UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
[This paper was] Submitted for the Resource Book of a meeting, "Civilizing Cyberspace: Minding the Matrix," held in Washington, D.C., June 26 - 27, 1991, and sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
GLOBAL CYBERSPACE: WHO NEEDS IT?
by R. R. Ronkin, VITA Volunteer Volunteers in Technical Assistance
1. THE BACKGROUND.
This paper assumes that "cyberspace," the facilities provided by electronic communication technologies, must benefit people everywhere, even if only a few of them make direct use of the facilities.
Present users are concentrated in wealthier countries that include 22% of the world's population. The remaining 78% live in want of natural resources or developed infrastructure. Their daily problems? "Health, food, security, education are of much more concern to us here then fancy technologies abroad."(*) In most cases, their leaders want access to the equipment and information, located in wealthier countries, that will give their people a better life and allow them to create new wealth for domestic progress and foreign trade. Yet, they are usually not aware of links between cyberspace development and, say, the attraction of investment from abroad. "Even among professors I have found very little understanding."
The main obstacle to accessing cyberspace in most places is poor infrastructure development: the lack of needed equipment, technical training and services, foreign exchange, and planning tools. In one country, "[Installation and maintenance] involve customs, foreign currency limitations, bad telephones, . . . reluctance of the PTT to license modems, . . . and an overloaded work schedule for those who do know what they are doing. The problem is compounded by a poor dealer network. . . . The cold hard fact is that you need certain skills on the sites that are to be linked into the network. Without those skills you can forget it."
In a global context, this paper lists and describes the public spaces, explains some of the problems of public access, and proposes appropriate roles for government.
2. WHAT ARE THE PUBLIC CYBERSPACES?
The electronic technologies that allow people to "meet" and exchange information in them are based on radio, microcomputers, and electronic networks. The technologies are also defined by the information they carry and the categories of users they serve.
2.1. Amateur radio may be the oldest and best established public cyberspace. Radio "hams" (and their friends) in every country can communicate with people elsewhere without telephone lines or computers. Amateur radio pioneered the packet-radio method and was an early promoter of satellite-based digital communication. Operators belong to national organizations and are individually licensed by communications authorities. There are 450,000 operators in the United States and 1,574 in 37 countries of Subsaharan Africa. Ham radio promotes enthusiasm for and spread of its technology; it has a long history of involvement in disaster relief and community service.
2.2. Packet-radio systems transmit digital information with extremely high accuracy and often at very low cost, independently of telephone systems. Indeed, using packet radio can relieve congested or bad phone service. As I write, VITA's portable packet radio is mobilizing relief efforts after a devastating volcanic eruption in the Philippines.
Reaching remote areas with information is a major world issue: "Where 50% of the population lives . . . in 20% of the country they not even have direct phone access only via a local hand switchboard." The power of packet radio to reach remote areas is vastly increased through satellite technology. VITA's "orbiting mailbox," for example, passes over every spot on the earth twice every 24 hours at an altitude of 800 km. When the satellite is over a ground station, the station uploads or transmits messages for storage in the satellite's memory and the satellite similarly downloads or retrieves other messages or files. Solar-powered ground stations are relatively cheap.
The best uses of packet satellites may be transmitting information for public health, distance education, and environmental management.
2.3. Bulletin board systems (BBS's), operated by microcomputer owners, can be dialled on the public telephone system by other computer users. A caller can read or leave messages, and load files up or down. The caller pays for the call; thus, most BBS's have local users. BBS owners can control user access.
In the District of Columbia, most of the 200 active bulletin board systems are privately operated, freely accessible to the public, and unregulated by government. As elsewhere, most have central topics that attract users with similar interests: astronomy, cats, Fortran programming, and so on. VITA's BBS lists current disaster information: (1) situation reports provided by U.S Government and private organizations (e.g., Latin America, Kurdish Iraq, Ethiopia), and (2) A database of disaster expertise and commodities offered by private individuals and firms; the database is readable by relief agencies. There are relatively few BBS's in developing countries.
2.4. FidoNet is a noncommercial, telephone-linked network of computer hobbyists, totally user supported. The world node list is public, but communication links are informal. Through "gateways", FidoNet operators can access global networks. Many FidoNet nodes are also RBB's, thus providing some public access to global networks for persons who lack network accounts.
There are thousands of Fidonet nodes in the United States; in all of Subsaharan Africa excluding South Africa, we find 3 nodes in Botswana and 3 in Zimbabwe. Until 1991, Fidonet provided South Africa with its only external network service.
