UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
A Review as at June 1992
Mark Bennett Director, Computer Centre, University of Zambia Email: Mark.Bennett@f1.n761.z5.fidonet.org
The use of electronic mail in Zambia appears to be a recent phenomenon compared to some other countries in the region (for example Zimbabwe or Kenya), but the telecommunications infrastructure is sufficiently stable and advanced for the steps which are now being taken to give rise to optimism for its quick growth in the future.
As in most countries there have for some time been individu- als, particularly expatriates, who have been using their own computers to dial in to e-mail services elsewhere in the world, especially through the UK. A number of foreign jour- nalists also use such services, as was witnessed during last year's elections in the country. Equally, organisations with international connections are starting to make some one-to- one connections (eg. some development agencies - such as those now involved in assisting with the drought crisis - and research bodies), but most are still looking to a cen- tralised service to be provided.
This short report will describe the two e-mail / conferenc- ing systems being developed separately by the University of Zambia and by a group of non-governmental organisations. Both systems are FidoNet-based and are using FrontDoor software.
In addition, reference will be made to the HealthNet satel- lite-based communications system being introduced for medi- cal personnel.
1.2 Telecommunications Infrastructure
The telephone system within Lusaka and the cities of the Copperbelt are relatively good by regional standards, with a growing number of digital exchanges now in operation. Phone connections within Lusaka are acceptable for data communications, and although the rainy season brings its problems these are generally of a short-term nature.
International connections vary depending on the destination. Lines to the UK and USA (being carried on a direct satellite link) are of a good quality, and although traffic is con- gested from certain exchanges, there is no problem in ob- taining data quality lines (of at least 2400 baud) to the UK outside working hours. Lines to Harare, Zimbabwe, are also acceptable for data traffic and relatively easily obtained. Lines to South Africa are more difficult to obtain, but South Africa can make contact with Zambia much more easily (incoming international calls experience less congestion due to switch allocation). Again data rates of 2400 baud are regularly used and higher rates up to 9600 baud are expected to be possible. Lines to Kenya (which are routed through Tanzania) suffer from considerable congestion. They can be obtained during the day through the operator, and occasion- ally at night by IDD for computer use. Quality is variable. Determination of other possible routes has yet to take place, but the above mentioned form the most useful links and could in turn be used to route messages elsewhere. It is not expected that other regional links will provide easy
connections: some countries do not have international IDD; some have links with Europe based on infrastructures put in place during the colonial period. Hence lengthy routing.
In any instance the major drawback on the use of the inter- national telephone network from within Zambia is the cost, which has been artificially inflated by the PTC to discour- age outgoing calls and the consequent loss of foreign ex- change. A one minute call to Europe is charged at the local equivalent of US$7 per minute (there being no cheap rate period). Regional calls are about half that figure. Since this means that a senior computer programmer at the Univer- sity, for example, could be employed for one month for the same cost as a 15 minute phone call to the UK, there is clearly a considerable disincentive to unbridled expansion of conventional e-mail systems, and maximising the number of incoming calls (rather than outgoing) is a priority. Experi- mentation with 9600 baud lines to South Africa is also due to begin shortly as another potential cost-saving measure.
There is no packet-switching in the country at present, although the Zambian PTC have recently undertaken a study (in conjunction with British Telecom) to determine the demand for such facilities, and are, in outline, committed to the eventual introduction of X.25. This should also lead to a downturn in costs to e-mail users, although the priori- ty for the PTT is clearly to provide service for the commer- cial sector.
2. The University of Zambia
2.1 Conventional E-mail
The University of Zambia (Unza) is the major university in the country, with 9 main faculties; a full-time student population of some 4,500 and an academic staff of around 450.
The University has joined an IDRC (Canada) funded research project to establish the feasibilities of electronic commu- nication with a five university grouping within the region; the other universities being those of Zimbabwe, Dar-es- Salaam (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya) and Makerere (Uganda). Several workshops have been held to map out the strategy for the system to be known as ESANET (Eastern and Southern African Network). The system is to be based around one PC (as the 'hub') at each university.
The optimum channels of communication have yet to be estab- lished, and not all sites are operational, although should be by mid 1992. However Unza has been running a trial system for some 9 months, and has launched it 'officially' for use by the academic community. This has also included the hold- ing of a number of seminars and publishing newsletters and information on the advantages and uses of the system.
Originally all mail was routed through GreenNet in London and the gateways there allowed the University to have an InterNet as well as a fido address (mail coming though the gnFido gateway). This proved effective but was very expen- sive to run due to the high telephone costs.
