South Sudan Dispute With Mobile Firm Disrupts Service

Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese remained without mobile phone service Friday, as network operator Vivacell continued a standoff with the government over a licensing dispute.

The government cut the network’s signal to its roughly 900,000 subscribers just after midnight Tuesday, alleging that Vivacell owed tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees.

The government’s information minister, Michael Makuei, told VOA earlier this week that Vivacell previously had been exempted from taxes and licensing fees. “We want them to pay a sum of up to $66 million for their license, and up to now they are dragging their feet,” he said.

The licensing fee dispute underscores the mounting financial pressures facing the government in a country ravaged by civil war since late 2013.

Ruling party holds Vivacell stake

Pagan Amum – the former secretary general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the country’s ruling party – said Vivacell already pays for a valid license it has held for years. “There is no way Vivacell can be required to pay for another license,” he told VOA’s “South Sudan in Focus” radio program on Thursday.

Amum said that, as secretary general, he had helped negotiate the original deal with Lebanon’s Fattouch Investment Group – Vivacell’s majority owner – giving the SPLM party a minority share in the telecom firm. 

Vivacell has operated in South Sudan since 2008 under a license issued to the SPLM, Amum said. He added that, since 2012, the ruling SPLM has received $100,000 a month from Vivacell for licensing fees.

Vivacell officials went to Makuei’s office earlier this week in an attempt to negotiate, but he refused a meeting, the firm’s managing director, Jesus Antonio Ortiz Olivo, told Reuters on Wednesday. 

Makuei, in media interviews this week, has expressed a desire “to reorganize the telecommunications sector.” 

Low cellphone penetration rate

Mobile phone subscription rates have been falling in South Sudan, and telecom-sector operators “are placing themselves in survival mode and are hoping for a political settlement and a return to some degree of social stability,” the telecommunications research site BuddeComm reported in February.

BuddeCom said South Sudan has one of Africa’s lowest rates of cellphone penetration, at 21 percent, noting that recovery could bring “potentially many years of strong growth” to the sector.

South Sudan’s regulatory Communications Authority estimates the country’s entire telecom market – also served by South Africa’s MTN and Kuwait’s Zain – has fewer than 3 million subscribers, according to Reuters.

Complications for customers, clients

On Wednesday in the capital city, Juba, long lines formed at mobile phone stores where people waited to buy new subscriber identification module (SIM) cards from Vivacell competitors.

Vivacell subscriber Ever Fanusto said the sudden shutdown cut her off from friends and relatives, including those living overseas.

“I used to call my elder brother who is in America and now we have been disconnected with him,” Fanusto said. She added that it would be a challenge to retrieve her contacts’ information and load it onto a new SIM card.

In a notice published Wednesday, Vivacell informed its subscribers that the company was working with national authorities to resolve the matter and that it hoped to resume business soon in South Sudan. Otherwise, the company said it would set up “a clear mechanism” for reimbursing dealers, retailers and agents for their SIM card stocks.


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Amid Flood of Chinese Products, India Wants Fairness

Sampad Yadav, who sells electrical goods in a shop in the business hub of Gurugram on the outskirts of New Delhi, says Chinese goods such as LED lamps are popular with customers. “When people make a price comparison, and want to move towards the cheapest goods, those are usually Chinese products.”

 

As in many other countries, Chinese products such as lamps, electronics, smartphones and engineering goods from the manufacturing giant have flooded Indian markets.

 

However India has long fretted that areas in which it is strong such as generic drugs and Information Technology services, which make up some of its main exports to Western markets, remain shut out of China. That has made it difficult to bridge a ballooning trade deficit of about $50 billion between the two countries.

 

But there is optimism this could change following a meeting this week between the commerce ministers of the two countries in New Delhi.

 

“The Chinese side have agreed to work on the issue, prepare a road map to bring the trade to balanced level over a period of time,” Indian Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu said after discussions with his Chinese counterpart, Zhong Shan.

