UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
African Connectivity, Problems, Solutions and Actions:
Some Recommendations from Inet'96
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The information revolution that is sweeping the rest of the world is now rapidly approaching Africa. The continent is recognizing the opportunities, challenges and complexities of the information society. While the impact of this revolution is tremendous, the existing infrastructure, socio-economic, cultural and political situations pose major difficulties in introducing, implementing and diffusing new technologies for Internetworking. The major problems are not technical but managerial, political, cultural and also due to a lack of resources. Thus, Africa needs to find its own solutions to local problems. Seizing the opportunities of global networking would allow the region to fight poverty and ignorance from all direction.
In order to make connectivity a reality and useful tool to local centered development, local actors should develop capacity to implement networks that address the day to day problems. The private sector should assume the major role in establish networks in Africa. Local solutions, on the other hand, require actions by governments and the support of the international organizations.
African participants of the Inet'96 workshop of countries in early stage of internetworking introduced and reviewed the current problems in networking in African countries at two informal sessions. Discussion also centered around unique strategies to resolve these problems and some participants were able to reccommend concrete actions which could be undertaken immediately. The following sections briefly summarizes these sessions.
II. Current Internetworking problems in Africa
African connectivity problems are the result of peculiar socio-economic conditions in the region. Many nations continue to suffer from badly performing economies, high foreign debt, declining resources and social infrastructures, alarming population growth, increased dependency, degradation of the environment and other debilitating ailments. These have direct implication on the implementation of networking projects and the type of public policies that foster connectivity in Africa.
Some countries in Africa still remained unconnected to the most basic forms of store and forward technologies such as uucp. Others continue to link via fledgling public networks without proper management strategies and private sector involvement. Those connected to full IP s (Internet Providers) score the least density in the world. Some of the problems that hinder the deployment of connectivity in the region include:
(i) Lack of information coordination
A number of networking projects have made substantial efforts to set up grassroots links in Africa. However, many steps are redundantly duplicated due to a lack of mutual national, sub- regional, regional and international coordination. "Everyone wants to coordinate, but no one wants to be coordinated". This peculiar problem is compounded by lack of qualitative information on connectivity, i.e., (Who is doing what? What are the costs. What are the plans? etc.)
(ii) Lack of coordination of physical connections
Except in southern Africa the majority of links from Africa connect via Europe and North America. There are a number of situations where national networks connect to each other via intermediaries in Europe or North America. A message that would have taken less than five minutes by taxi takes a full day to arrive via email. Some are even jokingly referring to email systems in Africa as snail mail systems. At the sub-regional and regional levels there are no plans for backbones that interconnect African countries. Lack of adequate technical knowledge to develop gateways between these links, competition for resources and donor requirements is making it difficult to develop active collaboration.
(iii). Lack of technical personnel cooperation
The networking of trained individuals is very critical for regional cooperation. Cooperation and coordination of system managers and the advocates of networking have been less successful in Africa. Technical personnel have also been unable to coordinate networking activities and were less interactive during the last five years. There have not been a sufficient amount of forums to bring the majority of network managers together except at a few sparkling examples like the Inet workshops, and also Telematics Symposium held in Addis Ababa, April 1995.
(iv) Information poverty and non-availability via networks
The major bottleneck and a cause of stagnation to the development of technological networking in Africa has been its weak information infrastructure. Strategic information for better health, functioning industry, prompt social services, transparent governance, sustainable environment and development are non- existent. Africa continues to depend on the North for its own local information. This dependency needs to be reversed. On the other hand, the "NET" itself is becoming a widely used mechanism for the xchange of information. Nevertheless, it is often difficult to find relevant information in very short time. It can take long periods of time before information is retrieved from the Web. This is very costly for African networks who can not afford to waste scarce bandwidth surfing on the Web.
(v) Telecommunications monopoly and obsolete regulatory frameworks
The networking problem in Africa generally stems from obsolete policies and negative regulatory frameworks by governments. Telecommunications is a public (government) property in many countries. PT&Ts consider networking as a sole government job without competition. Government owned telecommunication operators are usually inefficient. Commercial service providers are not allowed to provide value added services. Furthermore, it is often very difficult to alter these longstanding attitudes. The majority of African governments still require longer time to understand the value of networking offers to their competitiveness and its abilities to foster positive changes in quality of life. Issues such as cultural erosion, pornography, privacy, security, loss of revenue are often amplified by government controlled media as opposed to promoting empowerment via networks.
