Global Networks for Africa

Global Networks for Africa


NETWORKS FOR AFRICA ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________ From: IN%"" "Baobab Communications" 11-NOV-1991 21:53:12.66 From: Geoff Sears

"Low Cost Global Electronic Communications Networks for Africa."

1) Introduction Electronic mailbox and messaging services offer an ideal tool for enhancing communications in Africa. Electronic mail can be less expensive and more convenient than facsimile or telex wherever a computer and phone line are available. However, the communications infrastructure in the African countries varies from very good to very marginal. As a result, the appropriate communications solution may vary from one location to the next. This paper outlines the two basic means of connecting mailboxes to the global network and discusses which method may be the most appropriate under various circumstances.

2) Packet Switching Services in Africa Many African countries are now installing packet switched data line service, also called IPSS (International Packet Switched Service) which uses the internationally standardized X.25 protocol. The PTT - national post office or telephone company is almost always the operator of such a service and usually installs connection points to IPSS in the major cities. This service allows modem users in these cities to make a local phone call, and get online to any country with an electronic mail or database service connected to the X.25 network. As long as the local phone service is reasonably good, a reliable connection to the host computer can be achieved and it is relatively simple to access a wide range of networks with this method. To overcome the frequent problems in local phone service, some IPSS providers are installing error-correcting modems; if the user also has a modem supporting the MNP error-correction protocol, virtually all problems of phone noise can be overcome.

To access such a service, the user orders a NUI (Network User ID) from the local PTT. A registration fee, a monthly or quarterly rental, and usage charges to connect to the remote host comprise the costs incurred for this service.

For regular computer network users, NUI rental usually provides a significantly cheaper option than making a direct dial international phone call to the electronic host. If the host is accessed infrequently, then the cost of an NUI may not be justified. As with a normal telephone call, there is usually a substantially higher usage charge for connecting to a host outside the country than with a host computer inside the country. However, since there are still very few mailbox host computers connected to an IPSS anywhere in Africa, there is really no option but to connect outside the country for mailbox service and pay the high rates, until one of the developing systems becomes connected to packet services . The host service charges separately for the use of its services but for sending messages, up to 90% of the cost of the international connection can be in the charges made by the local PTT for use of the NUI.

Rate structures for IPSS are complex and vary enormously from one to country to another. Rental charges for a NUI can vary from $20 to $200 a quarter. Some PTT's require the user to rent PTT-owned modems at inflated rates. Even usage charges (which are based on time spent online and the volume of date passed down the network) can vary by a factor of two between different PTTs. Typically, the most significant portion for the charge is for the amount of data transferred. Users are charged both to send and to receive data, and this is frequently what makes the service prohibitively expensive.

IPSS service exists in a number of sub-saharan Africa countries, including: Cote D'Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Zimbabwe. Electronic mail users in neighboring countries may be able to make use of these packet-switching services if their phones support such calls.

In these countries with packet switching services, people in the capital cities, and occasionally other major cities, can reliably connect directly to a centrally located host in Europe or North America with relative ease. But as can be seen from the list above, most African countries do not have an IPSS service. Where it is available in these regions it is usually considerably more expensive than in the West.

3) Direct International Dialing Because of the limited availability of IPSS services, and their high cost, international direct dialing is often the only realistic option. Previous experience with conventional terminal software and the bad telephone lines endemic throughout Africa, was that this method of connection was expensive, unreliable and stressful for the user. However, recent developments in personal computer based communications software have improved the situation. It is now possible to send messages and files over poor quality telephone lines at minimal cost using automated computer controlled connections with file compression and error checking.

These programs typically reduce the length of the long distance call by 80-95% compared to the time taken for a standard interactive manually controlled session with the host. Even over a poor quality telephone line, they permit completely error free transmissions, without the need for manual intervention of the operator. Using this software is more like sending a fax than going through the series of 'log on' procedures necessary to connect to a remote host, yet it still gives all the benefits of computer communications.