The GreenNet connection has now been phased out in favour of routing through Rhodes University in South Africa. The political climate had originally ruled out ESANET links
through South Africa but the gradual dismantling of apart- heid has lead the Commonwealth leaders (and later the UN) to accept the desirability of academic links, and the UNINET system in South Africa formally approached Unza with a view to cooperation in promoting regional information exchange.
Rhodes University, on behalf of UNINET, then generously offered (at least on a medium-term basis) to bear the cost of sufficient polls each day to allow picking and dropping of mail which would be routed either into UNINET or to the wider InterNet (or, of course, to FidoNet and the APC net- works). Rhodes are currently polling some three times a day and effectively providing a free e-mail service to Unza.
The University of Zambia operates FrontDoor software and its InterNet address is 'email@example.com'.
With the service operating at 2400 baud a throughput rate of some 220cps is averaged (data compression also being used to improve the base figure). It is hoped that the introduction of a 9600 Trailblazer in the very near future will bring costs down substantially.
At present all messages are centrally handled through one dedicated PC (with its own telephone line available 24 hours a day) housed in the University Computer Centre. Trials began with two University Schools; the School of Engineering, located on main campus; and the School of Medicine located at the University Teaching Hospital some 10km distant. Since there is as yet (for reasons of cost) no campus network in place normal phone lines were used (the School of Engineering having manufactured a device that allows the central PC to be connected to both internal and external phone systems and answer whichever calls first) and the systems run FrontDoor as Fido 'points'.
These trials proved most successful with staff quickly realising the potential that email offered for international communication, and messages to and from five continents were soon being exchanged. Sufficient modems have now been ob- tained for all Schools, research and administrative units to be connected up (brining the total to 20+). All but a few have now been put in place, with several Units simply having to wait until they can get access to a PC.
The PCs being used clearly do not need to be dedicated to this use, but only be available for a few minutes each day for picking and dropping of messages to the Computer Centre. The cost of day-to-day operation is therefore minimal.
Whilst this prototype system works well and messages have been sent and received worldwide to the benefit of a select set of staff it will be a number more months before the impact on the University as a whole is felt. The expecta- tions of the academic community are considerable and the needs are great. The general economic recession, in particu- lar the 12,000% rate of devaluation that has occurred over the last 6 years, has ensured that foreign travel has great- ly reduced. This in turn means that the number of postgradu- ate students (needed as potential future staff members) has lessened dramatically. Collaborative research has also declined, and yet many of the difficulties caused by lack of mobility could be redressed if communications with col- leagues / supervisors overseas could be improved and if these communications systems could also be used to provide access to up-to-date literature, itself a further victim of
For e-mail systems to succeed they must remain free of charge to academic staff. Any costs would be a stumbling block to their potential use. The Foundation for Research and Development (FRD) who run UNINET in South Africa have asked Unza to look into the possibility of a leased line service (running Unix / TCP/IP). The cost from the Zambia end would be US$17,000 per year, plus a monthly subscription (R3,000) to UNINET. These costs would likely prove too high. It might only be hoped that if the project can be proved to be viable (and it is undoubtedly necessary) then outside funding may be attracted.
Until the pilot Fido system has been in place for at least 6 months it is very difficult to estimate the volume of traf- fic that may pass through the system, as the knowledge of the potential of email is yet to be established in the minds of many of the staff. Equally the Fido system has its limi- tations against a leased-line alternative. The economic climate has meant a considerable shortage of books and journals coming into the Libraries. The possibility of literature searching and joining in Usenet conferences through Internet must prove most attractive, but may prove too much strain on a dial-up Fido line.
Regional communication must also prove the subject of fur- ther research within ESANET. The attached diagram represents the schematic University links as seen from Zambia. It is noted that Zimbabwe are part of the ESANET project, and are also pursuing independent links with UNINET using Unix. They have an official InterNet address, albeit that dial-up lines are still used.
The University of Zambia, however, is greatly indebted to Rhodes University and UNINET for this opportunity to become one of the first sub-Saharan African universities (outside South Africa itself) to be able to offer email access to the worldwide Internet and looks forward to all the possibili- ties which that might offer.