2.5. Electronic networks, many of them carrying e-mail, require no detailed description here. They are well developed in wealthier countries, especially where telephone packet-switching services are available. Fewer nodes are found in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Countries often first build internal networks and then establish an international gateway. India's successful Education and Research Network (ERNET) followed this pattern. Poland's cyberspace development began in 1990 and the country now has 6 working nodes addressable from the European EARN network. The only node in Namibia currently connects to South Africa.
The cost of network access to U.S. users is often negligibly small, but in other countries user costs for the same networks are often prohibitive because of high telephone charges and expenses of local maintenance. Networks are excellent for transmitting data and files. Organizations usually prefer the convenience and simplicity of fax for short documents, even if it costs them more than using networks.
3. THE INFORMATION CONTENT OF CYBERSPACE.
Most people want the networks and systems to provide world, business, and professional news, and needed technical information. "If all people can do is send messages to each other via email, you will have a hard time getting off the ground. It is actually quite surprising how little people have to say to each other, outside the context of close colleagues separated by distance." Of cultural isolation: "People are willing to pay a big chunk of money for having the privilege of watching how the more fortunate part of the world lives."
Here are some current examples cyberspace content: A user in Poland contacts equipment vendors in the West. NSFNet provides high speed transmission of scientific data among U.S. research centers. Doctors in Latin America obtain abstracts of medical literature from the U.S. National Library of Medicine with an average delay of 1-1/2 hours. A lawyer in Kiev (USSR) wants professional contact with U.S. colleagues. Jobs are exported from rich countries: "Both sophistocated and rote work is being moved overseas [on networks by U.S. firms] due to lower labor costs." And one PVO sees "large cost savings for the operations we are currently undertaking."
Many private and public databases are available on line, with bibliographic and numerical data. Access often is reasonably priced by U.S. standards, but is hardly affordable in most parts of the world. A few on-line public databases are free; e.g., public catalogs of several major research libraries.
Thousands of different topical mailing lists or forums are associated with BITNET and other networks. Every message from a list subscriber is automatically sent to all other subscribers to the same list. Global "lists of lists" are available on line. The transactions of many lists are archived and can be machine-searched on line.
USENET is a huge, global network; essentially a big electronic bulletin board. Not for e-mail, it is divided into subject topics called "news-groups." Individuals post topical messages for thousands of people to read. Hardly anyone can accommodate the entire daily flow and few wish to do so. It is one of the best-known and most used examples of cyberspace.
4. HOW CAN GOVERNMENT IMPROVE ACCESS TO CYBERSPACE?
4.1. International organizations.
The U.N.'s International Consultative Committee for Telephony and Telegraphy (CCITT) recommends global telecommunications policies. Weathier countries should request greater responsiveness to the needs of international development.
In considering loan applications from developing countries, the World Bank and similar banks should encourage country planning that includes support for using cyberspace to speed economic development.
UNESCO and the U.N. Development Program should promote policies that favor the international transfer of proprietary information for use by developing countries. The costs (lost royalties, etc.) can be budgeted in the same way as costs of other foreign aid.
4.2. National governments.
Developing countries should formulate realistic plans to use cyberspace for development. Because the technology of planning is often undeveloped, countries should be encouraged to ask for training in its use.
Wealthier countries should recognize and plan to subsidize the cyberspace needs of economic development, including specific infrastructural needs, recognizing them as an important foreign aid cost. In the same way, they should subsidize transfer of information that poor countries must buy for hard currency.
National security concerns must be sympathetically addressed. Donor countries should reassess policies of controlling the export of hardware, software, and expertise. Recipient countries should reassess policies that restrict movement of information across their borders.
Nearly all countries (and even some organizations) see the use of cyberspace by their nationals as a major source of revenue or of foreign exchange. These practices often choke off communications, impede national development, and should be stopped.
Developing countries should actively encourage the use of cyberspace by local government and by nongovernmental and private voluntary organizations, especially indigenous organizations. These organizations should be invited to take part in planning.
(*) For help with this paper, I thank Paul Chernoff and Jeffrey Levine, Washington, D.C; Jan Dunin-Borkowski, Warsaw, Poland; F.F. Jacot Guillarmod and Scott Hazelhurst, Grahamstown, South Africa; Eberhard W. Lisse, Windhoek, Namibia; and Marek Somoc, Buffalo, USA.
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