Developed in the amateur bulletin-board system and academic communities over the last 10 years much of this software is free for non-commercial use or very cheap to purchase, running on any IBM compatible or Macintosh. Currently there are over 10,000 such systems exchanging messages and files globally. Messages can be prepared separately on any type of word processor and a 2400 baud modem costing about $100 serves to link the personal computer to the telephone line. The equipment does not require the installation of a separate line - existing voice or fax lines can be temporarily diverted to the modem while it places the call.

Any such system can also be left switched on for longer periods, in a state ready to receive messages from other such systems. This allows a system somewhere else to place the call and pay for charges, and still accomplish the complete exchange of messages.

The file transfer protocols used between the two computers have a high level of resiliency to line noise and satellite delays, and if an interruption does occur, they are able to resume an transfer right at the point it was interrupted. This is particularly important for transporting large binary files where the chances of losing the connection over poor quality telephone lines is significant.

A high speed (9,600 bps or higher) modem becomes cost effective when the volume of communications increases, as in the case when several people share one personal computer for their communications. For the cost of about $400-$600, a modem such as the Telebit Trailblazer (TM) can transmit data 4 to 8 times faster than the 2400 baud modem.

Host computer services that will carry this traffic into the major networks are currently operating 24 hours a day in London (GreenNet), Stockholm (NordNet) and Toronto (Web). All support the high speed (9,600 baud +) protocols as well as the standard 1200 and 2400 baud protocols. These machines provide hourly gateway connections to all of the APC (Association for Progressive Communications) hosts in Brazil, Australia, Sweden, Nicaragua, US & Canada, and many countries in Europe. Messages can be sent through these machines to outbound fax and telex servers, to commercial hosts such as Dialcom and GeoNet, and to academic networks like Janet, BitNet, EARN, UseNet/UUCP and the Internet.

For many purposes, sending files and messages directly to another individual is all that is necessary. However, there is also the opportunity to 'broadcast' the message to a select group of participants. These 'mailing lists', also known as electronic conferences or bulletin boards can be publicly available to anyone on any of these networks, or restricted to a select group - for example a coordinating committee. The sender does not have to know the electronic address of each participant to send them each a message, instead a single message is sent to the predefined mailing list running on a host computer which then decides which systems to pass the message to. The list could comprise an unlimited mixture of fax numbers, telex numbers, electronic mail addresses and bulletin boards or conferences running on certain hosts. Conferences are usually based around a particular topic and can last for a short period or proceed for an unlimited time. They can be discussion oriented or merely a place to post news and information. Currently there are about 3000 topic related conferences that are available through the APC.

A self installing configuration of software to perform direct, automated international dialing is available for IBM compatibles and a running system can ideally be set up in half an hour by someone without any special skills other than basic familiarity with the keyboard. Occasionally there are a variety of problems that can crop up. Non-standard hardware configurations may need some trouble-shooting by someone familiar with the DOS operating system and DOS level commands. Hooking up the modem to a PABX type telephone system can be difficult, and may require the assistance of the phone company or PTT. Non-standard modems, telephones wired directly into the wall and operator assisted direct dialling can also be problematic for the inexperienced. For this reason it is probably best to consider each installation individually.

For someone familiar with the computer for word processing or some other basic application, a half day, hands-on training workshop is sufficient to acquaint the user with all that is necessary to send and receive files and messages. To maintain a system supporting a group of users, several days of training, as well as a commitment to provide personnel to maintain it, would be necessary.

4) Examples of Local Network Applications in Africa Bulletin Board systems, both those packages designed for single users

as described above, and full-scale systems supporting several users

(not simultaneously, though), are already being used by a number of

organizations in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe

and South Africa. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

in Ottawa, Canada has been responsible for helping to establish many

of these networks by funding the ESANET, PADIS, WEDNET and NGONET

projects described below.

The NGONET Africa project is based out of the Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI) in Nairobi, where a Fido bulletin board system has been set up to provide a conduit for electronic mail traffic in the region and to NGOs worldwide. This is done using a high-speed modem to make daily calls to the GreenNet Fido gateway in London. The project is also supporting the MANGO (Micro-computer Assistance for NGO's) Fido bulletin board project in Zimbabwe (see below) and plans to assist in the establishment of a third bulletin board system in Dakar and another possibly in Ghana.

