Systematization of the Peruvian Scientific Network Experience

José Soriano
Peruvian Scientific Network

Introduction

Since its establishment in December 1991, with 43 institutions affiliated, the Peruvian Scientific Network, or Red Científica Peruana (RCP), has developed a model markedly different from those in other countries. After 4 years, this network has expanded from 43 to more than 2,000 affiliates. Even more important, however, is the model that supports its growth and sustainability.

This paper offers, first, an explanation of the objectives, model, and strategy of the RCP, and, second, a more in-depth treatment of the political and organizational components that define its uniqueness.

1. International background

Over the last 10 years, Latin America has begun developing both corporate and individual networks. These networks can be classified three ways: commercial, nongovernmental organization (NGO), and academic. Following the trend toward user segmentation, international agencies promoted the goal of connecting Latin American countries, mainly through thematic networks (human rights, environment, sustainable resources, et cetera) that would gather the different user sectors. That, with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), among others, gave birth in Brazil to the Latin American Alternet networks, also known as Association for Progressive Communications (APC) networks.

Within this framework, the Latin American and Caribbean Networks (REDALC) emerged as a product of a joint drive by the European Community and the Latin Union. Meetings took place in Madrid, Costa Rica, and Santiago de Chile that, given the support of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), boosted the startup of Latin American networks and culminated in the creation of the Permanent Forum on Latin American and Caribbean Networks.

The technologies applied to each type of network varied. For instance, among Latin American networks, there were some connecting mainframes, usually IBM, into a worldwide network (called Earn in Europe and Bitnet in the United States) oriented to large group computer centers distributed among the academic population. Similar technology lay behind certain networks installed in Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Brazil.

Other universities connected networks using only electronic mail and Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP). As these networks grew, they received funding from international agencies (Chile), the government (Mexico and Brazil), or a private university (Colombia).

Because of this diversity, networks from country to country vary according to their objectives (type of user and thematic base), origin (particular organizational strategy), sponsorship received or strategy to obtain funds, and technological characteristics and potential.

2. National background

Networks that emerged in Peru over the last 10 years include the medical network of the Cayetano Heredia University, the education network of the Ministry of Education, and the librarian networks.

Two attempts to create communication networks were significant. The first, Pernet, begun in 1985, was funded by IBM with the objective of connecting five state universities. This project did not succeed, primarily because the connections were made amongst administrative units, which could not offer useful information to other universities.

Afterwards, Mario Padrón, from the NGO DESCO, attempted to create an NGO network "to connect with their counterparts abroad by using the X.25 network of Perunet, a resource which regrettably was not affordable for many users."

The project led by M. Padrón did not succeed because it did not resolve interorganizational tensions. In communication networks such tension typically arises when network development focuses too heavily on technological needs and too little on political realities.

3. RCP objectives

3.1 National integration

The RCP represents an effort to contribute to the Peruvians' national integration through communication. This is an especially relevant objective since, as is often the case in any nation, internal sectors have different objectives, and conflicts are inevitable. Peru is further plagued by an unfortunately centralist political development that has aggravated its traditional patterns of social and cultural segregation.

Integration of the national sectors

At the beginning, RCP planned to group academic sectors, NGOs, and organizations with commercial purposes, as well as government and private companies, in order to constitute a national network and to overcome the tendency toward segmented networks.

RCP was created through an affiliation of NGOs and universities. Because of their role as disseminators of knowledge, these entities were most likely to be interested in an information exchange, especially in view of the fact that they had already tried to develop a network. RCP took the additional step of incorporating more participants and contributors into the network: the state as well as private companies, hospitals, schools, and other organizations.

From RCP's perspective, creation of a national network complements further national development. This statement could be considered as its institutional mission. Fulfillment of this mission remains difficult to evaluate. However, the contribution to the national development constitutes a true objective, which has been partially achieved with the RCP network by its including a variety of national sectors.

The analysis of the specific difficulties faced in this process is treated in the fifth section. What is important here is to draw attention to the situation of Peru as a country traditionally not well integrated, a country that has excluded huge sectors from participating in developing policies and enjoying the benefits of policies. This practice has contributed both to a prevailing distrust within various sectors and to the tendency to compete for generally scarce financial resources.

Furthermore, the country has suffered from continued violence and terrorist activity for more than a decade. Such circumstances have reduced public and private investment in basic national infrastructure and increased national isolation.

Geographic and cultural integration

It is within this framework that RCP attempts to achieve national integration. As a corollary goal, RCP envisions the creation of a national backbone to connect the 24 departments of the country. This project began in 1994 and consists of creating department consortiums with a dedicated line connecting to Lima, initially of 64 Kb.

