"Addis Hosts Historic `Superhighway' Conference", Tony Hall

"Addis Hosts Historic `Superhighway' Conference, But Will Policymakers Go With the Vision?"

by Tony Hall

About 250 information policymakers, specialists and activists from all over Africa, and from Europe and America, will gather in Addis Ababa on Monday for a historic conference that could move Africa to the on-ramp of the Information Superhighway.

Are African telecommunications ministers and managers ready to pave the way for their countries to join the greatest opportunity for sharing that human society has ever been given? Or will most remain stuck behind the barriers of over-regulation and artificially high charges, in the clatter of outdated telexes and $30-a-page faxes?

That's the way the options are seen by computer networkers, e-mail and Internet users and servers around the world, and giant corporations and big donors, whose delegates will be in the Ethiopian capital to explain and show the wonders of telematics - the merging of computer and telecommunications worlds - and persuade African authorities to catch the wave of technological change.

The big talk-in and teach-in crucial for a continent that is far behind all others in network connections is entitled the African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development. It began today, and runs from 3-7 April at the Africa Hall headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), which is jointly organising the symposium, with the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU), UNESCO and Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Meanwhile from 4-6 April, in the foyer of Africa Hall, international infotech companies will display their latest networking software and hardware, at an exhibition organised by the Cambridge-based company AITEC.

Users and servers librarians, academics, media people, telematics professionals and computer "techies" will do some intensive face-to-face networking in their special subjects ~ it will be the ultimate networking of networkers for Africa.

World Bank analysts are among those who put the ball sharply in the African decisionmakers' court. They warn that if African countries cannot take advantage of the information revolution and surf the great wave they may be crushed by it. And it's not obsolete technology that's in the way, but obsolete regulatory frameworks. "The real challenge," says one paper, "is not technical or financial, but organisational and political."

But they are putting their money where their mouth is World Bank proposes loans and grants for projects where governments want to get on to the Internet, agree to liberalise, and start dismantling outdated regulatory and pricing systems.

Among the high-powered corporates represented will be the head of AT&T Submarine Systems' "Africa One" project, which is laying $6 billion worth of fibre optic cable around coastal Africa, due to be completed by early next year facilitating Internet connectivity to most African countries with coastal access. On the trade and exhibit side will be the multinationals COMSAT Mobile Communications, Schlumberger Dufour, and the SITA organisation, which wants to promote use of its leased lines to a much wider market than the airlines they now serve.

The high turnout of African ministers and PTT directors and managers, among delegates from 45 African nations, is evidence that many on their part are willing to be persuaded ~ or to go home armed with facts and arguments to persuade their governments. They welcome this kind of get-together to hear the whole case being laid out by experts, and perhaps even more important, to compare notes with each other about progress and problems in reaching the information highway.

Some African leaders are already convinced information activists, needing just this kind of world focus to shift their bureaucracies and local vested interests into compliance ~ seeing better ways of bringing in revenue in the longer term.

Some countries are still charging monopoly fees, delaying on licences, and trying to compel networkers to use only the outdated modems they are prepared to lease out ~ merely forcing users into running their own unofficial networks. But a few, like Uganda, have already gone far in relaxing telecommunications rules and fees. And others, like Sudan, are privatising telecommunications.

Zambia is the only sub-Saharan country outside South Africa which already has full Internet connectivity, through a fast-growing commercial company Zamnet, started by academics at the University of Zambia, which leased a line with a World Bank loan. And, as roving specialist Mike Jensen points out in his paper to the symposium, relatively low-cost electronic information services for the public are already a success in such apparently unlikely places as Mozambique and Ethiopia.

The pioneers of Ethiopia's fast-growing e-mail network are the staff of the ECA's Pan African Development Information Service. At the heart of the Symposium organisation is Dr Nancy Hafkin, Senior Economic Affairs Officer at ECA. She sees this as the crucial opportunity to get Africa firmly on the path to the information age, and all its enormous benefits: "So much of the networking had been going on either semi-legally, or with PTTs and ministries of information or communications at best turning a blind eye, at worst, being constraining. We feel this is because they are not familiar with the Internet, with the merging of the computer and telecommunications worlds, so they go on in the old way. And if they go on thinking like that, Africa will be left out of the information age.

"At the end of the symposium, we will try to come up with an Africa Plan, or a commitment, to push the whole movement along. ECA's idea is to get Africa to commit to a Global Information Infrastructure (GII), as the US and the European Union have done."

With Hafkin at ECA, on the technical side, is Lishan Adam, who runs the PADISnet node, and is manager of the IDRC-funded CABECA (Capacity Building for Electronic Communication in Africa) project, which has taken him around Africa, helping groups to set up networks in 34 countries since 1991. "Over the past five years we have proved we can work in many difficult situations, setting up networks with system operators deep in the countryside ~ and we've come to know that the technical problems are not as difficult as the administration and policy problems. Everybody has been crying to have the PTTs come to such meetings..." What's bringing them this time? "It's a matter of evolution," Lishan feels. Africa has been flooded by all kinds of low-cost communication, and the big bodies like the World Bank, and ITU, start responding. "The missing link has been to bring the network operators together with the PTTs, to learn each other's problems, and the PTTs to be aware of the impact on the country's development. Now, that chance has arrived."

The symposium will strike some ideological sparks too. The World Bank will play its traditional role of stressing the need for "privatisation and competition" in the telecommunications sector, and will highlight opportunities for trade and international investment as development agents.

Other activist experts will sound warnings and pose sharp questions, like IDRC's David Nostbakken and Shahid Akhtar: for nations and regions not just to embrace the new technologies, but to review how they relate to social and cultural needs; for donors to support national level planning, "and to ensure that the North-South gap is not widened by the highway that is indeed going South."

They will exhort African opinion-formers and communities to get onto the highway, so they can use it as "their media, [which] must also carry their messages" to each other. Limitless channels coming through digital compression and fibre optic cable "may in fact retard national development if they serve only to provide greater quantities of Western programming," their paper warns.

Tony Hall, a consultant now based in Addis Ababa, is former editor-in -chief of the magazine Africa South & East.

Date: Mon,  3 Apr 95 17:47:47 +0000
Subject: African Telematics Symposium
Message-Id: []

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D.
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