(vi). Minimum involvement of research institutions in network building and diffusion in Africa
Most projects in Africa have centered around NGOs and private sectors without the involvement of the academic community. The research and academic community that would have been a vehicle for the development of the Internet through teaching and multiplying technical capacity has been overlooked during the last five years. Users from the academic community were unable to effectively exploit networking. The local information economies require advances in the local capacity for software research and development. African countries can become full actors in the area of software development if considerable attention is given to this area.
(vii). Unreliable telecommunication infrastructures
In addition to high tariffs and non-favorable traffic, African telecommunication infrastructures remain unreliable. Many countries still use analog links that are difficult to integrate to newer communication technologies. Other innovative telecom networks that bypass local analog loops are unavailable and the licensing processes for them are antiquated.
(viii) Language barriers
The diversity of African communities poses a difficulty in integrating them to the net culture. Language and illiteracy are central to this problem. Most countries use different languages other than English. Network user interfaces to these languages are unavailable and developments in transliteration are in very early stages.
(ix) Different network technologies, topologies and protocols
The availability of different protocols (often more than four in each country) poses difficulty in maintaining links between local links. Some proprietary network protocols are still difficult to link to open standard links.
III. Proposed solutions to interconnectivity problems in Africa
African solutions to networking are generally country specific. Therefore, any attempted solutions must incorporate strategies can be applied to each African country. Training and sensitization are both fundamental to bring changes in Africa. All opportunities including ISOC workshops should be used to provide basic, advanced and system administration training to users, policy makers and system managers. National training is usually most effective and more local training will sustain the national links.
The following ideas were proposed as partial solutions to networking problems in Africa:
(i) Better coordination between donors, local actors and government
There are often number of projects running parallel in the same institutions or town without knowledge of the existence of the other. Better coordination between donors, local actors and government s is important to sustain connectivity projects. A national repository of information is perhaps the most useful tool for coordination.
(ii) Creation of national, regional and sub-regional forums
Interaction between local actors, system managers and project implementors is of great importance to foster collaboration within Africa and to reduce duplication of efforts. Technical solutions are often miles away. Interaction entails formation of user groups, networked forums, listserves, on-line conferences and physical contacts via workshops, symposiums and conferences.
(iii) Technical cooperation
Maintaining technical cooperation between network operators sysops, network mangers etc.) in Africa via existing and new listserves and on-line conferences is invaluable to improve the sharing of regional experience and knowledge. Networking makes the sharing of knowledge, scarce resources and time easier. Listserves, existing conferences and echoes can be used to link up local and regional network gurus. Horizontal technical cooperation should be encouraged between African countries in the area of training where advanced countries share their experiences in running various technologies.
(iv) Mechanism for close collaboration between technical personnel and decision makers should be established
In addition to the interaction between system operators, a mechanism for vertical communication between technical personnel and decision makers should be established. Network personnel and advocates should be able to influence decision makers. This may be through the formation of local user and advisory groups.
(v) Focus should be made in improving training specially in francophone and lusophone countries in Africa
Training and human resource development is central to building the capacity of African countries. Local private firms, academic institutions and users at large should be trained on various aspects of networking and information dissemination via networks. Training should also be tailored to address diversity in languages and French, Swahili Arabic and Portuguese speaking countries should be able to benefit from these training in their own local languages. Efforts by Internet Society to introduce workshop tracks for French speaking countries should be encouraged. ISOC should mount regional training for Africa.
(vi) Set up ISOC African chapter
As in the case of other countries African chapters should be established in the ISOC structure. This would extend the Society's purposes by serving the interests of African communities through a local presence, focus on local issues and developments, use of local languages. The African chapters statement of purpose would include assisting the expansion of the Internet, improving awareness through sensitization and training in collaboration of ISOC headquarters, voicing the concerns and needs of local communities.
(vii) Organization of training on Internet at national level by trainees from Inet workshop Since Internet workshops are for trainers and system managers, the trend should not end at ISOC workshops. African trainees should mount national workshops on the Internet every year. This will improve expansion of Internet community at the local level. There is also a need for mounting sub-regional and regional training.
(vii) Enhancing local interconnectivity
Network projects should focus on diffusion of connectivity at local level. This will reduce availability of links to a privileged few and enhance abilities to reach that "last mile".
