Lost in the Fire

Do you have WiFi here? That was my first question.

When I’m travelling abroad I always ask the hotel receptionist whether there is any WiFi. I guess it is a little disingenuous of me because I’m not really asking if they have WiFi. I already know – else I wouldn’t stay there. I’m really asking whether the WiFi is included in the room rate or charged separately. Today, however, was a little different.

In Kabwe, which is situated between Lusaka and the Copperbelt, I am staying at the Luangwa Safari Lodge. Since I have an unexplained and absurd aversion to making hotel reservations, it was a good thing that my friend Rita booked this one. I implicitly trust Rita and I never called to ask about the WiFi.

This afternoon Rita and I arrived at our destination. Burkhart, an adventuring German man, and proprietor of the Lodge, greeted us with his amiable charm. After our mutual introductions, my first question was, you guessed it…

“Do you have WiFi here”?

Then it happened – for the first time in my life, the answer was ‘no’.

Surprise is one of those emotions that you cannot hide. In the end, It will expose you every single time. This was no exception. Judging from Burkart’s reponse, I knew that he knew that a million questions were racing through my head,

Although I couldn’t hide the surprise, I was trying to hide the fact that I felt like I’d been cut off from oxygen. Is this re-hab? Can this really be happening? No WiFi! I’m going to go into withdrawal. Quit cold-turkey? Really?

In those milliseconds of worry, I was suffering painful hours of anxiety. I tried to be very polite and I didn’t say anything at first, but my eyes widened and then just before I started hyperventilating, Burkhart looked at me and said, “we should have it by next week”. In silence, my voice shouted “I’ll be in Malawi next week – that doesn’t help me at all”! … and then he told me the rest of the story.

Last week, someone stole Burkhart’s WiFi. Nobody is piggy backing on his signal – there simply is no signal.

As you may well understand, unless someone steals your personal physical hardware, it is pretty hard to actually steel WiFi. I’ll tell you how in a moment, but first you need to know something about copper.

Zambia is one of the World’s biggest producers of copper – well they used to be. In 2001 the Zambian copper industry was privatized. The fall out of the privatization has been disastrous.  People here live in extreme poverty but they know the value of copper.

There is another piece of information you need to know. Copper wire is used in the vast majority of telecommunications cables both here and around the world. In Kabwe, a section of one of these lines, serving about 5000 people, is buried next to a maize field bordering the Luangwa Safari Lodge, where I am staying.

Last week, thieves hid in the maize field and cut that ASDL artery causing a massive data hemorrhage and starving the people from much needed data. Hungry for food and money, the thieves burned the wire using local firewood and melted the copper, likely selling it for about $100 dollars.

In this case, a personal asset has not been stolen; a public one has. It wasn’t just Burkhart’s WiFi that was stolen. The peoples’ WiFi was stolen… and so was mine.

Stories like this make it seem obvious that connectivity is a public utility. However, this is not a foregone conclusion. Only this past Thursday did the FCC choose to start treating big broadband providers as public utilities. More specifically, the FCC reclassified them as ‘telecommunications services” – a category created 81 years ago to allow heavy federal regulation of the evolving copper-wire telephone monopolies.

Funny how things run full-circle.

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