UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
Feeder roads close the information gap Low cost public e-mail systems for access to the information high way
Marcel M. Kaljee MSc.
The focus of development in electronic information exchange has been mainly on interactive communication. The sheer challenge to create a communication link with someone somewhere else in the world has fascinated both researcher and early adopter. The results in technological achievements have been impressive. Within a decade, not only electronic information exchange has been achieved but, the development has reached to interactive video conferencing, promising this kind of conference, we are having here today, to be ofdate in the near future.
That is, if the developing countries will find ways to bridge the gap in telematics between the rapid development in the industrialized countries and the status quo in theirs. Three key factors which obstruct rapid development are the lack of physical infrastructure, knowledge and the market push.
Clearly the technological revolution that took place once the benefits of access to the Internet became clear to the general public, has been limited to the developed countries only. The benefits are now becoming more and more clear to the industry as well. More and more the western industry is using the Internet as a cheap channel for PR activities and to release and obtain product information.
This last development gains momentum rapidly, moving the electronic transferred information away from consumer level to business level with large economic values at stake. The elec- tronic means are creating worldwide markets with unknown potentials in quantity and speed of development. Markets from which the developing countries should not have to be excluded, since physical borders and trade restrictions do not influence access to the information highways, once you have access.
With the capitalization of information as a mayor asset in industries, the cost of acquiring and controlling information became more important. The cost of electronic information retrieval, however has not been a major issue in the whole development of electronic information exchange. The cost of Internet access in the research and development stage has not been charged to the users, the use being only a small portion of the total infra-structural cost of the Internet backbone. And more important the development has taken and is taking place in developed countries like the United States and Northern European countries with an existing infrastructure. The issue of the cost of Internet access has become only an issue when the demand for access to electronic information created its own market with providers and consumers worldwide.
The World Telecommunication development report of ITU (1994) states that the uneven distribution in telephone lines has hardly changed the last decade. Adding to this, the unequal distribution of the new telematic development, makes it clear that there is a need to break this status quo and start a new trend to create more equal opportunities.
Development of the telematic infrastructure by economic incen- tives would be the best option. Unfortunately the economic feasible infrastructures seem to reach only the major cities in developing countries, against considerable operational cost. The public and small industries have difficult access to these scarce telematic resources either because of the high subscription costs or the limited capacity.
Development of the infrastructure will come only partly from private or industrial activities. The main incentive will have to come from government initiatives. Although considerable sources are obtained from the international community, it will not be sufficient to build an infrastructure that will make equal access to telecommunications equally worldwide. Even in the USA and Europe the Information Highway is suffering from considerable traffic jams, not keeping up with its growth in popularity.
This leads to the following conclusion. All countries and specially the developing countries will have to make more effective use of the existing scarce infra-structural capacity. I believe that with the limited growth in infrastructure and a more efficient use of the existing structure, equal access to electronic information can be achieved, up to reasonable degree at least.
What infra-structure does exists outside the USA and Europe to reach the Information highways? The existing infrastructures can classified as:
1 The PTO services in developing countries are still scarce in quantity but improving considerably in quality. The network of the PTO's is the most extended in developing countries. Special data networks (like X25) are, to a large extend, managed by PTO's and are part of their services.
2 Mobile telecommunication is growing worldwide and becoming an additional communication network instead of just a service within a network. But specially in Africa the capacity of these networks is still limited.
3 Packet radio networks reach the remote area's were the in- vestment in telephone lines is not going to be economical for years. Existing networks reach from rural areas to headoffices in European cities. The reach is endless but the installation and operation of these systems is difficult and becomes expensive due to extensive training of operators and vulnerable equipment.
4 Satellites for telecommunications have demonstrated there use over the last decade. The satellites proof to be cost effective in broadcasting information, but less as a carrier in both directions. The necessary ground-stations for sending data to a satellite are still very expensive compared to their capacity. Another aspect is that the stations that can send and receive information are located near capital cities, which already are accessible though other infra-structural means.
5 ISDN is still very much under development, but a promising technology to increase the existing infra-structural capacity without endless investments. Again it can be expected that the introduction of ISDN in developing countries will depend on government initiatives.