(ix) Establishment of national data bases on connectivity
Connectivity data on Africa is full of errors and inconsistencies. This is due to lack of timely information, less cooperation from system managers, new and unnoticed links and system improvements. The majority of suppliers of information that relates to connectivity are located in other parts of the world. This suggests a need for a creation of national connectivity databases that can be available via network tools (mailing list, listserve, WWW etc.) to the global community and to international connectivity lists maintained by various institutions. Decentralizing the current network databases on country levels is important to accommodate the increasing volume of data on links, costs, plans and technical topologies.
(x) Establishment of a regional and sub-regional backbone
African countries should begin to group their efforts to set up network backbones. Sub-regional backbones have already been under discussion. Close collaboration for set up regional and sub- regional backbones are essential.
(xi) Emphasis on collecting, organizing and publishing local information and making it available on the network
In addition to improving connectivity, Africa needs to move towards building its own content on the net. This involves training in new ways for information gathering and presentation. The development of net "meta information" (information on information on the net) is crucial to optimize the use of scarce bandwidth and to get pertinent information to users that are not connected.
(xii) Development of national information and communication plans for every country in Africa
In view of efforts in building African Information Society (there are already initiatives by UNECA), every African country should chart its road map towards building national information infrastructure.
(xiii) Liberalization of telecommunications and public broadcasting services
Unless efforts are made to liberalize public telecommunication and broadcasting services the majority of African countries will remain in vicious circles of poverty. Public broadcasting and telecommunication services are carriers of information that empowers African citizens. In addition to liberalizing existing networks, PT&Ts should be able to open up for licensing innovative communication links such as VSAT and other alternative technologies such as radios.
(xiv) Enhancing the role of the media in diffusion of Internet connectivity
African media should be supported and introduced to advancing Internet technologies. The role of media in diffusing connectivity is tremendous. Project implementors and local champions should seize every opportunities to broadcast the impact of IP link on the community through the media. African media should be involved in using networks.
(xv) Development of strategies to support academic and research institutions to have access to communication technologies
There is an urgent need to support African universities to improve teaching and research in the fields of communication and computing technologies. This would improve local capacity, access to networks and multiply connectivity using students. Focus should be made on key areas such as software development and unix systems administration. Here Africa still faces the largest qualitative. This is the area that most countries can leapfrog.
(xvi) Enhance research in language interfaces and forums in multiple languages
User interfaces development and research in various languages is critical to enhance access to local communities. Multiple language forums would also enhance the cultural exchange and interaction between different language users.
A new way of looking at African information supply is also essential. Training in new methods of information organization is far too critical for successful connectivity in the region. This means training in hypertext tools and information generation and organization in various formats.
The role of the private sector is crucial to African connectivity. Aggressive private sector involvement in connectivity would substitute for lack of marketing strategy in public networks. Private isnstitutions are also key to sustaining national networks.
IV. Proposed actions and conclusions
It was proposed that concrete actions by donor agencies, international non-governmental organizations, network champions and governments are essential to enhancing connectivity in Africa. They should implement the solutions to African connectivity problems described above.
The following actions were proposed during the meeting on Africa at the Inte'96 conference.
- develop strategies for training government officials ,universities, and research units on the use of the technology and its impact on organizations.
- strengthen and sustain existing training capacity scattered throughout the region covering wide range of users including technicians (use INET workshop models),
admintartors to sstain services and users on best practices and optimum usage of the "net".
- work on African IP registry
- work on the establishment of African Internet Group similar to the Asian Internet Group that would meet during Inet workshops
- establishing African ISOC chapter
Donors were urged to improve collaboration between each other because interaction between donors and local actors is extremely important. They should recognize diversity to come up with different solutions for different African countries and play key roles in development of national information infrastructure road maps in African countries.
NGOS and International organizations are also requested to assist African network actors in their efforts to deal with national policies. Organizations such as the United Nations and ITU should exert pressure on governments to liberalize telecommunications and broadcasting services. NGOs and international organizations are crucial in setting up start up networks.
The champions of networking in Africa should interact and exchange ideas. Governments should open up to the changes in the global processes and information societies. African connectivity is not just for a link between people and networks; it is a tool for fighting underdevelopment.
From: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: Thu, 11 Jul 96 12:47:22 +0000 Subject: text for Web Message-ID: <email@example.com>
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