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Information Highways and the Francophone World: Current Situation and Strategies for the Future

Jocelyn NADEAU <jocelyn@cidif.org>
Cécile LOINTIER <cecile@cidif.org>
René MORIN <rene@cidif.org>
Marc-André DESCÔTEAUX <mad@cam.org>
Centre International pour le Développement de l'Inforoute en Français
Canada

Version française

Abstract

At the Sommet de la Francophonie held in Cotonou (Benin) in 1995, heads of state from countries using French as a common language made a commitment "to promote a Francophone presence in new information and communication technologies" (Cotonou Declaration).

Accordingly, the Agence de la Francophonie (ACCT) asked the Centre International pour le Développement de l'Inforoute en Français (CIDIF) to prepare a status report on the development and use of the information highway in la Francophonie.

This document describes the current situation and outlines several future possibilities with respect to the development of the information highway in la Francophonie.

Contents

1. Introduction

The growth of the information highway depends on the development of telecommunications infrastructure (telephone coverage, communication types, available speed and bandwidth, etc.). The state of this infrastructure in French-speaking countries varies widely. For example, Francophone Africa has only 2% of all telephone lines in the French-speaking world, while Francophone North America has 27%, and Western Europe, 33%. These figures will likely change markedly over the next few years, however, as a result of the overall deregulation of the telecommunications sector (in January 1998 for the countries belonging to the European Union, for example) as well as increasing demand from users.

Parallel with the development of the telecommunications infrastructure, the information highway has also been expanding, with the pace varying by the region. We will survey how this growth is proceeding in our defined set of Francophone regions: Western Africa, Central Africa, Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean, Northern Africa and the Near East, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America.

2. Western Africa

Towards the end of the 1980s, the French-speaking countries of Western Africa [1] found themselves lagging behind with respect to telecommunications infrastructure. Their telephone network was pretty much obsolete, with most transmissions relying on analog radio-relay systems. According to a study conducted by the International Telecommunication Union (1991), the states in this region decided at that time to give priority to the telecommunications sector in order to improve rural penetration and trans-African traffic. Although this resulted in the modernization and expansion of the network, their infrastructure remains inadequate for current needs.

In the late 1980s, therefore, African telecommunications carriers began to install X.25 networks to meet the needs of large companies for file transfers and telematic applications. At the same time, in the absence of a full Internet connection, several UUCP and FidoNet networks, piggybacked on the existing telephone network, sprang up to provide electronic messaging services. Connection to these networks was routed through Europe or North America, resulting in high communication costs. Most of the time, therefore, only university and scientific communities enjoyed e-mail access, thanks to financial assistance from international organizations and networks such as ORSTOM's Réseau intertropical d'ordinateurs or AUPELF-UREF's Réfer network. Even today, the Internet is still used mainly by universities and scientific organizations in Western African countries.

Since that time, the networks have been gradually converted to the TCP/IP protocol, and all of the countries in this region are now connected to the Internet. Burkina-Faso, the Ivory Coast, Mali, and Senegal in particular are enthusiastic participants in the information highway. They have several Internet service providers and even Internet cafés, and several regions are connected to the network. In contrast, only the capital cities of Benin, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, and Togo have access to the Internet. A connection project is under way in Cape Verde.

3. Central Africa

The ratio of telephones to population is low in the countries of Central Africa [2], and telecommunications services are concentrated in urban centers. This has inevitably had an impact on the development of the information highway. In recent years, however, these countries have redoubled their investment and restructuring initiatives in the telecommunications sector (through foreign investment or privatization of national carriers) in order to improve this situation.

As in the case of Western Africa, the first networks implemented in this region were X.25 networks, such as CAMPAC in Cameroon and GABONPAC in Gabon. Organizations such as ORSTOM, Satelife and AUPELF-UREF eventually put in place their own networks or set up points of access to the information highway. Later, national telecommunications corporations instituted full TCP/IP connections. As a result, most countries in Central Africa now enjoy Internet access. In Burundi, Central Africa, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Zaire, Rwanda, Cameroon, and Chad, access to the information highway is restricted to the capitals. Cameroon and Chad have several private Internet service providers. There are several national and international connection projects currently under way in the Congo and in Sao Tomé and Principe.

4. Eastern African and Indian Ocean

There is considerable disparity with respect to telecommunications infrastructure in the Eastern African and Indian Ocean countries [3]. The ratio of telephones to population is significantly higher in Mauritius (13.11% in 1994) and the Seychelles (16.99%) than in Djibouti (2%), the Comoros (less than 1%), and Madagascar (less than 1%). The telecommunications sector is being restructured throughout the region and a deregulation process has been undertaken in Mauritius, Madagascar, and the Seychelles.

