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Policy Constraints to Electronic Information Sharing in Developing Countries

By Mike Jensen
mikej@wn.apc.org

The following observations were made during the course of the past eight years' work to develop Internet access in Africa and are submitted in the hope that they may be of use in other developing countries.

The state of telecom facilities. The poor general level of telecommunication facilities--caused largely by policy factors--is clearly the most critical inhibiting element, but there also are a number of other major constraints--such as those described here--that need to be addressed in order to achieve a more conducive environment for information sharing.

The state of computerization. The low level of computerization in many organizations is one of the largest barriers to using new communications technologies. The high price of equipment relative to available resources means many organizations and departments involved in information gathering and dissemination remain critically underdeveloped in their use of computers and networks. Many machines are older, 286 DOS-based machines-for which there are dwindling levels of support-and very few are networked, either locally or on a wide-area basis.

Modem donations and initial communications subsidies continue to be important methods for development organizations to assist in building electronic links, but many require more extensive assistance with obtaining low-cost computers and LAN facilities. Often, local suppliers are overpriced, which increases the incentive for importing equipment, but obtaining local support usually then remains an outstanding issue, especially as there is usually a very limited in-house skills pool for simple computer maintenance.

Scarcity of computers. The scarcity of computers and the small base of skills also contribute to the low level of institutionalization of much of the networking activity. E-mail and Internet access are usually limited to those with the most resources--very often to those with international projects and contacts. There may be no provisions for making facilities available to the rest of the organization--or even to maintain a connection--when the operator leaves the institution or goes on vacation.

Lack of guidelines. The problem is exarcerbated by the lack of guidelines for making services more publicly available and for allocating the appropriate resources for more effective use. Often, when providing wider access is attempted, machines may be made available for general use by those without access to a computer, but because of their lack of experience, they tie up the facility for inordinate lengths of time hunting for keys while typing. Typing and computer literacy courses have not received sufficient attention as a requirement for those using the facilities, and in many cases it may simply be more cost-effective to employ additional staff, specifically for the task of keyboarding and printing or saving messages to disk.

Training and literacy. In general, the limited technical skills for the establishment of electronic network services and the lack of literacy in the effective exploitation of network applications by users are major impediments to the spread of new technologies. Even though there have been a few workshops and training courses organized in developing countries and a number of worldwide events attended by developing countries--such as the ISOC Developing Countries Workshops--the number of those who have received training is still limited.

In addition, there have been no attempts to train the trainers in training techniques. Most trainers are simply co-opted from their normal roles as networking technicians, and very few have any background in appropriate training methods. In addition, relevant training guides, documentation, and online tutorial software to support trainers have been insufficiently developed.

Need for collaboration. With so many independent networking development projects each pursuing its own connectivity goals, it could be said that one of the major constraints to efficient improvement of the environment for sharing information is the lack of mechanisms to improve collaboration and coordination between different projects and organizations. Many developing countries are part of a variety of regional groupings and designations--for example, southern African countries are members of the SADC, COMESA, East African Cooperation, Customs Union, and BLS States--and many regional network development initiatives tend to overlap and/or lack a unified approach. The overlap in the multiplicity of projects in some countries and activities could be reduced and resources spread more equitably.

Vandalism. Due to high resale value, vandalism of the copper network infrastructure is a general problem. In response, PTTs are making efforts to replace with optic fiber and wireless connections those links at risk. Because copper also requires more maintenance and is susceptible to lightning damage, growing attention is being directed to the possibilities of wireless local loop systems. Some PTTs also are experimenting with a real-time monitoring system to reduce the incentives for theft by increasing the likelihood of the perpetrators' being apprehended.

Taxation. Import duties may be significant disincentives through their contribution to increased prices, but the growing trend toward taxation of services may become an even larger impediment to the effective use of computer networks.

Cost. As mentioned earlier, the high price of Internet services in some countries, together with the absence of local dial-up access outside almost all of the capital cities, severely limits access for the bulk of those with computers. As far as the rest of the population is concerned, so far there have been few attempts to provide low-cost public-access facilities at drop-in centers for those without computers.