"The main objective is to create a national communication backbone allowing institutions affiliated with the Peruvian Scientific Network Association, regardless of their geographic location, to have the same ability to access information and to communicate as institutions in Lima, and thus avoid being technically or economically penalized."

The specific objectives of this project are to develop a national IP infrastructure providing access to the resources available in Lima, allowing more cooperation among institutions at the national level, lowering communication costs for the national research system, and offering training for the use of new equipment and technologies.

The development of the national backbone has been hindered by two factors. First, the necessary dedicated telephone lines were not installed early enough. Second, RCP has lacked capital to form the department nodes, acquire infrastructure, and buy the telecommunication services from Telefónica del Perú. At present, the connection of 23 department capital cities would represent an initial payment to Telefónica of approximately $150,000 and a monthly fee of $80,000.

In these circumstances, the RCP has promoted the idea that department consortiums be formed under the same self-funding model developed in Lima, looking for credit alternatives to supplement local efforts. In terms of national integration, concurrence of the different national sectors has been achieved, but the entire country has yet to be connected to the fledgling network.

3.2 Democratization of educational technology

The other important objective of the RCP is to offer Peru's population the educational opportunities of the Internet. The traditional political exclusion has its economic counterpart. Official 1994 data about poverty reveal that 54 percent of the population is poor and 20 percent lives in extreme poverty or indigence. Of these people, approximately 2.5 milllion live in Lima, the capital city; the other 3 million are distributed among peasant communities of the highlands. Extreme poverty thus affects the families of the rural highlands most heavily: half are indigent.

Poverty became more widespread after the strict stabilizing policies undertaken by the first government of President Fujimori in 1990. However, the problem was rampant before then. Chronic poverty has long been a significant social issue. Economic segregation within the Peruvian population translates into difficulties accessing basic services such as housing, sanitation, health care, and education.

Limits on the use of telecommunications

Access to the Internet is still an objective of restricted scope. Economic and technical difficulties are evident in the limited access to telephone lines and computers. Lack of access to technology and communications is therefore not restricted to the poor and indigent.

In Lima, there is one telephone for every three households. Elsewhere in Peru, there is one for every 10. Only an estimated 4 percent of households in Lima boast a computer. This shortage carries over into the school system.

"In an accelerated manner during the last years, a split has been produced: on the one hand, schools with blackboards and chalk; on the other hand, those with computers, libraries, and the most modern implementation, producing children and professors with different educational conditions and more opportunities. ... Public education in its present form seems condemned to disappear; it becomes more and more outpaced and isolated from everyday reality, full of innovations and new ways of thinking and doing."

Furthermore, in social and economic terms, exposure to and training in the use of information media are limited. Efforts to rectify this deficit have broadened in recent years, especially in leading private and government institutions. Sadly, this situation is not unique to Peru.

Special services

To make technology and education readily available to the entire population, the RCP adopted a variety of approaches. First, it was necessary to translate into Spanish--and more recently into Quechua--the software and texts, since the use of English is not widespread among the population. Such perspective gives priority to internal development and complements RCP's attempt to be a window through which the world can look into Peru rather than the reverse. To a certain extent, this has been achieved: incoming traffic is higher than outgoing and internal electronic mail is heavy.

Second, the RCP offers introductory courses in the use of Internet tools and has created public booths for those without a computer. The public booth service was created in 1995 and consists of offering Internet access to its users for 3 hours a week at a $15 fee.

The latter two services are currently being provided only in Lima, but there are plans to expand them to the departments, which will reproduce the dynamics generated by the RCP in Lima.

The RENACE project

There is also a project oriented specifically to education centers: the National Education Network (Red Nacional de Educación--RENACE). This project began in 1994 as a feasibility study and planning exercise carried out with the Ministry of Education.

RENACE was conceived as a multiservice network supported by the infrastructure and services provided by the RCP and by information systems that would be prepared by the Ministry of Education. It would allow access to e-mail, data transport (FTP), news, data banks, and national and international lists of interest. Its general objectives are to encourage principals, teachers, and students to make use of the technologies available in the RCP and to provide an integrated system allowing the formation, evaluation, and exchange of experiences in the education system.

A resolution in April 29, 1994, resolved to create the National Education Network as a pilot project of the Ministry of Education, but the network has not began to operate yet.

The objective of encouraging access to the RCP and to Internet tools among the population as a whole is now facing obstacles: on the one hand, poverty and limited knowledge of the information media by the population, and on the other hand, the lack of a policy to democratize telecommunications. Nevertheless, the RCP has designed services and projects that are permitting it, little by little, to offset a national context otherwise adverse for the achievement of its goals.