 

Trade experts hope the growing tensions on trade issues between the United States and China will prompt Beijing to open up its markets more to Indian exports. “I think China is definitely under pressure now, looking into the kind of initiation which has happened against China,” says Ajay Sahai, who heads the Federation of Indian Exports Organization.

 

The meeting between the Indian and Chinese commerce ministers this week came amid efforts to deescalate tensions between the Asian neighbors following a period of rocky ties and a tense 70-day face-off between their troops in the Himalayas last year.

Despite a long-lingering boundary dispute and an often-fraught diplomatic relationship, trade ties between the Asian giants have gained significant momentum and China is now India’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade in 2017 topped $80 billion rising by more than 20 percent over the previous yea.

 

But worryingly for New Delhi, the trade deficit remains high despite a marginal growth in Indian exports – they add up to about $16 billion versus Chinese imports into India of about $68 billion.

 

Market access a key issue

India exports mainly raw materials like iron ore, copper and cotton yarn to China. “In whatever value added exports where we are competitive, unfortunately the market is not open for us,” says Sahai.

 

However China has promised to give greater market access to Indian goods, particularly pharmaceuticals and agricultural goods such as rice, as well as service exports, according to the Indian commerce minister. “They have decided to work in a way that will address security issues from their side as well as introduce Indian companies to those who can buy these products in China,” says Prabhu.

 

New Delhi, which is trying to ramp up domestic manufacturing, is also urging China to manufacture more goods exported to India within the country.

Whether the promised actions translate into concrete outcomes remains to be seen. But exporters are hopeful. Sahai points out that China has invited Indian traders to what is being billed as the country’s first importers fair to be held in Shanghai later this year – it is being showcased as a measure to further open up China’s market.

 

The positive tenor of talks between the two countries comes days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to impose tariffs on Chinese imports valued at $60 billion.

 

New Delhi could also face U.S. ire on trade issues – although its exports to the United States are comparatively small, it has a high trade deficit in its favor and Washington has often complained of protectionist barriers in India. In February, Trump called out India for imposing higher duties on Harley-Davidson motorcycles than the U.S. does on Indian motorbikes.

 

Amid growing fears that global trade faces uncertain times, analysts have called on countries like India to focus on increasing trade within the region.   

 

India and China also said they will strengthen cooperation in the World Trade Organization and other multilateral and regional frameworks to maintain their common interests.


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Vietnam Stands to See Modest Wins if China, U.S. Start Trade War

A wider Sino-U.S. trade dispute would help export-reliant Vietnam compete against Chinese companies but put the country at risk of any global fallout, analysts say.

The numerous exporters in Vietnam that ship manufactured goods to the United States would save money compared with Chinese peers if not subject to American tariffs, said Dustin Daugherty, senior associate with business consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates in Ho Chi Minh City.

The U.S. government said this month it would develop a list of tariffs on up to $60 billion in Chinese imports. China has threatened to impose its own in response.

“Let’s say (the United States) went the more traditional route, tensions kept escalating and more tariffs are slapped on Chinese products,” Daugherty said. “In that case Vietnam’s export sector definitely benefits. We’re already seeing the U.S. being very warm to Vietnam and U.S. businesses keen on doing business with Vietnam.”

But Chinese firms hit by tariffs might flood Vietnam with raw materials for local manufacturing, while overall world market volatility caused by a Sino-U.S. trade dispute could hamper the country’s trade, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

​A tariff-free Vietnam scenario

Vietnamese exporters would save money compared to their Chinese peers if the U.S. government placed tariffs on Chinese firms alone without touching their cross-border supply chains, Daugherty said.

The government of U.S. President Donald Trump calls China unfair in its trade practices, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says on its website. China enjoys a $375 billion trade surplus with the United States.

Vietnam counts the United States as its top single-country export destination and it shipped $46.484 billion worth of goods to that market last year.

Vietnamese officials have carved out an investment environment since the 1980s that hinges on low costs for manufacturers. American-invested factories such as a Ford Motor plant and an Intel chip factory are among those active in Vietnam today.

