UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
Electronic Mail in Zimbabwe
Prof John G Sheppard Director Computer Centre University of Zimbabwe P.O. Box MP 167 Harare, Zimbabwe Phone: +263 4 303211 xt 1378 UZim FAX: +263 4 732828 firstname.lastname@example.org
I get many requests for information on the status of electronic mail in Zimbabwe and this document attempts to describe the present situation as I see it. The opinions expressed below are mine and are not to be taken as those of the University of Zimbabwe.
1. CONNECTION TO INTERNET
In September 1991, after several months of preliminary work, a uucp link to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa became operational using a 386 host, zimbix, in the Computer Centre at UZ for a dial-up link. Rhodes is part of the South African university network, uninet, and Rhodes has a 64 kbps open line to the USA where they connect with the internet via alternet.
Whilst a full, albeit slow, internet service is available in South Africa, we in Zimbabwe only have email access to internet, and thence to other networks such as bitnet, earn, janet, fidonet, etc. We cannot use telnet, ftp or remote logins. In addition, there are no news feeds to zimbix at the present time as the telephone costs would be enormous.
All our email goes over a slow and noisy line - we can at present only use a 2400 baud modem and even that can only operate outside of normal office hours as there is normally no dialtone in office hours. The efficiency of the line, as measured by the average number of characters per second sent and received, can vary by a factor of ten. The line is often unusable for days at a time. At the time of writing, is has been almost impossible to use for the last three months - due - according to the authorities - to a cable fault. Many other lines to the University of Zimbabwe are in a similar condition.
An attempt will be made to use a higher speed modem in the near future, but it is unlikely to give much improvement until the Zimbabwe telephone system improves. That is probably going to happen over the next year or so as the postal authorities are currently installing fibre optics for a digital phone system in Zimbabwe.
Zimbix is at present a low cost 386 machine with only 8 mb of memory and a mere 100 megs of hard disk. At first zimbix had only a 60 mb hard disk. A new machine is on hand, with 8 megs of memory and a 300 mb hard disk. This will take over from zimbix in the near future.
A SUN Classic is on order and will ultimately replace zimbix.
(The SUN is part of a planned future SUN system which will replace the current central computer in the Computer Centre - a Data General MV/20000. This machine was installed in 1986 and is grossly underconfigured - 12 megabytes of memory, about 60 terminals (all but one located in the Computer Centre), 1 tape, two 592 megabyte disks, - and about 1000 users registered during the course of the academic year.
The MV/20000 runs under the Data General AOS/VS operating system. AOS/VS also hosts a UNIX implementation, MV/UX. Data General say that the MV/20000 cannot be linked to a 386/486/workstation using uucp as there is some unsolvable protocol problem.)
zimbix is currently running under SCO Xenix 2.3.4, plus elm and smail.
There is no campus wide network at UZ and at the present there are only three terminals to zimbix in the Computer Centre, and one each in the nearby Department of Computer Science and the Institute of Mining Research. Lines will shortly be operational to six more Departments. These use spare pairs in the campus telephone network cables.
Lightning damage during the rainy season is a major problem. In the fist 17 days of December 1992, zimbix suffered lightning damage - some minor, some major, - on three different occasions. Minor damage is usually the loss of one or two serial ports. On the last occasion, two multiserial cards were severely damaged and the three PCs used as terminals were all damaged. Getting such boards repaired in Zimbabwe is a problem and sending them back to the USA is an even greater problem.
Yes - I do have lightning protection on all my lines!
At present there are about 180 registered users of zimbix and about 1000 messages pass through zimbix each week. The number of users grows continuously as more of the UZ community become aware of what is available.
2. ESANET PROJECT
The ESANET (Eastern and South African Network) Project is a project funded by the Canadian IDRC and its objective is to link the Universities of Kenya, Zambia, Makerere, Dar es Salaam and Zimbabwe by electronic mail. Initially there was no plan to link ESANET to other networks outside, but this was soon introduced. It was decided to use FrontDoor - a Fidonet package running under MS-DOS.
At UZ, the Computer Centre was initially involved in ESANET, but staffing problems made it necessary to make a choice between the Internet activities and the ESANET project - I had neither the staff nor the facilities to run both. I decided to hand over the ESANET project to Dr Rob Borland in the Dept of Computer Science.
ESANET uses Frontdoor/Fidonet and operates through various NGO Fidonet nodes, such as Mango in Harare, Worknet in South Africa, and Greennet in London.
My personal view is that in deciding to use just Fidonet, ESANET has made an error. Certainly software such as Frontdoor is very efficient over low quality telephone lines, but why not use uucp and ultimately tcp/ip, where it will work? There is a world of difference between uucp/xenix or unix on a multiuser, multitasking basis and use of software such as Frontdoor on a single task, single user PC, and a world of difference between the potential of a full Internet link and what Fidonet can offer.
There are about 30 regular users of the ESANET link, in various departments at UZ. ESANET users are rarely also Internet users - and the reverse also appears to be true.
As far as I am aware, the email through zimbix is both more reliable and faster than email going through the Fidonet link, but telephone costs may be higher, due to different telephone numbers/lines/exchanges.
For reasons I do not understand, there is no direct link, using UFGATE for example, between the ESANET computer in the Department of Computer Science and zimbix in the Computer Centre.
A third activity is HEALTHNET. This is a medically oriented email service organized and funded by SatelLife. HEALTHNET uses satellite packet radio. The satellite used is one of the series launched by the University of Surrey.
At any site, a maximum of 3 by 18 minute windows are possible in a 24 hour period. The radio equipment used consists of a multidirectional antenna, a receiver and a microcomputer. The frequency employed is close to the amateur 2 meter band, so relatively cheap amateur equipment can be used with a little modification.
The mechanism is that health related email and other information is uploaded to the satellite from St John's Memorial Hospital in Newfoundland, and downloaded to sites in developing countries. Obviously there is traffic in the reverse direction as well.
The necessary equipment has been in Zimbabwe for a long time - possibly almost two years - I cannot remember the exact dates. After residing in customs for many months, the equipment was finally cleared and released, but the central postal/telecommunications authorities refuse to issue a licence for its use.
In marked contrast to the Zimbabwean situation, Healthnet is apparently operating very successfully in Zambia.
4. THE FUTURE
The development that is most needed is a move towards full Internet facilities. An open line, 9600 baud minimum, is the first essential. In the near future, I hope to see e-mail extended to the new National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo and to the Africa University in Mutare.
The University of Zimbabwe is to acquire X.25 packet switching facilities in the near future and this will be tested as an alternative to dialup on normal telephone lines.
I would also like to see extension of Internet facilities to all those other organizations in Zimbabwe who are legally entitled to use it in terms of the various acceptable usage policies.
Your comments and suggestions would be much appreciated.
Regards John Sheppard
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