Each of the infra-structures mentioned is used to transfer data in various ways. In data transfer two different approaches in using the infrastructure do exist.
1 On-line protocols like TCP/IP are the backbone of the international information networks that are offered in the USA and Europe. The protocol facilitates interactive communication with individuals, groups and software. Each stroke on the keyboard is transferred separately across the line and the physical distance appears not to be an issue any more. This is valid as long as the connection has a high quality and the capacity to make the connection exceeds the demand. The fact is that in developing countries neither quality nor quantity are sufficiently available, not mentioning the cost involved if a connection is made. Therefore interactive access to the information highway is not a public facility as it is in developed countries.
2 Off-line uses protocols like x,y or z-modem. These proto- cols have been developed for effective information trans- fer. The protocols are designed to function under condi- tions where there is a small bandwidth of telecommunication capacity and low in quality. One of the design criteria has been to establish very short high speed connections to transfer as much data as possible in the shortest period of time. Therefore these protocols are suitable in conditions were capacity is a bottleneck.
The draw back of not being able to communicate interactively may seem significant, but is becoming less relevant as the development of e-mail querable databases and email requestable WWWpages are reducing the difference in potential of on-line and off-line services.
The conclusion that the off-line protocols offer an approach to create feeder roads to the information highways is valid. Off- line systems will make efficient use of all existing infra- structures for communication. The local conditions will determine the choice of the data carrier on the criteria of availability and costs.
It is clear to me that off-line technology is one of the options that should be seriously considered as a tool to build public low-cost feeder roads to the information high ways. Not only for developing countries, but also in the USA and Northern Europe where access to on-line facilities will also become scarce as the increase in connections will outpace the growth of the information highway's capacity.
There are different ways to use the off-line technology to build these feeder-roads of access. From my practical experience I will describe the approach of TOOLNET.
TOOLNET is an off-line low cost public accessible e-mail network founded by the TOOL foundation to stimulate and facilitate electronic information transfer between and to developing countries.
TOOL, a Dutch NGO, has been active as a "platform" for tech- nology tranfer ever since it has started its activities 20 years ago. TOOL experienced the demand for low cost access to electronic information, directly from its partner organizations in developing countries.
Research in the field of electronic mail networks resulted in the conclusion that there were little providers offering these services to developing countries. Supported by the UNDP report on SDN, TOOL choose Fidonet technology (off-line) as the most feasible technology for transferring data under difficult infra- structural conditions.
TOOL's experience show that a successful implementation of a new technology should be based on participation and delegated responsibilities. An experimental period with nodes in five countries was successful and the project was continued. TOOLNET main characteristics are:
1 Low cost system for public access
2 Low technical requirements to fit the local budgets and infra-structural limitations
3 Easy to learn interface to reach the less computer literate
4 Local partners who can run their node economically and independent in a franchise relation with TOOLNET head- quarters.
TOOLNET has established TOOLNET Access Points (TAPs) in fourteen different countries during the past 16 months. At this stage dial-up connections from Amsterdam facilitate the transfer of mail, files and conferences between these TAPs. The gateways to Internet and other networks are physically in Amsterdam as well. In the near future the central function Amsterdam still has, will be delegated to regional TOOLNET Hubs (THUBs) making the network more reliable and less dependent on one site. Research and development in both technical improvements and information management issues will be coordinated from the Netherlands.
TOOLNET's research in identifying alternative carriers for its data-transfer is a major part of the project. The TOOLNET concept will facilitate the use of local Internet access to reduce the cost and improve the TOOLNET services. The develop- ment of a carrier independent routing software is one of the activities of TOOLNET.
The concept of TOOLNET made it possible for organizations and individuals in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Egypt to access the information on Internet as well as to exchange local knowledge of considerable value between these countries. And although the number of TAPs is still limited and there are only a few hundred organisations connected through the network, the concept of off-line technology has proved to be successful in closing the information gap.
TOOLNET Sarphatistraat 650 1018 AV Amsterdam, the Netherlands tel: +31 20 6264409 fax: +31 20 6277489 Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org Fidonet: 2:280/810.26
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