Internet Development in Africa: The Case of Cameroon

Lot Tcheeko <ltcheeko@lets.ensp.cm>
Julius Nashipu
Roger Bollo <rbollo@lets.ensp.cm>
School of Polytechnic Yaounde
Cameroon

Contents

Abstract

The international community can consider 1996 as the year of African connectivity to the Internet. To begin with, thanks to USAID the Leland initiative, which is a vast program covering many years, has set an objective of connecting some 20 African countries to the "network of networks". These countries include Benin, Cote-d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Erythrea, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Among general problems relating to Internet infrastructures, Cameroon specifically faces some major problems:

Keywords: African, connectivity, modems, Internet, training.

Introduction

The benefits that could be derived from the Internet by African countries in general and Cameroon in particular have been mentioned in many publications. Sadowsky [6] has, for example, outlined the potential profits for governments, education, health, statistics, agriculture and natural resources, development and planning, telecommunications, and foreign affairs. Hills [3] has emphasized the important role of telecommunications in the promotion of democracy, notably in the exchange of information among citizens. Djame [2] in a study on networks in Africa has proposed a regional integration of the X25 network with the X75.

Data processing, as well as its application, constitutes one of the fundamental activities of our time. As a technology, it relies largely on the exciting progress of microelectronics. As a tool, despite the often real complexity in its working, it has practically invaded all activities, including those that are related to it. This auto-applicability is one of the most prominent characteristics of this end of the century, be it in terms of material for the conception of new processors and circuits or the conception of new software packages. This self-maintenance of discipline, the effort of research and development, which is considerable, is due first to data processing.

The Internet with its different services has recorded a great expansion through the whole of the industrialized world. The developing world, on the other hand, has benefited only marginally from this explosion. This is due to the weak level of technology in these developing countries, but also to the mixed feeling shown by the authorities, who say that data processing networks rely on heavy technology and are generators of high expenses in telecommunications.

Molit thinks that one of the primary functions of the university is to train in the exercise of the professions; the specialty of university teachers is to ensure this mission by means of extensive scientific and cultural training, of which the objective is to enable the students to dominate professional practice and also to invent. We propose to describe the Cameroonian experiences in the introduction of Internet services. We will first describe the national infrastructure for the transport of data and the e-mail servers at the National School of Polytechnic (ENSP) that offer gateways on the Internet through modems. We will then focus on government support in the putting in place of an infrastructure of campus networks based on fiber optics. We will present its use in teaching and research without bringing out the problems this would engender [7]. The conclusion will cover the work being carried out to expand this network, as well as the impact on research activities in the opening of the network to the Internet world.

Telecommunications development

Behind the expression "autoroute of information" are hidden two distinct domains, but in narrow interaction [5].

The first, which is the key to the whole, concerns the technical realization of an interwoven network of telecommunication covering the whole world. In this perspective the present and future problems of autoroutes of information are simply those of telecommunications. The second perspective is totally different; it tries to imagine all the services these networks can render and the impact on development. Despite the troubles linked to economic recession, the telecommunications sector in Cameroon is in full increase and doesn't seem to have suffered any blockage. This remarkable increase was made possible by considerable technological development through the establishment of numerical central services and cabling by optical fibers. This telecommunications evolution has simultaneously brought about a greater diversification of services, as well as a strong tendency toward integration. This has led to the development of telephone exchange centers in many big towns.

The CAMPAC network (Cameroon Packet Network) offers specialized intercommunication and commutation of packets. Its structure comprises, for commutation of packets, three concentration nodes, one management center, duplicated intercommunications among the nodes of the network, international intercommunications enabling a connection to the world's networks for commutation of packets, access points to the network for specialized intercommunications, modems, and concentrators. This setup offers the guarantee of a reasonable dateline of transmission through the network, a dateline of establishing a virtual communication in less than a second, a good quality of transmission, a negligible rate of errors through the use of error detector codes and automatic retransmission, and a high availability rate obtained through the duplication of equipment and intercommutator links. However, we still suffer from a state monopoly in the telecommunications sector. One of the consequences to development of the Internet is the maintenance of a tariff policy not favorable to its expansion.

Cameroonian experiences in e-mail

Until 1992, in Cameroon we still used the traditional media devices - press, radio, television - based on the star model. A center speaks to isolated receivers who constitute a passive community. There was also the telephone network, on which one can communicate only one-on-one. What is new in the interconnection of microcomputers is the wonderful possibility offered to all to speak with all. From the conceptual point of view, it is a varied and moving space which each contributes to build, and on which each can find his place.

Levy [4] thinks that with the Internet network, any user takes part in a cooperative construction of a common context. What is new here is to be able to speak freely, without an intermediary, to a vast international public without anybody deciding for you what is important and what is not.

It is owing to this philosophy that ENSP, technological pole of excellence in the central African subregion, has taken upon itself for some years to host and administer E-mail servers.

