Freezing on the technological edge

Saturday, 27 January 1996

My grandfather's brother, shortly after he went blind, used to tell me of how he would sleep whenever possible so that he could see the sun in his dreams...

AS a 10-year-old, I didn't really understand what he meant. Now, as I sit typing these words, the thermometer on the sauna wall shows 80°C, and I am drenched in perspiration, but I still close my eyes to try to imagine the sun.

This is night time in Helsinki, Finland. I spent most of today at a city called Oulu, some 230 km south of the perpetual winter darkness of the Arctic circle.

Dawn broke at about 10.30 this morning and a brief spattering of yellow light slipped between the clouds to reveal a chillingly beautiful landscape shrouded in a blanket of snow and ice. Then it was gone.

Dusk came rapidly at about 3.30 this afternoon. I blinked, and it was dark. My psyche, which has been pulled out of the warm Durban summer, has been kicking and screaming in protest

It's easy to understand why people in these parts suffer winter depression, frequently leading to suicide. And why the buildings are shimmering masterpieces in chrome and glass that snatch and enhance every glimmer of natural light there is to be had from the unyielding sky.

But there are very good reasons to be here at this time. Oulu Technopolis is the world's northernmost science park and home to some of the world's best telecommunications and electronics technology.

A steady stream of Japanese and American technology industry executives make their way to Oulu to tap that technological expertise. Most of that business is conducted right here in the saunas.

There are important lessons for South Africa to be found in Oulu, especially in the light of Pallo Jordan's decision to not allow Telkom - our shining example of technical expertise and customer satisfaction - to be opened up to competition.

By the end of the last century, Russian tsars controlled much of Finnish territory and the Finns developed many local phone companies to guard against Russian influence.

In 1994, 47 of these companies banded together to challenge the government owned Telecom Finland, which had a monopoly on trunk calls. Four days after they were given permission to enter the market, the coalition snapped up 60% of the business. Today, Finland's phone rates are among the lowest in the world.

This is particularly interesting in the light of the ANC's belief that a break-up of Telkom SA's monopoly would not address the issue of providing telephone services to the masses.

Finland now has more Internet users per capita than the USA, which is not surprising given that commercial multimedia network rates are as low as a tenth of those in the US, Britain, and France.

Nokia, the cellular phone giant which has seen a 2000% growth over the past four years, is one of the better known examples of Finnish technology.

But there are over 100 other companies in Oulu filling technological niches that have provided jobs and generate close to R4 billion annually.

Some of these technologies are good examples of the ability to create new markets. Such as a personal pulse monitoring device that is targeted at professional athletes which can then be computer processed to produce personalised readouts to enable them to improve performance. The system is expensive, but the target market can afford it.

There is no reason why South Africa should not be in a similar position.

The frequency-hopping signalling technology used in those ubiquitous M-Net decoders could be used for encryption of regular voice and fax communication.

The helmet-mounted gunsight technology developed for the Alpha HX-1 helicopter gunship could be reverse engineered for virtual reality headsets.

In a nutshell, there are many technologies that were funded by apartheid and which could now be put to good use in establishing South Africa as a world technological presence.

We have thousands of bright matriculants who are unemployed. Perhaps it's worth investing the money now to make those come together.

We need innovation. That comes from competition. Breaking up the Telkom monopoly would be a good start.

And I'd much rather talk business under the South African sun, on Durban's beaches, than in the sauna.