UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
Let's Get Africa's Act Together, and Head for the Highway Users, Donors and Policymakers Start Face-to-Face Networking
by Tony Hall
A full house of telematics conference delegates at Africa Hall in Addis Ababa yesterday heard a range of high level calls for coordination so that Africa can be ready for full Internet connectivity, and move on to the Information Superhighway with it own strategies and priorities in order.
Just as telematics has rapidly brought together the worlds of computing and telecommunications, so telecoms authorities and electronic networkers must get to know each other and work together + and so must the different networking projects around the continent. That was the thrust of a number of addresses from senior representatives of international and government agencies at the opening of the week-long African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development conference at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) headquarters in the Ethiopian capital.
The gathering of more than 250 information specialists, users, donors and policymakers is the first to focus on telematics. It brings policymakers and users face to face, at a crucial time to share ideas and work out ways of easing national regulations and fees to usher Africa into the information age.
Opening the conference, UNECA's Acting Executive Secretary Makha Sarr said the use of telematics is a prerequisite for scientific, social and economic development, and all African countries must head for the information highway. He pointed to information's crucial role in regional and subregional initiatives in Africa. He said ECA was proud to have played a big part, through the CABECA project funded by Canada's IDRC, in helping to set up networks in more than 20 African countries, with international e-mail connection via FidoNet, through the GreenNet gateway in London. Sarr was confident that the conference would come up with concrete measures to strengthen coordination in Africa, such as the possible setting up of a high-level group on communications.
The effect of telematics on daily life, and even on individual feelings, was noted by Asrat Bulbula of the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission. "The cost savings and convenience is changing our social and office activities...advancing individual feelings towards jobs and computer communications. Electronic communications is improving...the sharing and organising of non-computing resources."
He said that while Africa's attention for thirty years has been focused on basic needs, it now faces the challenge of technology. "We should embrace advanced telematics services to build our research capacity...Telematics is a need and not a choice."
Today, fewer than 20 African countries have no form of electronic connection, 33 have networks and four have full Internet connectivity. Ethiopia, through ECA's PADISnet, is one of the 33. It was through PADISnet that the Ethiopian Scientific Society in North America was contacted to collect modems and other networking equipment for the academic community back home.
Bulbula noted the major contribution of African regional networking projects such as UNESCO's RINAF, the French government-sponsored ORSTOM-RIO, and REFER, in building sustainable cooperative networks in West Africa and beyond, to Kenya and Madagascar, "from which robust, high bandwidth networks can evolve." More resources are needed to evolve from low cost, low bandwidth networks to full TCP/IP connections. The exchange of information on connectivity is one of the areas where regional cooperation is required.
UNESCO's Informatics Programme chairman G. Biorci pointed to freedom of the press, and pluralism in the mass media, as among the challenges arising from the information revolution. "It gives libraries and newspapers a new way of existing."
Johan Ernberg of the International Telecommunications Union, oldest of all the UN agencies, said ITU would try to see where it can help in the development of some kind of regional mechanism for African user involvement.
IDRC's David Balson said Africa is on a cusp, at a point where big projects will get under way + "some of which won't make sense unless done in a coordinated fashion. Hopefully, there will be moves towards more rationalising of investment, as we move towards the Internet."
Johannesburg-based specialist Mike Jensen, who has played a major part in helping to set up and maintain networks around Africa in recent years, outlined some of the future scenarios of daily life. "It is up to us," he said, "to chart a path for African involvement in the global information infrastructure...Our first task is to get Africa connected to the Internet as soon as possible."
Africa's telephone statistics are forbidding: 12 per cent of the world's people, but only 2 per cent of its phone lines. Its inhabitants each spend less than a minute a year on the telephone. Local calls are relatively cheap, but it has the world's highest use of international to local lines, and the highest line installation costs. It can cost $25 to send a single page fax.
But radio is providing more and more interesting and attractive options. For instance VHF line of sight services over 50 km will be increasingly important in providing users with alternatives to cable-based local loops, with radio-based systems operating at lower costs.
Space-based systems will be increasingly important, such as the low-orbit satellites used by the agencies HealthNet, Satellife, and VITAnet, which send messages as the satellite passes overhead. And VSAT will become very important in providing cost-effective national links, with personal earth stations at around $10,000, and $1,000 a month to run.
Among Africa's major roadblocks in reaching the highway are low availability of high bandwidth and digital systems + and very high telecommunications tariffs in Africa. "It will require significant sensitisation," said Jensen, "to persuade PTTs to forego these revenues."
Mustapha Masmoudi, a former Tunisian ambassador and minister, now director of a mass media institute for the Mediterranean region, looked at the highway's horizons from the African policymakers' perspective, and sounded some cautionary notes about the way to go, to develop what he called "Africa's highways."
Many benefits lay ahead in opening up telecommunications, but the state monopoly could not be abolished without having a well-developed civil society and national private sector + because the multinationals would not take care of the social aspect of telematics development.
Following liberalisation, could the funds be found for private projects? "The banks are not reacting. This is one of the major problems." The question of the African information highways needed to be on the next OAU agenda. The role of the public services in the information world should be defined, and regulations developed to reduce telecommunications costs and fees. text:1050 words approx
Wonderful WWW: A way to Repatriate Africa's Exiled Data Analyses
A feature of the first day at the telematics symposium was a live full-screen demonstration of World Wide Web: a laptop computer called up full colour pages, words and pictures, within minutes, from three distant parts of the world, using a networking system so powerful and attractive that subscribers to WWW are likely to outnumber telephone subscribers round the world in the near future.
Mounting the show, to be the first of several, were some of the top "techies" at the symposium. GreenNet's Karen Banks from London, with Mike Jensen, set up the PADISnet link through FidoNet, to the GreenNet gateway to the Internet, and on to the World Wide Web.
The World Bank Electronic Media Centre's Chief Pilot Peter Knight linked up with the Washington centre, also talked about a brand new development from Cornell University the "CU-SeeMe" teleconferencing software, which allows up to eight different sites, each showing a real-time black and white image in front of a computer screen, or video. It may be exotic technology now, "but remember," said Knight, "all technology costs are falling by 50 per cent every 18 months."
He moved on to Russia, to call up a page from the WWW server of a friend who used to develop spy satellites for the Soviet Union, and now runs a private innovative Russian company called "Elvis plus".
ITU's Thomas Fried called up home pages in Geneva and showed the meeting how to navigate through the ITU's information sources.
Julie Sisskind, coordinator of the University of Pennsylvania's African Studies World-Wide Web, navigated into one of her "home pages" and through the directories, pointing out: "We have every possible kind of information on Africa that an "Internaut" could want, with direct two-way Africa-US database links." As a WWW provider, African Studies at Penn is now developing multimedia projects that incorporate a mixture of text, video, sound, graphics and links to other African resources on the Internet. These interactive documents or hypertexts, Sisskind explained, facilitate a whole new way of presenting information, and a new forum for Africans communicating around the world.
And, as Peter Knight put it this is the way to repatriate data analyses that have left Africa.
From: Ben.Parker@hornet.sasa.unep.no (Ben Parker) Subject: African Symposium Date: 5 Apr 1995 09:59:27 -0500 Message-ID: [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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