The E-mail server of Polynet and Healthnet-Camfido

The Healthnet network is a project initiated by Satel Life, an American nongovernmental organization, aimed at putting in place a satellite network for the exchange of medical information at low cost in developing countries. It has been in place at ENSP since April 1993 and it enables the sending and receiving of messages by satellite intercommunication. The main services delivered are e-mail among users and consultation of data banks. By easing free consultations to the students of the faculty of medicine, Healthnet (cam-healthnet-org) contributes to the expansion of medical research in Cameroon.

The e-mail server of Polynet is a UUCP network put in place with the assistance of ORSTOM, a French organization, enabling access of e-mail to the Internet. It operates side by side with the ORSTOM-Rio-Net site. Polynet is built around an architecture consisting of a workstation SUN Sparc, an asynchronous intercommunication of 9.6 kpbs, a synchronous intercommunication of 2.4 kbps, two modems, and Ethernet interfaces. It is the only one to use the UUCP protocol on the X25 lines supplied by CAMPAC. The differences between the tools furnished by the UUCP networks and the Internet stems from the fact that these networks, not enabling any connection from a distance, consequently don't permit interactivity and hence limit the use of tools such as Gopher or WAIS. The UUCP connections enable systems to directly reach the Internet network by forwarding information coming from the Internet, to a computer connected to the local system. This information can then go to the system during the UUCP call. The connection between the two systems doesn't use a special assignment process. It suffices for the two systems to use UUCP and both agree to be called.

As can be seen, the connections to the Internet in Cameroon are more and more numerous.

3.2. Statistics of usage

In order to enable the different projects to finance themselves, the e-mail services have been opened to organizations and research centers throughout the nation. This is why Polynet manages nearly 25 external customers and research lecturers. This infatuation explained on the one hand by a reasonable tariff policy (120 francs CFA for 1 kb), but more especially it shows the increasing interest in the complete opening up of Cameroon to all Internet services. We should note that the pressure of the student population is strong enough.

3.3. Architecture of Polynet

Solutions

Kermit assembler: basic knowledge on modems

The variability of modems, even if they are compatible with HAYES, induces many variants of initialization sequences.

Let's note the difficulty often met with in putting internal modems in parameter. We have adopted two steps in solving these problems. The first consisted of putting in place a simplified software package as an assembler which then enables the modems to be put in parameter in relation to the needs of our system.

The second avenue of research, which presently is in the prototype stage, is the putting in place of basic knowledge on modems in LISP; this would enable us to (re)configure the customers' modems and thus improve on the quality of our interventions.

4.2. The Campus Ethernet Network

Based on Ethernet technology, the network is organized around two identical Sparc Server 20s of great strength, six Sun Sparc stations, and 20 X terminals of type NCD all working under Solaris 2.3. The principal backbone of this network is fiber optic and its branches in the science departments are coaxial cable.

The aim of this work is to look at how we could integrate the E-mail servers now working independently, to the TCP/IP network so as to enable the whole student body to fully have access to Internet. In this way, the telecommunication price should be reduced so as to facilitate payment of its services by the university.

Training aspects

Our university is teaching use of the local data processing network. The Campus Ethernet Network, practical works on the UNIX system, and the study of TCP and IP protocols have been developed in order to better inculcate Internet techniques into our students.

We have also established tutoring systems that enable users to be freely initiated to the publication of information on the Internet. This work, achieved through HTML, consists of an interface emphasizing the typical aspects of Internet navigation. The system uses HTTP protocol, is portable on many platforms, and conforms to the specifications of HTML 3.0. Some hypertext links distributed in the text enable a differentiated track and tutorial instruction, thus enabling more advanced learners to go directly to the wanted information. The learning model is built around Java applets and JavaScripts, enabling more efficient control of learners, guide them in a more narrow manner, and even evaluating their knowledge.

Conclusion

The necessity of a permanent Internet connection no longer needs to be emphasized. Such a connection will enable users to be constantly in touch with the whole Internet world using the least effort imaginable. Considering that there is already a large population of potential users of Internet services in Cameroon, the availability of all its services would be a welcome relief. It would go a long way to stimulate, facilitate, and enhance research undertakings in many domains such as business, health, education, and science and technology as a whole.

References

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  2. Djamen et al. Les réseaux en Afrique, une incontournable évolution vers l'Internet. Report of IRO, 901, Montreal, Canada.
  3. Hills, J. Telecommunications and democracy: the international experience. Telecommunication Journal, 60(1993), pp. 21-29.
  4. Levy, P. L'intelligence collective: Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace. SVM No. 128, June 1995.
  5. Picinbono, B. Les autoroutes de l'information: Problèmes et perspectives, communication au VIèmes JIT, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 1995.
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  7. Tcheeko L. Administration d'un réseau informatique dans un contexte d'enseignement et de recherches: Expériences, précautions. Communication au VIèmes JIT, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 1995.