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Policy constraints to electronic information sharing in developing countries

The following observations have been made during the course of the last 8 years work in developing Internet access in Africa and are submitted in the hope that they may also be of use in other developing countries or regions.

Poor technical facilities

The poor general level of telecommunication facilities (largely caused by policy factors) is clearly the most critical inhibiting factor, but there are also a number of other major constraints which need to be addressed to achieve a more conducive environment for information sharing.

In particular, the low level of computerisation in many organisations is one of the largest barriers to using new communications technologies. The high price of equipment relative to the available resources means that many organisations and departments involved in information gathering and dissemination remain critically under developed 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, locally or on wide-area basis.

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

Lack of wider access

The scarcity of computers and small base of skills also contributes to the low level of institutionalisation of much of the networking activity. Email and Internet access is usually limited to those with the most resources, very often to people with international projects and contacts. There may be no provisions for making the facility available to the rest of the organisation, or to maintain the link, when the operator leaves the institution or even goes on holiday.

This is exarcerbated by the lack of guidelines in making services more publically available and allocating the appropriate resources for their 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 these 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.

Shortage of skills and lack of training

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 clearly major impediments to the spread of these technologies. While there have been a few workshops and training courses organised in developing countries, and a number of worldwide events attended by developing countries (such as the ISOC Developing Countries Workshops), the numbers who have received training is still very limited.

Also, 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 apropriate training methods. In addition, relevant training guides, documentation and online tutorial software to support trainers has been insufficiently developed.

The need for collaboration and co-ordination

With so many independent networking development projects each pursuing their 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 co-ordination between different projects. The overlap in the multiplicity of projects in some countries and activities could be reduced, with the available resources spread more equitably.

Because many developing countries are part of a variety of regional groupings and designations (for example Southern African countries are members of SADC, COMESA, East African Co-operation, the Customs Union and the BLS States), many regional network development initiatives tend to overlap and/or lack a unified approach.

Protecting infrastructure

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

High prices

While import duties are a significant disincentive through their contribution to increased prices, the growing trend toward taxation of services may become a larger impediment to the effective use of computer networks.

As mentioned earlier, the high price of Internet services in some countries, and absence of local dial access outside almost all of the capital cities severely limits access for the bulk of those with computers. And 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 centres for those without computers.

Lack of bandwidth

Lack of Internet bandwidth linking ISPs and the 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. This is also 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 must often traverse at least two saturated international links because the peering point is in another country.

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 dialin lines quickly become occupied. In the same fashion, users requiring telephone lines to access the Internet have faced problems in obtaining new telephone lines.

Wireless access

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 factors.

While cellular telephone services have been opened 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 be severely restricted.

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

Also, limited resources for spectrum allocation planning in many countries means that some of the rules are not yet clearly defined because many wireless technologies are so new. So national policy is often only set when the technology is introduced by an influential company, creating ad-hoc decisions which 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 since 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, it will not be used by third parties or cause interference, and it may also be necessary to give the PTT ownership over equipment and to pay a rental fee for access to the service.

Nevertheless, probably the biggest barrier to widespread use of wireless technologies for accessing the Internet are 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 using sophisticated equipment that will carry multiple voice/data/ISDN/TV channels etc. As a result they are generally unwilling to consider small-scale approaches which only involve 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.

The need for Network Information Centres

The absence of a regional Network Information Centre (NIC) in Africa and Latin America to provide Internet address space and guidance for emerging ISPs (like the InterNic, RIPE and AsiaNIC) has reduced the growth of new service providers who 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.

Mike Jensen

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Priority unfulfilled needs and opportunities for improved Internet development by Mike Jensen

Key Internet Policy Issues - a series of contributions from people living in countries new or relatively new to the Internet about what they consider to be key policy issues related to the deployment and use of the Internet in their country.

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Created: September 8th, 1997 - Last up-dated: September 8th, 1997