E.g., 09/29/2020
E.g., 09/29/2020

Should Africa Care About Net Neutrality?

By: Johan Botha (Director) - Folio Online

17 April 2018

Morning showers are the best time to think. Think about the day or week ahead, about things you need to start or complete, about your family, about what’s happening in the news, how you hate Mondays or, on a few occasions recently, just how on earth I am going to get this earworm that I woke up with out of my head.

But with Cape Town and surrounding areas suffering its worst drought in decades and the risk of us being the world’s first major city to run out of water, you have very little time to think. In fact, 45-60 seconds of continuously running water is the time most people aim for when they shower.

While brushing teeth and longing for a deep bubble bath you suddenly think about the guy who has enough money to install a multi-million-rand atmospheric water generator to make sure his access to water isn’t affected at all. He won’t ever be subjected to the lowering of water pressure, a drop in water quality, or indeed his taps running dry. In short, he has the best water that money can buy.

How could this very real analogy be applied to the language industry here in South Africa and the rest of Africa? How can it be applied to the infrastructure that language service providers (LSPs) and freelance resources rely on in their day-to-day existence?

In December 2017 America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to repeal the existing net neutrality rules that were instituted in 2015.*  These rules mandated internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently according to user, content, website, platform, application, or other variable. Shortly after the announcement countless articles were published defending or criticising the decision and one can discuss those for hours on end. This article discusses the possible consequences of the repeal of net neutrality for users on the African continent in general, and language service providers and translators in particular.  

Even though internet access has been an absolute necessity in our industry for a very long time it continues to be a serious problem on the African continent, with price and speed being the two dominant factors for those who have access. Some go so far as to say that access to the internet should be a basic human right (see http://bit.ly/1OcjLiL and http://read.bi/2a31aHd).  Even for the most rural freelancer or smallest LSP who wants to provide a service or compete on the global stage, access to the internet is non-negotiable. So if you are an LSP or freelance translator and you don’t have sufficient internet access, or your access is slow or very expensive, that would make it extremely difficult (and in many cases impossible) to succeed and grow.

With Africa’s 2,000 languages, its 1.2 billion inhabitants, and the ever-increasing number of companies and individuals seeing the tremendous potential of doing business in Africa and the benefit of speaking to people in their mother tongues, the need for language services to facilitate that expansion is growing exponentially. Companies wanting to break into this market have to be wary of numerous obstacles and find ways around them, or ways to not only ease the burden on translators with limited internet access, but also to make life for the person requiring the service a lot easier. It is in this sense that a decision, such as the one made by the FCC, might indeed have a big impact on translators in Africa. Not because the repeal of net neutrality would suddenly cause the internet to crash and leave people flailing in the dark, but because many ISPs in the rest of the world, and certainly in Africa where competition is less, take their cue from what ISPs are doing in the US.

Here in South Africa, which has for years been one of the top economies in Africa, the average internet speed in 2010 was only 1Mb/s, and after 6 years it is still below 7Mb/s. A quick check of the various internet packages for ADSL, fibre, 3G/4G and LTE provided to the general user in South Africa shows that internet speed hovers at around 1-2 Mb/s, with a data cap of 4 Gig per month. Once you reach your cap you need to pay more for data, sometimes at double the price of the initial data. Even with “uncapped” packages, there is still a so-called Fair Use Policy whereafter access speeds are throttled to 30-50% of the initial speed.

Though the lowering of internet speeds after data is depleted is certainly nothing new, many an ISP is looking at the repeal of net neutrality and making plans to build even better relationships with large corporations that are willing to pay increasingly higher tariffs for faster and prioritised internet access. Relationships that could have huge price increases for the individual end-user who needs quick, uninterrupted, and uncapped internet access, as well as easy (and affordable) access to online software and apps that are required to work in this industry.

In addition to slow internet speeds in many countries, Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most expensive cost per Mb of data in the world. Out-of-contract data is charged up to 2,000% more than in-contract data, which means that translators (those with actual access to the internet) who have to download huge files or access a multitude of client websites are on the back foot before they even start to earn a single cent from translation.

This in turn makes it even harder to overcome the stigma of unreliability and slow response times that African translators are desperately trying to shake. This is especially true with the upsurge in interactions that everyone in our industry will encounter with Neural Machine Translation (NMT), Machine Translation Post-editing (MTPE), Translation Management Systems (TMS), transcreation and the ever increase in digital content, which demand quick response times and an always-on internet connection.

Because US service providers such as AT&T and Comcast are so powerful, smaller ISPs in America have to invariably run their data through these big companies, meaning competition is being stifled and big companies have undue control over the speed that certain data and certain services have. So, even if a country is 100% committed to net neutrality, much of the information, research, training, access to client portals, and other resources that translators in Africa (and the rest of the world) use every day, originate and have to run through a few big ISPs based in America. As a result, everything these companies do invariably affects a very large portion of users around the world.  

For example, if an ISP provides you with quicker and cheaper access to a huge video site and slower access to other video content (perhaps an ISP hosting GALA’s webinars?), is it far-fetched to say that they are independently deciding and controlling who sees what on the internet?

Translators would only know about the big players in the industry, their tools, their research, and their training. They may buy a certain extremely expensive tool because, due to low visibility, they do not realise that there is a much cheaper or even open-source alternative that can do exactly the same things. This in turn further stifles competition.

So how can LSPs, researchers, industry players, translators, and clients who want to work in Africa help one another?

  1. Be cognisant of the impact that the repeal of net neutrality in the U.S. has on the rest of the world, especially on those African countries where there are only a very small number of ISPs.
  2. Discuss word and hourly rates and don’t expect rates in Africa to be cheaper just because it is Africa. People who provide language services sometimes have to pay three times more for data and internet access than someone in Europe.
  3. Research what translator tools perform best in each country and try to use those as much as possible, be it browsers, online CAT tools, and TMS systems that use less data and are quicker due to more data centres, or video sites and apps needed for research or testing.
  4. Use Instant Messaging services like WhatsApp or VoIP services on cellphones for urgent communication, instead of sending a project via e-mail and hoping for a prompt response. The translator’s internet could be down, but their cellphones rarely are.
  5. All stakeholders in the industry should work together and try to find a (single?) universal file format for CAT and TMS tools, so the industry can focus on language services instead of learning and paying for many different tools each time they work for a new client. Even with XLIFF, many CAT tools use proprietary XLIFF, or one needs yet another tool to handle conversions that often cause errors when converted back.
  6. And lastly, is it really necessary to zip 50 languages and place them together in one location for everyone to download the 1 Gig file to just get one specific language? It might take a translator with very slow internet a whole day to download the file - a whole day that is lost to the client.

* There is a strong backlash against the decision and at the time of writing this article the #OneMoreVote movement was trending strongly on Twitter.