Except for the Comoros, where there is no connection project under way at present, Internet access is possible across the region. Mauritius, for example, which already has a solid foundation for building the information highway because of its telecommunications infrastructure, implemented an Internet access system known as "Intnet" in 1996; it has 30 servers and 30,000 users. Djibouti, meanwhile, could well serve as an access node for its immediate neighbors. An initial 64 Kbits/s Internet link was installed in May 1996. "DJIBNET" is linked by an underwater fiber-optic cable to an Internet node operated by France Télécom that provides full Internet access. The Seychelles and Madagascar have been connected to the Internet since October 1996 and March 1996, respectively. There are also several Internet service providers in Madagascar.

5. Northern Africa and the Near East

Except for Mauritania, the countries in Northern Africa and the Near East [4] are fairly well off in terms of telecommunications capacity relative to other regions of Francophone Africa. The telephones-to-population ratio is relatively high, and the development of infrastructure is well under way, with clear progress evident in the past few years. In Mauritania, on the other hand, telecommunications infrastructure is minimal, and the existing telephone network is inadequate to need, despite some notable improvement in recent years.

As far as the information highway is concerned, the countries in this region (Mauritania still excepted) are doing very well. Morocco has been connected to the Internet since November 1995, and it had 431 Internet hosts linked to the network [5] as of January 1998. Tunisia connected to the Internet in late 1989. The government founded the Agence tunisienne de l'Internet (ATI) to provide Internet services and to encourage the implementation of servers and national services within corporations and educational institutions. In Egypt, access to the Internet has been available since October 1993, and 2,031 computers are now online. There are several Internet cafés in the large cities and the national telecommunications company (ARENTO) has been working hard to promote Internet development. Lebanon was hooked to the Internet in 1989 through the American University of Beirut (AUB), although a permanent, stable link was not established until March 1994. The large number of private Internet service providers testifies to the country's energetic efforts on behalf of the information highway. Mauritania, on the other hand, only achieved Internet connection in 1997 through its OPT (mail and telecommunications office). The University of Nouakchott provides Internet access for education and research establishments.

6. Southeast Asia

Although the telecommunications sector has developed and strengthened significantly in the last few years, telecommunications infrastructure remains modest in the three French-speaking countries of Southeast Asia [6]. The development of the information highway is hampered by the low telephones-to-population ratio. At present, the countries in this region rely on satellite communications systems to overcome this handicap and to compensate for the lack of land-based telephone lines.

Lacking full Internet access, the scientific communities in Francophone Southeast Asia have been using UUCP and FidoNet networks to exchange e-mail. In general, government departments and institutions, universities, and nongovernmental organizations have been the first to connect to the Internet. At the moment, Laos has shown an interest in implementing Internet access within its borders. A connection project is reportedly under way as part of the PAN Asia Networking Project. Cambodia has had access to the information highway since May 1997, and Vietnam since the end of 1997. The government of Vietnam, however, does not allow full Internet access on its territory, so this country does not really have unfettered access to the information highway.

7. The South Pacific

The quality of the telecommunications infrastructure in the South Pacific [7] is relatively good. In terms of the information highway, Vanuatu has been connected to the Internet since June 1996, with communication relying on direct circuits -- digital, for the most part -- to its neighbors. In French Polynesia, Tahiti has been connected to the Internet since December 1995. ORSTOM installed an access node on its RIO network in Papeete. New Caledonia has had Internet access since late 1995 through a satellite connection with France. As of January 1998, 82 computers were connected to the Internet in this country. The ORSTOM office in Nouméa is connected to RIO and manages the top-level domain ("nc"). Finally, at Wallis and the Futuna Islands, a top-level domain has been recorded ("wf"), but further information is unavailable at this time.

8. The Caribbean

The Caribbean countries [8] generally have adequate telephone infrastructure. The exception is Haiti, where the telecommunications infrastructure is obsolete. Network development has been held back by the political crisis there.

Access to the Internet is available throughout the region. Saint Barthélémy in the French West Indies is connected. Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana are connected to the French network, RENATER. There is also an access node to RIO at the ORSTOM center in Cayenne. It should be noted that the French West Indies are involved in the Réseau de l'Amérique latine et des Caraïbes (REDALC) project, an initiative of the Union latine (an intergovernmental organization) aimed at creating a telematics network for research purposes. Dominique has been connected to the Internet since 1993. The installation of local-access service in 1995 brought communication costs down considerably. According to CRNet (Costa Rican Academic Network) [9], as of February 1998 there were 12 Web servers and 91 access points to the network in Dominique. In Haiti, a private company set up an Internet access node in September 1996. Prior to that date, only e-mail service was available. There are now two private providers in the country, and several international corporations have access to the network via the United States through a satellite link.

9. Europe

Western Europe has a highly developed, good-quality telecommunications network, and the network is expanding rapidly in Eastern Europe [10]. Deregulation of the telecommunications sector began at the start of this year in the European Union countries. Obviously, this movement raises questions about market regulation and the formation of monopolies. The new regulatory framework remains to be defined by the European parliament.