Bandwidth. Lack of Internet bandwidth linking ISPs and countries is an increasingly severe constraint to efficient information flows. This is largely a result of the high cost of international leased lines, which results in ISPs' crowding too many users into channels of limited bandwidth. Such crowding is greatly exacerbated by the very limited peering between ISPs within the same country and also between countries. As a result, it can take many minutes to download a single Web page-speeds of 20 characters per second are not uncommon--even from another ISP's site across town. Packets often must traverse at least two saturated international links because the peering point is in another country.

The wireless option. In some cases, because of saturated public telephone exchanges, the difficulty in obtaining large numbers of local telephone lines to maintain the desired ratio of 10-15 users per modem has limited the accessibility of ISPs during periods of peak demand as all the available dial-in lines quickly become occupied. In the same fashion, users requiring telephone lines to access the Internet have faced problems in obtaining new telephone lines. As a result, wireless options have been promoted as an alternative; however, the use of wireless options by end users is constrained by a number of things.

Although cellular telephone services have been opened up to the public in most of the larger developing countries, much of the rest of the spectrum--aside from radio and television broadcast frequencies--is usually allocated to the military. Security is a major concern in many countries, and if armed forces are suspected of opposing the government, wireless communications are likely to become severely restricted.

Nevertheless, unregulated use of the spectrum is common due to lack of radio spectrum monitoring facilities and skills in most developing countries. In some cases, regulatory agencies may exist only on paper--with virtually no resources to enforce a country's decisions about spectrum use--and a number of organizations and individuals have simply gone ahead and installed wireless technologies without seeking permission.

Limited resources for spectrum allocation planning in many countries means that some of the rules are not yet clearly defined because many of the wireless technologies are so new. Therefore, national policy often is set only once the technology has been introduced by an influential company, producing ad hoc decisions that can cause problems later.

Of course it is possible to apply for a license to operate communications equipment on the wavelengths designated for their use, but because most of the telecom operators have a monopoly over telecommunication services of all types, it is almost essential to involve them in some way if the license application is to be successful. The PTT would probably need to be convinced that it cannot reliably provide the service required through its existing infrastructure; that it will not be used by third parties or cause interference; and that it also may be necessary to give the PTT ownership over equipment and to pay a rental fee for access to the service.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to widespread use of wireless technologies for accessing the Internet consists of the entrenched models used by the PTTs in providing service. They generally plan for the provision of the full range of telecom-related services over all of their infrastructure by using sophisticated equipment that will carry multiple voice/data/ISDN/TV channels and the like. As a result, they are generally unwilling to consider small-scale approaches that involve only the transport of data/Internet traffic, although if a social improvement dimension is present in a project involving wireless technologies, it may be easier to obtain approval.

Regional NICs. In Africa and Latin America the absence of regional network information centers (NICs) that can provide Internet address space and guidance for emerging ISPs--like the InterNic, RIPE, and AsiaNIC--has reduced the growth of new service providers, which must spend considerable time negotiating on a case-by-case basis with the InterNic and RIPE for Internet addresses. In addition, there are few unbiased sources of the information new ISPs need to establish their local services and make their international connections.

Among the most important needs identified in many of the countries are to:

  • Develop access points and demand in secondary cities and rural areas by training users in these areas and supporting them with equipment and installation subsidies; by addressing the needs of those without computers through the establishment of shared community telecenters and promotion or support of wireless link alternatives when necessary; by promoting- for the nonliterate and less educated-certain improved interfaces such as text-to-voice output, touch screens, WebTV, voice recognition, and improved machine translation facilities for major languages; by supporting the use of special equipment for the disabled, such as braille keyboards and voice cards for the blind.
  • Support increased collaboration and coordination of international agencies. Aside from the obvious advantages in improving the effectiveness of Internet-related projects and in helping to identify sources of support for local initiatives from existing regional and global projects, this also should build strong local hosts by encouraging international agencies to use local ISPs for noncritical traffic instead of using their autonomous systems for all communications.
  • Support technical training to induct new host system operators and to upgrade the skills of the existing ones. Aside from financial assistance for holding individual training sessions and national training workshops, identification and promotion of low-cost training centers in more advanced countries also should take place. Due to the high travel and subsistence costs, regional training workshops are perhaps a less appropriate option unless they are combined with an international conference. A related need is to gather system installation and maintenance documentation in Portuguese.
  • Support the establishment of local cross-sectoral National Information Infrastructure working groups. This will require synthesis and circulation of the existing country studies and research in the countries to provide more detailed information for determining strategy and learning from existing experiences. Related to this is the need to put in place ongoing mechanisms whereby countries can share experiences. There will be a particular need to provide NII working groups with technical assistance so they can develop national network information centers, information infrastructure plans, and inventories of local resources. These groups could be related to any existing IT or ICT working groups, but not be subsumed by them, unless there is some clear committee structure that focuses on national network planning and information exchange between all sectors.
  • Support the establishment of an African and Latin American center for administration of IP addresses, autonomous system numbers, and continent-wide directory services like AsiaNIC, RIPE, and InterNIC.
  • Promote information on low-cost alternatives for setting up Internet/intranet hosts to all sectors, but especially to SMEs interested in setting up public-access Internet drop-in centers and to computer systems suppliers. This would aim to counter the barriers caused by the general perception of high costs and include information on development of basic business plans or cost recovery methods for various scales of service.
  • Provide technical assistance for telecom operators with a view toward improvement of the bandwidth of local loop infrastructure through promotion of innovative methods for upgrading existing copper circuits from analog to digital-such as ADSL-and using wireless links when necessary.
  • Identify and promote sources of low-cost and secondhand computer hardware and software, provide training to maintain equipment, and encourage national governments to reduce import duties on ICT equipment.
  • Identify sources of soft finance for local Internet-based business start-ups and international partners willing to invest in joint ventures.
  • Provide technical assistance for ISPs to improve their reliability and quality of service by implementing redundant links and dial-up backup systems; encouraging the use of methods to reduce congestion of international links through installation of local peering points, caching servers, and mirror sites (peering points carry traffic between ISPs; caching servers and mirror sites hold local copies of information repositories originating elsewhere); promoting the use of digital-satellite data broadcasting to reduce congestion on leased-line circuits and even to provide high-bandwidth data services for end users in KU-band footprint areas; promoting the new developments in Web/http server protocols to deal with e-mail-only access, low bandwidth, and/or wireless connections. In addition, support could be provided for analysis of traffic patterns to assist in network topology planning, bandwidth provisioning, and pricing mechanisms to spread usage more evenly over the day, and also for administrative and business skills' upgrading for small service providers.
  • Assist with evaluation of alternative proposals for Internet services provided by the private sector in the tenders of public bodies, with obtaining preferential treatment for public-sector users from ISPs, and in Intelsat's allocation of satellite channels for education.
  • Provide technical assistance for national, provincial, and municipal governments to implement intranets and to move their existing data from stand-alone systems to open, networked systems.
  • Encourage the development of subregional links in general, as well as particularly between culturally or economically connected neighboring countries.
  • Encourage the establishment of content-building service centers that can provide Web site development and training, advice with establishing organizational Web servers for small and medium-size organizations and other related content development areas such as audio/video servers and CD-ROM mastering facilities, and low-cost systems for the rendering of cultural artifacts for placement in Web museums.
  • Support developing-country participation in the ongoing process of development of international intellectual property protection policies, information law, policing, and the technical mechanisms for ensuring their adherence.
  • Sensitize the more conservative decision makers to the possibilities for using the Internet.
  • Assist organizations with legacy LAN systems--such as Lantastic and IPX-and legacy WAN systems-such as Zoomit and Lotus Notes--to move to open Internet/intranet-based facilities. Many of these systems do not have simple means of transmitting binary file attachments, do not reply correctly to errors from mailing lists, use inefficient transmission protocols, and are generally more expensive to operate and maintain.
  • Identify and promote modem brands that operate best on low-quality telephone lines.

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