your vision to establish a wirelessly connected city such as the metro-wifi projects in cities like Los Angeles?

We’re currently focusing on being an outdoor fixed wireless service provider, but we have plans for wifi hotspots as part of our “last yard” distribution model. We are about to launch a wifi hotspot offering after a pilot project with a network of about 50 hotspots performed very well in the town of Potchefstroom.

Is it a broader reaching alternative to WiMAX?

Yes, to an extent. WiMAX is also an outdoor wireless technology, but it’s not nearly as cost effective as Amobia’s technology. We offer solutions that will also benefit customers who are in remote locations and cannot receive mainstream internet access.

Would you offer wireless equivalents to compete with Telkom’s fixed line voice services?

Many of our clients use our wireless services for VoIP, but we don’t officially support voice services on our network at the moment.

Are you using Telkom’s Infrastructure or do you have your own?

We operate our own ‘last mile’ network, but we use Telkom’s services for the internet access side of our business.

What franchise opportunities do you offer?

Amobia has a successful franchise model for building networks outside metropolitan areas. We essentially packaged all the technology and systems we developed and created a business opportunity for entrepreneurs to provide a viable alternative to Telkom in their own communities.

Johann Botha is a founder and a director for Amobia Communications (Pty) Ltd. and chairman of the Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA).

More info:

Online version on BizAssist Website
Print version will be in the next copy of Business Opportunities magazine.

New Photo Album Theme

Spot the difference..

The Old and the New

Pics are from..
Lions Head, Barcelona (2), Cape Town (2), Miam Miam, Bordeaux.

ps. You’ll only be able to see the change until I run my album sync script again on Monday.

Quick Update

Snapshot from the life of Joe..

  • Today: Had a chill Sunday. Went for a walk around Mouille Point. Ended up in Caffe Neo and stuffed myself with a very nice salad selection. I updated the WAPA website. I discovered the best things since sliced bread.. raisin and cinnamon sliced bread. It’s like a big hot cross bun. Yummy.
  • Yesterday: Spent time with The Mia. Took her along to gym for the first time. She can bench 80kg.. no, not really.. but she liked the kids play area. Ended up in Somerset West for a friend’s going-away drinks session. One more person going to London. I generally think Somerset West is pretty lame.. “it’s like a wax museum with a pulse”, but Henry’s is not a bad bar.
  • Last week I had some fun getting articles about Frogfoot, Amobia and WAPA published. I attended an ISPA meeting and a WAPA committee meeting. Had an Interesnting meeting with a metro-wifi equipment vendor. With a bit of luck we’ll be doing a fairly large scale wifi hotspot pilot project soon. The metro-wifi kit uses some phased beam array antenna technology… getting new toys soon.
  • Dr. Strangelove announced he is getting married, in the Cape Town area, in October.
  • I’ve come to realise that a large percentage of the world’s popular music is about romantic relationships that ended.
  • Had a relaxed lunch at Neetlingshof last week. It’s a nice Sunday lunch spot.
  • This coming week we have the next WordPress Cape Town Meetup and the May GeekDinner. I still need to prepare two talks.
  • Then, this coming Friday I have a “leaving Stellenbosch” party. Seems my last good reason to gallivant around Stellenbosch is moving to Cape Town. End of an era.

Have a fun week.

iBurst, Vodacom and Amobia technologies

Somebody emailed me saying they’re interestend in Amobia’s Broadband service but.. they were an iBurst customer for a while, they are now a Vodacom customer and because of all the hardware costs involved they can’t really motivate another switch.

I think this points to high levels of confusion in the market. It seems people marketing “broadband” are in an arms race to create expectations. It’s a case of over promise, under deliver.

I guess Sentech MyWireless was the master of this tactic.

I responded with a simple comparison (fundamental differences) of these options:

Vodacom – mobile, non-line of sight (3G / HSDPA)
iBurst – nomadic, mostly non-line of sight (depends or where you are)
Amobia – fixed, requires line of sight (outdoor fixed wireless)

Amobia provides a fixed, single location service (think ADSL without the copper wire), but because our technology requires line of sight (to the access point) speeds are much more stable and predictable. When we say 2Mbps, it’s 2Mbps.

There are other factors to consider, like over-subscription ratios on available frequency spectrum resources (number of people connecting to a “tower”), upstream internet and peering links.. but the above is a very practical differentiation.

Hope that helps.

Update: Upload Speed
Another point to compare is upload speed. Services like 3G and ADSL often make the assumption that users only want good speeds in the download direction and limit upload speeds. Amobia offers the same speed in both directions.

MP and the DoC not singing the same tune on VANS self provisioning

Just to make the VANS self provisioning debate a bit more interesting, We have two peculiar opposing views… all in the space of 48 hours.


In addition to the announcements on new operators, Khumalo also said government wanted VANS to be allowed to self-provide and that the frequency spectrum allocation would be made more efficient.

— ANC MP and member of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications Khotso Khumalo


Yesterday the DoC sent a fax addressed to WAPA and Amobia giving notice of their intention to oppose the WAPA self provisioning case.

The deadline was yesterday (21st). ICASA missed the deadline and have not responded yet.

With a bit of luck maybe ICASA and Khumalo are on the same page and only the DoC is in the dark, but for now we need to assume that it’s not going to be a trivial process to show that VANS may self-provide.

..even though it is trivial to know what the correct answer is. Let’s roll.