In particular, support is being given to improving the flow of electronic information around the preparations for the UNCED conference in Rio, Brazil in 1992. An earlier survey found there were significant numbers of NGOs which had computers but were not using electronic mail yet. A total of 48 NGOs are being identified to receive modems, training, documentation and support.

ESANET (Eastern and Southern African Network) is a pilot project to link researchers at universities in Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya with each other and with researchers worldwide by installing electronic mail facilities at the computer centres of universities in these countries. ESANET is based at the University of Nairobi Institute of Computer Science. To maximise scarce resources, coordination and technical support is being shared with the NGONET project. Where there is no local NGO host system it has been agreed that NGOs will be able to use the resources of the campus based nodes.

Nodes are currently being installed in Kampala - Makarere University- nodename MUKLA, Nairobi - nodename UNICS, Dar es Salaam - University of Dar es Salaam/Eastern and Southern African Universities Research Project - nodename ESAURP, Lusaka - University of Zambia Computer Center - nodename UZCC, and Harare - University of Harare Computer Centre - nodename UHCC.

Each node runs a suite of Fido software on an IBM compatible AT with 40MB hard drive, high speed modem (PEP) and dedicated phone line. Zambia, Kenya and Harare can connect directly to the GreenNet Fido gateway (GNFido), while Uganda and Tanzania can only connect via Nairobi because direct dialling facilities outside the PTA (Preferential Trade Agreement) area are not available. Zambia has begun to experiment with direct dialling to London and the other nodes are expected to begin testing connectivity later next month. They are still awaiting arrival of hardware shipped from Nirv Centre (Web) in Toronto, Canada.

HealthNet is operated by a Boston based NGO called Satellife which was initiated as a project of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Satellife have purchased 60% of the capacity on the University of Surrey (UK) built Uosat-F satellite.

This will initially be used to exchange health and medical information within the same Universities (coincidentally) participating in the ESANET project and via Memorial University in Newfoundland Canada. Memorial is an appropriate site because of Dr Maxwell House' work with telemedicine and because it is so far north the satellite passes overhead 10 times a day on its polar orbit.

Because of the total overlap in institutions in Africa, the HealthNet project is being administered by the African participants as part of the ESANET project to evaluate alternative data transport methods.

Although the current traffic is limited to health related issues, it will be up to the individual participating institutions in Africa to obtain clearance from the authorities for a wider interpretation of the health mandate. As far as the funders of the HealthNet project are concerned, this could encompass a much broader range of environmental and social issues. Currently however, only Zambia has been successful in obtaining approval for the installation of the ground station and this was with a specific medically oriented application.

The Zambian approval nevertheless sets a precedent for the authorities in the other countries. Also Zambia will now be able to host satellite traffic from the other participating countries via direct dial telephone lines with the ESANET Fido network until other ground stations have been approved.

The Pan African Documentation Centre Network - PADISNET is a project to link 34 countries into a network of participating development planning centres which exchange databases and information. PADIS is based at the United Nations Economic Council on Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa which also operates a Fido node connecting on demand to London, South Africa and the US. NGONET and PADISNET project workers have held joint workshops it is likely that the two projects will be able to share resources in the support of other nodes in Dakar-Senegal (CRAT), Accra-Ghana (AAU), Dar es Salaam- Tanzania (ESAURP).

WEDNET supports research on women and natural resource management. The aim is to link researchers in Senegal, Ghana, Burkino Faso, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Canada via electronic communications and conventional networking. WEDNET is also based at ELCI in Nairobi.

WorkNet operates as the national electronic network host for NGOs in South Africa. The network has been established for about three years and now has about 150 users on a multi-user BBS programme called MajorBBS. Users include the labour movement, human rights groups, the alternate press, documentation centres, service organisations and church groups. The ICTFU has funded the development of gateway software which will allow MajorBBS users to send messages to other systems and obtain conference postings. The MajorBBS format is converted to the Fido standard and a separate machine operates as a Fido bbs to transmit and receive the messages. The Fido machine is now officially registered on the Internet ( and is in daily contact with MANGO in Harare and the GreenNet Fido gateway in London via high speed (PEP) modem. An X.25 leased line is already on premises awaiting the installation of X.25 software and PAD in September/October.

