This paper presents an overview about the heterogeneous data communication infrastructure and the existing Internet services in the different subregions: North Africa, central Arab and the gulf. It highlights a regional networking initiative called RAITnet, to link the IT professionals in the region together on top of the Internet as a transport facility. Several further issues and problems related to the Internet expansion and to regional networking activities are analyzed. It concludes with some future plans and recommendations to upgrade the data communication infrastructure and the Internet services in the region as a solid base for a Regional Information Highway.
The technical obstacles are considered as a part of the barriers towards the growth of the Internet. Some countries like Egypt have overcome those obstacles and established successfully a structured Internet operational domain in the country. Nevertheless the Internet is still affected by other non-technical financial, political and cultural aspects .
An initiative has been taken by RITSEC (Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center) in Cairo to support the regional networking activities in the region starting December 1994. The first seminar was held in Cairo and another one will be held in Tunisia to push the cooperation in the area of communication and networking on a regional level.
Public telecommunication services in the Arab region are provided by state agencies and are very heterogeneous. They differ from one country to the other. Arab states have an average of 4 main telephone lines per 100 inhabitants, which is almost 10 times less than the average in industrialized countries. On the other hand, over the last decade Egypt and Oman had among others the highest growth rates in the number of main telephone lines in the world. The telephone networks are around 95% automatic with 50% using digital switches and more than half of the countries have mobile phones.
We will divide the Arab Region in different subregions, which are more or less homogeneous in the nature of their data communication and networking infrastructure. A focus will be put on two to three countries which will be chosen as examples of each subregion.
The first subregion is North Africa and will be represented by Morocco and Tunisia, the second subregion is the central Arab subregion and will be represented by Syria and Egypt and the third subregion is the gulf area and will be represented by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Morocco provides its data communication services via public phone lines as well as leased lines connectivity from the PTT . Optical fibre and digital lines are used for inter-exchange connectivity and are not used on the subscriber level.
The PTT provides its data communication services using an X.25 public data network with X.32 and PAD (X.28) access via telephone lines. This network is used as a base for the various value added services in the country such as videotex services. Some private sector activities from MCI provides email services via dial-up facilities on X.25. Morocco has registered the Internet .ma domain. More than 5 sites in academic and governmental agencies with more than 200 users are using email services. The services are running today with basic email services and are planned to be extended to include full interactive Internet services using a 64K leased connection to France. Al Akhawayn University is taking over the activities of introducing the Internet to the country with 64K lines to Fnet / EUnet using a set of class C addresses. It is planned to have other private and public Internet service providers soon.
Tunisia is also very active in communication and networking . The PTT provides its data communication services using dial-up and leased lines. Tunipac, the X.25 data network of Tunisia provides its services via X.25 as well as PAD access (X.28).
The Internet service in Tunisia is well established within .tn domain since 1991/1992. The service is provided via an X.25 connection via Tunipac to France, while a 64K leased line connection is under installation. RNRT (Reseau National de la Recherche et de la Technologie) at IRSIT is the gateway of Tunisia to the Internet and provides the service to the academic (70%) as well as the governmental (different ministries) and the commercial sector (chambers of commerce). The center provides full Internet services with well established information access servers using gopher and World Wide Web. Other value added services include the videotex (Minitel service) with a lot of arabization efforts running.
Tunisia is ready to play a focal role in the area of communication and networking in the North African subregion due to the availability of reliable data communication infrastructure, well trained staff as well as well established value added network services.
Syria provides its data communication services via dial-up and X.25 access . Syriapac, the PDN, is operational since late 1993 and provides its services via X.25, X.28 (PAD), dial-up and leased line connectivity. The PTT upgrades the existing infrastructure to inter-exchange optical fibre links, which gives a big push to the data communication projects.
There are no Internet services available in Syria and the government recognized its need for that. The PDN (Syriapac) is the gateway of the country via X.25 protocol to other PDNs and value added service providers. There are successful connections with e.g. Egyptnet, the Egyptian Public Data Network. It has been successfully used to connect some institutions in Syria like HIAST to the Internet via RITSEC in Egypt. Further efforts have to be done to build upon these links in order to provide Syria with some Internet service using the tunneling or encapsulation (IP over X.25). The TCP/IP is available in Syria on the local and wide area level, but not as a part of the Internet.
Egypt is considered to have some major role in the central Arab subregion due to several reasons such as the availability of satisfactory data communication infrastructure, its central geographical location as well as the availability of well established full Internet services.
Egypt has a well established Internet domain serving the various sectors . It has a satisfactory infrastructure provided by ARENTO, the Arab Republic of Egypt National Telecommunication Organization. ARENTO has established 3 million telephone lines as well as inter-exchange optical fibre links between the various exchanges in greater Cairo and Nile Delta, while other parts such as southern Egypt, will be covered soon. The digital data access is provided to the end user using digital multiplexors, the first digital public backbone network installation in Cairo, which has been established jointly between IDSC/RITSEC, the Supreme Council of Universities and ARENTO to provide a digital connectivity with at least 64kb/sec for the different Internet sites in Egypt.