Foreign investment contributed to exports worth $155.24 billion in 2017, financial services firm SSI Research in Hanoi says. Vietnam’s economy grew about 7 percent in the first quarter this year, it says.

Attractive investment

Vietnam would be a more attractive investment compared with China under higher U.S. tariffs, analysts say.

Some new investors might be formerly China-based firms hoping to flee the tariffs, said Song Seng Wun, an economist in the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore.

China itself might offer Vietnam, along with other countries, preferential trade policies or infrastructure help to shore up trade ties, some believe. Stronger trade relations outside the United States would help China offset any tariff damage, Daugherty said.

This week China’s commerce minister pledged to relax trade rules affecting India.

​Specter of a broader trade war

U.S. import tariffs that hit China’s extensive cross-border supply chain would hurt Vietnam as a place that finishes Chinese goods for final export, Thayer said. It’s unclear whether Washington would tax Chinese firms alone or their wider supply networks.

Chinese firms already co-invest with Vietnamese partners, Song said, and supply chains for goods such as consumer electronics can net multiple countries, not just China.

More co-investment might follow if Vietnam can offer shelter from tariffs. But Sino-Vietnamese political tension over a maritime dispute risks giving Vietnamese firms a bad name at home if they work too extensively with Chinese partners.

“I would say there will be all kinds of repercussions and implications just because of the very integrated supply chain in the world these days,” Song said. “Take an Apple phone as an example. Parts from here and there are assembled in China.”

Steel, aluminum tariffs

U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs that took effect last week cover much of the world including China and Vietnam. Vietnam exported 380,000 tons of steel, worth $303 million, to the United States in 2017, domestic news website VnExpress International says.

Chinese firms hit by the range of tariffs being mulled now in Washington might boost sales to Vietnam, Thayer said. Chinese sellers of raw materials for Vietnamese exports could dump goods into Vietnam to keep up their own balance sheets as U.S. tariffs hurt them, he added.

Chinese sellers often have an economy of scale that lets them sell for less in Vietnam than local vendors do. Vietnam counts China as its top trading partner.

An escalation of Sino-U.S. trade tensions could also chill global markets or trade as a whole, some analysts fear. That fallout could slow global growth, he said.

“Disruption to trade shouldn’t affect Vietnam overall, but it’s the way the entire globe is reacting to this that I think could affect Vietnam,” he said. “Vietnam is overall heavily committed to global integration with a number of partners, so disruption along that way would have an effect.”


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Rivers and Tides Can Provide Affordable Power

While wind turbines and solar cells generate power only when there is wind and sun, most rivers always flow and most ocean shores always experience tidal currents. At a recent energy summit organized by the U.S. Energy Department, a company from Maine displayed an innovative submersible generator that effectively harvests power from shallow rivers and tidal currents. VOA’s George Putic has more.


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Despite Setbacks, Automakers Move Forward with Electric and Self-Driving Cars

A recent fatality involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars may have created uncertainty and doubt regarding the future of autonomous vehicles, but it’s not stopping automakers who say autonomous and self-driving vehicles are here to stay. At the New York International Auto Show this week, autonomous vehicles and electric cars were increasingly front and center as VOA’s Tina Trinh reports.


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Tech Giants Tackle Online Wildlife Trafficking

A new coalition of tech giants and conservationists is looking to drastically reduce the amount of wild, and often endangered, animals that are trafficked via online services. As Veronica Balderas Iglesias reports, they hope to cut 80 percent of the illegal trade by the end of the decade.


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Under Armour: 150 Million Fitness App Accounts Breached

Under Armour Inc. said Thursday that data from 150 million MyFitnessPal diet and fitness app accounts were compromised in February, in one of the biggest hacks in history, sending shares of the athletic apparel maker down 3 percent in after-hours trade.

The stolen data include account user names, email addresses and scrambled passwords for the popular MyFitnessPal mobile app and website, Under Armour said in a statement. Social Security numbers, driver license numbers and payment card data were not compromised, it said.

It is the largest data breach this year and one of the top five to date, based on the number of records compromised, according to SecurityScorecard, a cybersecurity rating and remediation company.