MANGO is a bulletin board service in Harare, Zimbabwe, operated by a collective of NGOs:; Africa Information Afrique (a regional news agency), EMBISA (religious development group), SARDC (Southern African Research and Documentation Centre), EDICESA (Ecumenical Documentation and Information Centre for Eastern and Southern Africa), and SAPES (Southern Africa Press Service). It was recently agreed that the system be made available to the NGO community as a whole and a fee structure has been developed. MANGO now connects three times daily with the Web Fido gateway in Toronto. In addition it connects three times a day to WorkNet in Johannesburg.

ARSONET is a CIDA professional development project to link the Africa Regional Standards Authorities in Addis Abbaba-Ethiopia, Nairobi-Kenya and Cairo-Egypt with Fido networking technology.

In all these networking initiatives users are connecting to their nearest host node. This provides them with a link to the global network for receiving or sending private messages and public bulletins via a gateway operating at the Association for Progressive Communication's London host - GreenNet. Through this system users in Africa can gain access to the community of 10,000 NGOs and individuals working in peace, social development and environmental issues who use the APC network.

With a 2400 baud modem, users are reliably achieving transmission speeds of 220 characters per second (cps), even on relatively poor phone lines. Because the messages and files are automatically compressed before transmission to as little as one third of their original size (and even more for fixed length record databases - up to 10 times) it is possible to send or receive about 40,000 characters (about 6,500 words) during a one minute call. Because the connection between the computers is all under control of the machine at each end, the only time when the full 220 cps transmission speed is not being achieved is during the first 10- 15 seconds while handshaking between the two computers takes place.

5) Creating African Electronic Mail Host Systems The methods and systems described above are the early stages of establishing full electronic mail hosts systems in Africa, owned and operated by Africans.

Complete electronic mail, computer conferencing and database systems are now being run on small and relatively inexpensive microcomputers ('286, '386, SPARC based hardware platforms can all be set up for between $5,000 and $15,000). Locally-based systems such as these can greatly reduce the costs to the individual user of computer-based telecommunications. In this case users can make a local phone call and share the cost of the international connection, rather than all individuals competing for scarce and expensive international lines.

The benefits of such local operations has been proved by small UNIX systems installed by the Association for Progressive Communications, the RIO project in French-speaking countries of Africa and the Carribbean, and by the Bureau for Latin America of the United Nations Development Programme in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Costa Rica, and by BBS systems operating in several Eastern European and African countries. These benefits include service at a far lower cost than

There is now a variety of software and hardware available for this purpose. Selection is not easy; some factors to consider include not just the cost of the original equipment, but the availability of skilled technical people to maintain the system, the availability of spare parts, and the cost and availability of technical support from vendors. The significant barriers to rapid implementation are the need to train system operators and the high state tariffs on computer and communications equipment.

The challenges of making this technology work in Africa are balanced by significant rewards. African countries are in a position to leap-frog technologies and install relatively sophisticated information technology now, skipping older, less effective techniques and methods. With this kind of information system in place, dialogue and information exchange regionally and internationally can greatly expand, with benefits to every sector of African development.


Mike Jensen is a computer engineer based out of London. He was a founder of Web, a non-profit computer network in Canada, and, while working at GreenNet in London, developed software to gateway the UNIX systems of the Association for Progressive Communications with the FIDO world. Most recently he has been traveling extensively in Africa setting up small BBS systems and training non-governemtal organizations to use them.

GreenNet 23 Bevenden Street London, N1 6BH, ENGLAND tel: +44-71-608-3040 fax: +44-71-490-4070 email:

Geoff Sears is the Director of the Institute for Global Communications in San Francisco, California. IGC operates the non-profit PeaceNet and EcoNet international computer networks. IGC is a founding member of the Association for Progressive Communications, and is currently involved in the establishment of computer networks in the USSR, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Institute for Global Communications 18 de Boom Street, 1st Floor San Francisco, CA 94107 tel: +1-415-442-0220 fax: +1-415-546-1794

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
Previous Menu Home Page What's New Search Country Specific