The PDN, Egyptnet, is an X.25 based network covering Cairo, Alexandria and Suez with speeds up to 19.2k. It provides X.25 via leased lines as well as X.28 (PAD) access via dial-up and is connected to international PDNs e.g. Transpac using X.75 protocols. Its main problems are the limited geographical coverage as well as the limited speed on the network. Ongoing activities will raise the speed of the network and will cover new geographical areas in Nile Delta. Egypt's international data communication connectivity is well established via the optical SEMEWE-2 cable as well as via Intelsat and Arabsat services. The data communication services are quite reliable but suffer from prohibitive prices especially for the international data communication access. VSAT services to provide the data communication infrastructure in rural and remote areas are being introduced.
Concerning network value added services, the Internet is considered as a good representative for the value added services. It is operational since October 1993 and it has been preceded with a uucp service at Enstinet, an EARN/Bitnet service at EUN and the Tradenet service at IDSC/RITSEC. The Internet gateway to the E-bone in France and domain administration is with the Supreme Council of Universities and the structure covers the following subdomains:
Eun stands for the Egyptian Universities Networks and provides the services for the universities and schools, while .sci subdomain serves the scientific research institutes at the Academy of Scientific Research via Enstinet as well as for different other research centers like the National Telecommunication Institute. The governmental domain gets the service via IDSC (Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center) and the commercial domain via RITSEC.
The total number of Internet users is above 2000 with 70% of the users in the academic sectors, and the traffic growth rate has been 148% in Q4 1994, the fourth position in the world.
A commercialization process has been initiated to include the private value added service providers under the .com.eg domain.
Egypt has been among the leading countries in the region in the development of Gopher and WWW servers, but further efforts have to be put in that aspect.
The above indicats that Egypt can play a significant role in communication and networking in the central Arab region.
The United Arab Emirates has established via its public private shared PTT "Etisalat" the most up-to-date telecommunication infrastructure in the region. It has established about 600,000 telephone lines in the country. A full fledge fiber optic network covers the whole country including the offshore island, while future plans include introducing fibre in the subscriber loop and extending its services to the homes and offices. GSM service for mobile telephony has been recently launched as a fully digitized network .
The data communication infrastructure is based on the up-to-date transmission facilities in the country. The networks started with classical X.25 networks with dedicated and PAD (X.28) access via dial-up with various speeds from 50bps-64kbps.
A frame relay service has been recently launched and provides a LAN-to-LAN connectivity for corporate customers with various speeds from 64K-2MB with bandwidth on demand functionality.
The ISDN service is also available as a primary rate interface and basic rate interface for videoconferencing and other value added services.
The PTT offers a number of value added services which include fax on demand facilities, electronic mail (3000 mail boxes) using standard and proprietary mail systems.
The value added services at the information centers need further attention. The Internet domain has been registered and is not yet operational in the country, and the information and value added services need further development.
In Kuwait the PTT is publicly owned but some services are provided by the private sector. Using a state of the art telecommunication transmission facilities with optical fibre and digital connectivity all services are provided by the public PTT except a cellular mobile phone and paging system which are provided by a semi governmental company. The VSAT service as well as the electronic messaging system are also provided by local companies .
Kuwait public data network uses X.25 protocol and provides its customers with local and international services.
Various applications include access to the international databases, various information retrieval services as well as telex and fax per email services. Store and forward email system based on the international standards are also available. Other value added services include the ODS (On-line Data Services) with banking and directory services are supported by local providers. Kuwait has also an operational Internet domain .kw with operational nodes at the University and other private companies. The Internet provides email and full Internet services to the academic, governmental and commercial community in Kuwait. Additional efforts will be put in the area of information servers such as gopher and WWW servers to enrich the Internet in the region with the necessary information wealth.
However the establishment of operational Internet domains in some countries of the region is changing the picture of regional networking significantly. The Internet has significant technical advantages as a base for regional networking due to the following :
An initiative called RAITnet, the Regional Arab Information Technology Network has been launched in Cairo in December 1994 to bring the IT professionals in the region together. Its main objectives can be summarized as follows:
Fig.1 summarizes the structure and access mechanisms of RAITnet.
RAITnet is gaining more users and can be considered a step forward towards regional networking. However this is only an individual step, which needs to be followed by other structured steps. To achieve strong regional networking in different areas more efforts have to be exerted in this direction. There is a need to strengthen the Internet services in the region qualitatively and quantitatively. This is related to different issues and problems which will be summarized in the following section.
Further attention should be given to establish a stronger intercountry data communication services in the region. More usage of the SEMEWE-2 optical fibre cable and satellite data communication channels should be done.
The financial issues and problems include the prohibitive prices of PTT in the region for international data communication facilities. This problem should be considered in the context of the deregulation of some services in the PTT's such as the various data communication services.
New services as the LAN emulation services can be provided by the upgrade of the existing X.25 PDNs to frame relay based service with speeds up to E-1. Future plans for comprehensive ATM services should be considered early enough and the necessary data transmission infrastructure up to E-3 should be deployed.