In terms of the information highway, the French-speaking countries of the region have demonstrated great initiative, and their presence on the networks is growing. France, for example, released its government action plan in January 1998. Its Institut de recherche en informatique et en automatique (INRIA) is the primary pillar of the World Wide Web Consortium in Europe. In the Western European countries as a whole, however, the situation is far from homogeneous. In fact, France, with 58 million people, has almost 333,306 computers connected to the Internet, but Switzerland, with a population of only 7 million, has 114,816. There are close to six Internet-linked computers for every 1,000 French citizens, but 16 per 1,000 in Switzerland. This example illustrates the differences among the various European nations. In the French-speaking countries of Eastern Europe, the future of the information highway is also promising, particularly with the introduction of competition in the telecommunications industry and the adoption of legislative and regulatory measures to promote the "information society."

The implementation of freer telecommunications markets will likely touch off a period of turbulence as the number of Europeans connecting to the Internet expands in response to decreased communication costs.

10. North America

North America [11] enjoys excellent communications. For example, New Brunswick's telephone network is entirely digital and uses fiber-optic switching. Moreover, advanced technologies like ISDN (integrated services digital network) and ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) are available on the main backbones. The Canadian government recently adopted legislation promoting open competition in the telecommunications industry.

In terms of the information highway, the governments of Canada, Quebec, and New Brunswick are strongly committed to the "information society." The information highway is such a priority that Quebec and New Brunswick each have a minister with specific responsibility in that area. Clearly, the existence of modern infrastructure and the proximity of technological expertise are the key to the particularly rapid development of the information highway in this region.

Measures have been adopted to promote the general public's access to the electronic highway. Canada's Community Access Programme (CAP) is aimed at providing rural communities with affordable access to the Internet. The government also intends to set up approximately 300 community-access centers throughout the country. The government of New Brunswick has implemented a similar program to create 200 permanent community-access centers throughout the province. At the same time, several thousand public libraries in Québec offer free Internet access to the public, financed by the provincial government.

11. The Future of the information highway in French-speaking countries

Almost all French-speaking countries now have access to the information highway. However, "la Francophonie" is a community composed of countries facing widely different circumstances in this area. Countries with solid telecommunications infrastructure and a favorable regulatory environment enjoy a head start when it comes to Internet access. Countries where communications development has been hampered by war or financing problems are finding it very hard to catch up. We can say, however, that most countries have grasped the importance of and the stakes involved in the information highway. They do not want to remain locked out of the "information society" of the future. Moreover, these countries want to use the resources of the Internet in their own language, typically French. The CIDIF is working towards this goal, given that its primary mission is to consolidate the Francophone presence on the information highway, a mission it shares with other Francophone organizations like the AUPELF-UREF, with its Réfer network in the Syfed centers, ORSTOM, with its Réseau intertropical d'ordinateurs (RIO), and the Agence de la Francophonie, with the @frinet program.

Together, we must face the challenges created by the development of the information highway throughout the world and in French-speaking countries in particular. The challenges are many, and they concern both the content available to Internet users and their means of access. If Francophones are to be able to participate and communicate on the Internet in their own language, they must have available interesting and attractive French-language material that carries significant cultural and intellectual value. The French-speaking world includes people from very different cultures, and the richness deriving from these differences must be reflected on the Web for the benefit of all. As far as possible, moreover, this information must be easily accessible and free. Knowledge belongs to everyone and must not depend on the size of users' wallets. It is important to realize that money can never guarantee either the validity or the impartiality of information and knowledge.

The information highway also raises questions of a legal and regulatory nature, with respect to copyright and the right to copy (how can intellectual property be protected on the Web?) and with respect to content (how, for example, can we prevent the Web from being used for hate propaganda without limiting freedom of expression?).

The information highway also creates political problems for governments and citizens. How can it contribute to the exercise of democracy? As a method of communication between citizens, can it also serve as a tool for dialogue with governments and politicians? Given that the information highway is difficult to control, at least at the moment, does it represent an asset or a danger for the State?

Lastly, the information highway raises some economic issues. As an industry of the future, it has the potential to be a source of new jobs and, thanks to electronic commerce, a source of economic growth for societies that look to the future.

In conclusion, the information highway, the Internet, and networks present some enormous challenges for the future. It is up to us to ensure that this powerful tool is turned to the service of our communities.

References

[1] Western Africa: Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo.

[2] Central Africa: Burundi, Cameroon, Central Africa, Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Zaire, Rwanda, Sao Tomé and Principe, Chad.

[3] Eastern Africa and Indian Ocean: Comoros, Djibouti, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion, Seychelles Islands.

[4] Northern Africa and Near East: Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Egypt, Lebanon.

[5] Source: Network Wizards, http://www.nw.com/zone/WWW/report.html

[6] Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam.

[7] South Pacific: New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, Wallis and Futuna Islands.

[8] Caribbean: Dominique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Haiti, Martinique, Saint Lucia.

[9] Source: Nodos y Servidores WWW de América Latina y el Caribe, http://www.cr/cgi-bin/tabla?1

[10] Europe: France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Rumania, Moldavia, Bulgaria.

[11] North America: Canada, New Brunswick, Québec.

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