Joint and nonprofit property

From its inception, the RCP has firmly intended to avoid centralizing information, to eliminate the possibility that any one sector could monopolize decisions about what should circulate and at what price. The model proposes that users may have access to--and may provide--all the information they consider necessary.

This is the basic logic of the model; it is reflected in the definition of the RCP as a consortium owned by its users with no profit-making purposes--thus avoiding possibility that sectors with the lowest economic resources would be excluded.

As a nonprofit organization, the RCP has two types of owners: (1) commercial entities and individual users have the right to give their opinion on the functioning of the net; (2) nonprofit organizations (NGOs, universities, and the state) also have the right to vote. There are currently 2,149 owners: 73 percent are companies and individual users and 27 percent are members with the right to vote, e.g., NGOs; health, education, and military entities; and government agencies.

The growth rate of affiliates has accelerated in the past few months. In December 1995 there were 1,062 users; in March, there were more than 2,000 (a 105 percent increase).

4. Self-sustainability

The RCP does not depend on state subsidies, so that its development will not be affected by changes in the government, either of policies or people.

During its first years, RCP accepted donations from international agencies for the acquisition of infrastructure. (Network operation is supported through the increase in the number of affiliates.) Until early 1993, the RCP was a store-and-forward UUCP node with limited equipment; donations funded the first months of operation and the acquisition of the infrastructure for a dedicated connection to the Internet.

Without denying the importance of international support, the RCP has proved that a cooperative association can become self-sustaining through an increase in the number of affiliates. Also, as a nonprofit organization, the RCP pays proportionally less for its services as the number of affiliates increases. The current monthly fee is US$19 for UUCP and interactive connections and US$43 for UUCP + SLIP.

5. The strategy

5.1 The pyramid

Most emerging organizations resolving technical difficulties first, then attend to organizational and funding needs, and finally to political problems. The RCP reversed this process, dealing first with political issues, since they will ultimately determine the decisions regarding organization, fundraising, and technological development. Thus, from the beginning, emphasis was placed on making the different national sectors converge, paying special attention to the final user rather than to the organizational and technical characteristics of the net.

5.2 Stages in the development of the RCP

The RCP has undergone four stages in its development. The first stage--promotion--began in 1990 and ended in late 1992, a year after the official establishment of the RCP. In this stage the main efforts were at a political level.

During the second stage, in 1993, integration of all the national sectors was promoted, with the focus on the organization and sustainability of the RCP.

The third stage began in February 1994 with the incorporation into the Internet and an emphasis on technological development.

We are currently in a fourth stage: the decentralization of the RCP through the development of a national backbone, which gives priority to the political efforts at a regional level.

First stage: establishment and promotion

Two conditions favored the creation of a national network that would be welcomed by the academic sector and NGOs. First, the RCP project began with the sponsorship of the Latin Union and a contribution from UNDP, which helped to generate expectations in some institutions in terms of the financing that could be obtained for its further development. Second, some information networks already existed. However, previous efforts to create communication networks in the country had been unsuccessful.

When the RCP was established, universities and NGOs played a leading role. Some businesses were pessimistic about the sustainability and efficiency of a nonprofit organization. On the other hand, the state was not interested in participating in a consortium in which other institutions also would have decision-making powers.

In this atmosphere, the RCP proposed a "neutral" ownership model, namely, that the network would be owned by all the institutions taking part in it. There is a professional staff in charge of the operation of the RCP, but the model considers that decisions are in the hands of the affiliated institutions (Articles of Incorporation of the RCP).

In September 1991, during the First Forum on Latin American and Caribbean Networks, financing for the acquisition of the first node for the RCP was obtained. Likewise, ESAN agreed to take part in the project, offering three telephone lines, an X.25 connection, and an office. (The National Telecommunications Company [ENTEL] had earlier refused to cooperate, because it believed that the RCP would be a competitor of its own X.25 system.)

During the First Forum, two technicians--Teodoro Hope and Randy Bush--offered support. In addition to financing concerns, the first installation faced technical difficulties because of the lack of local technicians with experience in connectivity. Consequently, during the last quarter of 1991, a training program was launched aimed at getting UUCP connections from PC computers to UNIX. Likewise, the connection of the first node via telephone with Oregon was established.

The RCP began with a provisional Executive Board and a Technical Committee, made up of specialists from different agencies, which were not part of the permanent staff of the network. In this first stage, software in Spanish was obtained and lists were generated to create groups of virtual discussion and list servers for electronic mail.

