"Telecentres - Towards Universal Service", Skung Sawo

"Telecentres - Towards Universal Service",

Skung Sawo

Sankung SAWO
GAMTEL, The Gambia
Panel #2

Mr. Chairman,

I am very much pleased to be given the opportunity to address this august body on this interesting issue.

Before I go further, let me give a brief description of the geography and demography of The Gambia (1993 Statistical Data):

Population = 1,025,867,
Total area = about 10,000,
Teledensity = 1.4 - 2.0.

ITU 'Missing Link Report' contains the recommendation that:

- By the year 2000, each and every individual should be within an easy reach of a telecommunication service.

This problably defines what is called "Universal Service".

These are the two main guidelines for GAMTEL as, so far, the sole company in the Gambia confered with the responsibility to provide telecommunications services -including telematics.

I wish to quote from GAMTEL's 1994 Annual Budget Report:

"GAMTEL's TARGET IS NOT 'A TELEPHONE FOR EVERYBODY' but 'Telephone Access and Quality of Service for Everybody'".

Also the Managing Director in his report stated that:
(GAMTEL) Customers are becoming more sophisticated in their requirements for our services and technology. The company must respond by becoming truly customer driven and by using all resources to deliver the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.

Mr. Chairman, it is thus clear to all of us in the Gambia why GAMTEL embarked on setting up more than 20 TeleCentres throughout the Gambia and the building of a truly National Infrastructure backbone: namely, a state-of-the-art Fiber Optic Cable, about 400km long, along the entire length of the country, and a Digital Microwave Radio Link backbone 34mb/s in parallel with it. This is what I would regard as the very basis of a National Information Infrastructure needed for a National Information Highway.

Mr. Chairman, most people in this audience would agree with me that, in Africa, our bottleneck to having a Continental Information Highway - or Super Highways as it will be in the next century when we have convergence of voice, data and video i.e. multimedia services - is the lack of basic broadband (multimegabit) telecommunications links in most of the countries South of Sahara desert.

But I believe there is a lot to be learnt from the new democratic South Africa and most of our countries can benefit from partnerships with this shining state. Of course, for us in The Gambia, and GAMTEL in particular, we believe that, in terms of communication infrastructure and provision (and availability) of services, we are only a step behind South Africa. I will compound this statement by the fact that, according to BT and AT&T, Gambia (GAMTEL) has the second highest call completion rates in Africa!

Before I left Gambia for this meeting, by boss informed me that, in fact, 34MB/s chunk of the fibre backbone is reserved for MultiChannel TV and Data.

Mr. Chairman, may I quote again a relevant statement:

The EC Telecoms Commissioner, Martin Bangemann, is quoted by CWI magazine that (he) has identified lack of network infrastructure competition as a major obstacle to the development of high-speed Pan-European networking.

But whilst Europeans are worrying about competition in infrastructure, in the US, the concern is with SERVICES AND APPLICATIONS.

What is our worry in Africa?

Going back to the Gambian situation and the strategies that GAMTEL is taking in a match towards the year 2000, I would like to see GAMTEL succeeding in building a National Internet network, even before leasing a US$65.000 64kbps link for connection to world-wide Internet. GAMTEL has the resources to do this and the infrastructure also. GAMTEL, in its own house, is standardizing on UNIX and all its computer systems are on UNIX platforms with TCP/IP LAN protocol! After all that is what the core of WWI hosts are - UNIX based computers, mainly.

Conservatively, I could say that GAMTEL could provide Email and related multimedia services throughout the Gambia, on its multimegabit backbones and through its Telecentres, to the majority of the people in the country. Plans are already well advanced to set up a national Email system, and which in time would also have databases - on finance, economic and educational information - this year 1995. The service could be made available to all the Telecentres, including those owned by private individuals, in order to reach the masses essentially.

In fact, Mr. Chairman, I forgot to mention two value-added network services that GAMTEL also provides in the Gambia now, namely a cellular (mobile) telephone network and a Packet Switch Data Network (X.25 network). The latter is going to b e used for gateway connection of the national Email host to X.400 mail servers in the UK and in the USA, and also as an alternative access medium.

Before I conclude my speech, let me highlight a very important sector of our economies, namely the private sector (enterprises), which I expect to be the engine of the African Information highway initiative. Enabled by the public sector, especially the Governments, the private sector must take the lead in financing the future services.

Mr. Michael Jensen said, in an answer to a question from the floor, that one of the main reasons of lack of adequate connectivity of existing networks (in Africa) today is low-level of economic activity. Mr. Chairmain, I totally agree with the gentleman. I believe that telecom companies will no doubt resolve this problem if and when we have high trading activities between our countries. This is not the reality now.

Finally, I would like to tell a real story about my own village, where I come from, about 30km away from the capital, Banjul: Village name is Nuimi Lameng.

First telephone communication ever in this village of 150 households, using a mobile (cellular) telephone set with a microphone in December 1993, enable villagers to make family 'conference' call with their village folks living abroad - e.g. in USA, Europe, etc. A whole family sits around the mobile set and communicates with the person at the other end.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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