Larger hacks include 3 billion Yahoo accounts compromised in a 2013 incident and credentials for more than 412 million users of adult websites run by California-based FriendFinder Networks Inc. in 2016, according to breach notification website LeakedSource.com.

Under Armour said it was working with data security firms and law enforcement, but it did not provide details of how the hackers got into its network or pulled out the data without getting caught.

While the breach did not include financial data, large troves of stolen email addresses can be valuable to cybercriminals.

Email addresses retrieved in a 2014 attack that compromised data on 83 million JPMorgan Chase customers were later used in schemes to boost stock prices, according to U.S. federal indictments in the case in 2015.

Under Armor said in an alert on its website that it would require MyFitnessPal users to change their passwords, and it urged users to do so immediately.

“We continue to monitor for suspicious activity and to coordinate with law enforcement authorities,” the company said, adding that it was bolstering systems that detect and prevent unauthorized access to user information.

Under Armour said it started notifying users of the breach Thursday, four days after it learned of the incident.

Under Armour bought MyFitnessPal in 2015 for $475 million.

It is part of the company’s connected fitness division, whose revenue last year accounted for 1.8 percent of Under Armour’s $5 billion in total sales. 


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Facebook’s Zuckerberg Disavows Memo Saying All User Growth Is Good

A Facebook Inc. executive said in an internal memo in 2016 that the social media company needed to pursue adding users above all else, BuzzFeed

News reported Thursday, prompting disavowals from the executive and Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg.

The memo from Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice president, had not been previously reported as Facebook faces inquiries over how it handles personal information and the tactics the social media company has used to grow to 2.1 billion users.

Zuckerberg stood by Bosworth, who goes by the nickname “Boz,” while distancing himself from the memo’s contents.

Bosworth confirmed the memo’s authenticity but in a statement he disavowed its message, saying its goal had been to encourage debate.

Facebook users, advertisers and investors have been in an uproar for months over a series of scandals, most recently privacy practices that allowed political consultancy Cambridge Analytica to obtain personal information on 50 million Facebook members. Zuckerberg is expected to testify at a hearing with U.S. lawmakers as soon as April.

​’Provocative’ statements

“Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things. This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We’ve never believed the ends justify the means,” Zuckerberg said in a statement.

Bosworth wrote in the June 2016 memo that some “questionable” practices were all right if the result was connecting people.

“That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends,” he wrote in the memo, which BuzzFeed published on its website.

He also urged fellow employees not to let potential negatives slow them down.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people,” he wrote.

Bosworth said Thursday that he did not agree with the post today “and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.

“Having a debate around hard topics like these is a critical part of our process and to do that effectively we have to be able to consider even bad ideas, if only to eliminate them,” Bosworth’s statement said.


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US, Canada Differ on Quick NAFTA Resolution

The Trump administration is hopeful it can reach a deal on a new North American Free Trade Agreement before the July 1 presidential election in Mexico and U.S. midterm congressional elections in November.

“I’d say I’m hopeful — I think we are making progress. I think that all three parties want to move forward. We have a short window, because of elections and things beyond our control,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told CNBC television Wednesday.

But Canada’s chief negotiator was far less optimistic.

“We have yet to see exactly what the U.S. means by an agreement in principle,” Steve Verheul told reporters Wednesday in Ottawa. There are still “significant gaps,” Verheul said. “We can accomplish quite a bit between now and then, and we’ve made it clear to the U.S. that we will be prepared to negotiate at any time, any place, for as long as they are prepared to negotiate, but so far we haven’t really seen that process get going,” he said.

Officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico are supposed to meet in the United States next month for the eighth round of talks, although Washington has not announced dates yet.


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Entrepreuneur: ‘Turning Plastic Waste into Usable Items in the Fight Against Pollution’

A Nigerian entrepreneur is turning plastic waste into rain coats, school bags, car covers and shoes. He says he is doing his part to fight pollution and encourage recycling while making a practical fashion statement. But not everyone is buying into it. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.


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