Since a self-financing scheme was used, the first months of the year were difficult in economic terms. For instance, in the first quarter of 1992, telecommunications costs equalled the amount budgeted for the whole year. However, the number of new affiliates was higher than expected; consequently, the first year of operation ended without major financial difficulties.

Second stage: organization and sustainability

1993 was particularly important in political and organizational terms.

The incorporation of different national sectors was continuously promoted.

At the organization level, traffic problems occurred due to the intensive use of e-mail by large institutions, which forced an increase in the rates.

Previously, the main organizational problem had been the self-sustainment of the RCP, but another important problem began to appear: the tendency of the Executive Board to act as a group of final users in relation to an institution providing services to them rather than as a consortium with the power to make decisions about a association owned by them.

At the technical level, the need for support for users was apparent; a permanent team was organized of young people who had been trainees at the RCP.

That year, the RCP organized the First Workshop for Latin America and the Caribbean Region, with outstanding results such as the OAS decision to finance a satellite antenna for Perú and the resolution to establish a Coordination Committee for the Andean Networks.

Third stage: technological development

The third stage began with the incorporation into the Internet and the acquisition of new technology.

Currently the RCP has two 256 Kb international channels under lease but not yet in operation yet. One goes through the telephone company, with a connection to New Jersey. The other is the original channel of the network with a 256 Kb connection to Florida.

The RCP has two facilities. One is the original facility on the premises of ESAN. It has a router and servers for communications with modems, as well as equipment that connects modems to telephone lines. In the second facility, owned by the District Municipality of Miraflores, 120 telephone lines have been installed. There is a direct connection from ESAN to Miraflores.

Fourth stage: national backbone project

Currently, we are in the fourth stage, which aims at decentralizing the RCP by creating regional (departmental) consortiums that will make up the national backbone. One of the problems is that only those institutions located in the capital city can use all the Internet resources since there is a lack of infrastructure that would permit dedicated lines throughout the country.

5.3 Tridimensional communication

In contrast to commercial networks that decide what information is to be disseminated and are oriented to serve population segments with higher income, the RCP has configured a tridimensional communication system of intra- and interconglomerates. This system emphasizes the importance of creating natural interfaces for the final user, in this case, in Spanish.

The system allows three conglomerates to interact while, at the same time, their members can communicate among them in a horizontal relationship. One conglomerate is made up of the general public. Another is made up of persons and institutions that offer services, products, and knowledge (companies, NGOs, and universities). The third is made up of the government and international agencies.

In this transverse communication, the population has access without intermediaries to the other two conglomerates; consequently, the actions or projects of these sectors will be more like to be publicized and possibly challenged.

6. Current situation and challenges

6.1 Lack of a state communications policy

The development of the Internet in the United States took more than 20 years, with massive support from commercial companies that financed local development and from the state, which financed the connection of the local and regional networks into the National Science Foundation backbone.

In the case of Latin America, almost without exception, the state has taken part, but without a full understanding of the strategic importance of this development, except in Brazil, where the investment has been permanent and is supported by law. The development of the Internet has been favored by the support of companies, above all by the telephone companies, since this kind of development results in a huge amount of traffic and, consequently, high profits. For instance, the operation of the RCP in 1995 generated over $1 million in telephone connections alone.

In the Peruvian case, state regulations give the monopoly on national and international connections to Telefónica del Perú, which results in high operation and telecommunication costs, strong centralization in the capital city, and the concentration of infrastructure in urban areas, hindering the design of national policies to promote and develop the Internet. It is necessary to allow a greater involvement of the civil society and businesses in the plans and infrastructure investments in telecommunications. Only in this way will it be possible to implement models for community use or multiple private suppliers as is the current trend in countries all over the world.

6.2 Lack of a regional backbone

One of the main concerns of the RCP is to achieve regional integration. In 1992 the RCP promoted the strengthening of the Coordination Committee for Andean Networks, which links the academic networks of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, and Venezuela. The Coordination Committee submits plans to third parties and financing agencies for development at a regional level.

Based on resolutions made during the Fourth Forum of Latin American and Caribbean Networks, which took place in November 1994 in Buenos Aires, the RCP took part in the establishment of the Consortium of Andean Networks (CRA) along with BOLNET from Bolivia, REUNA from Chile, InterRed from Colombia, Intercom Ecuanex Node from Ecuador, and REACCIUN from Venezuela. The CRA has as one of its goals cooperation in the supply of services, the development of value-added services in Spanish, and the development of the Trunk Network for Regional Communications.

Efforts continue toward the development of a South American communication structure to replace the current dependency on the American communication system.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Traductores Asociados s.r.l. <postmaster@traduc.com.pe> for translation assistance.