The University of Zambia is also taking part in another related scheme (along with the other ESANET participants) to provide a satellite based e-mail and literature searching system for health-based workers. Funded by SatelLife (a joint USA / Russian venture based out of Cambridge, Mass.) this system uses a low-orbit (850km) sun-synchronous satel- lite which passes over each location three or four times daily as a means of storing and forwarding messages. Because the satellite is in relatively low-orbit only cheap home produced antennae are required and a standard amateur-radio transceiver (plus a radio modem) provides the interface to the computer. The cost of providing a complete earth sta- tion is around US$5,000. Since this equipment is provided by SatelLife, the cost to the health staff for using the system is zero and the reliability should be high (compared to terrestrial based communication).
This equipment has again been installed at the University Computer Centre, with communication with the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) being through the conventional FidoNet system outlined above. Interfacing software to automate the transition between the two systems is being worked on elsewhere. Further 'points' have recently been added at the Ministry of Health, the WHO Office in Lusaka, the Tropical Dsieases Research Centre in Ndola (300km away) and a Mines Hospital in Kitwe (370km away).
Zambia was the first country in Africa to get an official licence from the PTT to operate the system on non-amateur frequencies and trials have proved successful. The system was inaugurated in March 1992 with an exchange of messages between the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth in the UK, and the President of Zambia. The Queen was, at the time, visiting the University of Surrey where the microsatellites are made.
Within Africa the system will prove particularly useful in exchanging messages with areas poorly served by conventional telecommunications. Messages have so far been exchanged with Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and the Congo, as well as the USA and UK. The Installation in the Congo is based at the African Headquarters of the WHO, and communication to local WHO branches is seen as being one major benefits of the system.
Likewise medical literature is to be made available via the satellite. The first HealthNet Journal has now been received (containing appropriate articles on developmental medicine) and search facilities will be added. A gateway with the InterNet is also planned, through St John's Memorial Univer- sity in Newfoundland.
Once HealthNet is working successfully in Lusaka it is intended to expand the network to other areas in the coun- try. Plans are being drawn up for email provision for Pro- vincial and ultimately District Hospitals in the rural areas. Communication will cover clinical consultation; distance learning; provision of literature; control of drug supplies; dissemination of epidemiological information; and management control. A pilot project to cover 8 hospitals in the Southern Province in being proposed which will allow both technical, personnel and medical functions to be test- ed.
A group of leading Zambian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has formed a steering committee (with consultants from the University) aimed at introducing a prototype e-mail / conferencing system within Lusaka by July 1992. It is intended that the NGO system will run as a cooperative along the same lines as Mango in Zimbabwe with which it is likely to develop close links.
Again the structure of the network will be Fido-based with its major international connections (for the benefit of sister / parent organisations outside Zambia) being thorough Mango and GreenNet.
ZangoNet is to be introduced in two phases. The first will enable ten NGOs with existing PCs to be provided with modems to allow them to connect to a host machine to be housed at an NGO who have agreed to run the 'hub' on a 24 hour basis. Phase two will provide fifteen of the major NGOs with no current microcomputer facilities with a PC and relevant connections.
Funding for Phase one has been somewhat delayed due to unexpected difficulties in obtaining donor funding. However funding prospects for the central PC and modems now look relatively optimistic and some equipment is already in place. Modems should be available at the 10 sites before June, by which time training will have been provided to the operators of the system at each participating NGO courtesy of NGONET.
The NGOs in Phase one have been selected so that they have a degree of commonality (i.e. a need to communicate) and represent the major groupings (e.g. health, green issues, gender issues, etc.) from among the 80 known NGOs in Zambia.
Once Phase two of the project starts, by late-1992, it is intended that organisations or offices outside Lusaka will be brought into the system. Before that time full experimen- tation on possible connection lines will need to take place.
Existing communication within the country is slow (a letter taking one week to be delivered within Lusaka, and up to three weeks elsewhere in the country) and there is much duplication of work that arises because of lack of knowledge of what others are doing. It is hoped that many problems will be redressed once ZangoNet is in place.
There are grounds for believing that electronic mail could become influential in improving information sharing within a country whose economy is undergoing a period of considerable strain.
It is appreciated that underdevelopment is partly definable in terms of lack of access to information, in a world where information and power are closely equatable in both economic and political terms. The fact that some 90% of data on Africa is thought to be held on databases in the 'West' is but one example.
Lack of access to foreign exchange (required for purchase of
PCs and associated equipment) will clearly slow the process
down: Unza is 'doing email on a shoestring'. But it is
believed that what is being experimented with is an appro-
priate technology; that it is sustainable; and that if
Zambia is to maintain its place in the academic and economic
worlds it must continue, with all the available help, to
pursue this experimentation.
|Previous Menu||Home Page||What's New||Search||Country Specific|