I noticed your submission on the afrik-it mailing list some time ago and didn't get round
to responding. Anyway, I worked for a Zimbabwean ISP about 3 years ago - it may
be that my experiences are relevant - I've put down a few notes below. Since I'm based
in Sheffield, you're also welcome to drop me a line, which will cost rather less than
your average call to Zim or anywhere else in Africa (0114 276 6363).
Background: I work for ISPs, primarily in Europe, and am familiar with setting them
up, including the communications requirements from the upstream telco, and the
infrastructure requirements for the ISP itself. I had planned to setup an ISP in
Zim with a couple of colleagues, at that time also based in Sheffield. That fell
through, so instead (having become interested in Zim when exploring the idea of
setting up an ISP there), I managed to find a job with Samara Services, Zim's
largest or 2nd largest (according to who you talk to) ISP. The job was only for
6 weeks (that's how long I wanted), but I feel a lot was achieved.
My role at Samara was centred around 'Knowledge transfer' - so training was a
major part - on the basis that what I'd done in the ISP I had been working for
in Switzerland was a couple of years ahead in terms of what they were offering.
The knowledge transfer worked both ways, since I saw just how innovative Africans
can be to get round resource difficulties. My favourite example has to be how Samara
served their Bulawayo POP (Point-of-Presence) at the time: This was an E-mail only
POP without a leased line (which would be a prerequisite by 'Western' thinking). The
solution was that a Samara employee set up a telephone (modem) connection
every day, which transferred all the mail waiting to be sent or received, to Samara's
main POP (and point of connection to the Internet) in Harare.
At the time - and I don't know how things have evolved - the law surrounding ISP
provision was very vague: In theory it infringed on the PTC (phone) company's monopoly
and was therefore technically illegal (well it was if you used your own satellite links).
In practise a number of ISPs existed and actively 'Pushed out the boundaries'. The
PTC was itself installing a high-speed Internet link in Harare at that time, and Samara
was one of its first customers - it seemed to see which way the wind was blowing and
had decided to work with it. It had interesting plans for the rest of the country too, but
I don't know how fast or far these progressed.
So to some of your questions: I haven't filled it out, since I don't regard myself as
being 'Involved' any longer, and most of the questions don't seem to relate to where
I fitted in. Anyway - some points I'd like to mention,
Funding of telecoms: In Zim, building an ISP was very difficult, with the lead-time for
a new phone line - or leased line - being in the order of 1 year. There are ways of
improving that, normally involving the use of additional cash. Such lead times are
crippling to any Internet development. My personal view is that this can be improved
by having a competitive telecoms environment, rather than one state-owned PTT,
which has little reason to improve its service.
Internet connectivity: When I was there, and prior to switching to the PTC's new
system, Samara's connectivity was: leased line to a satellite dish outside Harare,
which communicated with London (Demon). I don't know if you understand the
networking term 'Latency' - but as well as the bandwidth being very limited, the
latency was awful (read: High). That link was what 'Made' Samara an ISP, but
the cost was also very high, so at the same time could 'Break' Samara. Moral:
Africa was then, and probably still is now, very poorly connected to the Internet,
having to rely on expensive systems including satellite. Europe, North America
and the Pacific Rim are by contrast knee deep in fibre-based connectivity. I
remember that there was a project to link various countries in Africa with fibre
a couple of years ago (initiated by South Africa I believe), but I don't remember
what came of this. I feel that South Africa is of critical importance to the whole
region of sub-Saharan Africa, as an economic engine able to drive progress
elsewhere in this region.
>Do you feel that the Internet can improve development in sub-Saharan Africa?
Not a completely straighforward one, this: For some countries, it is difficult to
justify expenditure on technology when its citizens are especially poor - but
at the same time this may give them the tool they need to do something about
their poverty. Overall I think development of the Internet in Africa is very
important - and poses questions very specific to the area, given the average
African's GDP - i.e. they can't afford a phone line, let alone a PC. For that reason
community-based resources are particularly important, be these provided by
educational establishments, NGOs or telecentres.
>In your opinion has the lack of IT and telecommunications resources
>restricted or affected social and economic development in sub-Saharan
Yes. One of the joys of the Internet is the geographical anonymity it can offer
a company: If you're offering a service over the Internet, the buyer may not be
too concerned where you're based. The region loses out here, however, by
having poor connectivity (latency, bandwidth), meaning that the potential
purchaser of a service will see a website that is unreliable or slow. Alternatively,
the company offering the service deals with this problem by constructing their
Internet presence in (say) the US, with decent connectivity. In the latter case,
the company ends up paying a US company to provide the Internet presence
(money leaving Africa).
I feel that the Internet can be enormously important to innovative companies
and co-operatives in less well-developed regions of the world: It means they
can access marketplaces that would otherwise be unreachable. An example
in Zim's case would be sculpture: So maybe you've seen the small and predictable
sculptures from Zimbabwe in various "ethnic" shops in the UK - but the sculptors
end up with a very small amount of the proceeds. If the same sculptors can
market their own website, they can sell better work, for more money, most
of which goes to them. Ditto for any African art, craft and many other industries.
>Should the work of a Human Rights NGO, in providing Internet development
>and accessing information, in sub-Saharan Africa, include continued and
>sustained training and development in providing support and knowledge?
I'm not sure who should provide Internet resources. In Samara's case, it
offered courses for people wanting to learn how to use the Internet - and the
most common problem was that the students had never operated a PC
before, let alone browse the web or E-mail someone. There's certainly an
educational need, and I don't know how this is best tackled.
>Which of following infrastructure issues do you view as most important
>for development in the organisations that you work with?
Dedicated fibre links between major cities could be the most cost-effective
thing to do in many countries - this at least means that POPs of ISPs can
offer a meaningful service. Of course, they may lack phone lines to their
subscribers... which is a more expensive problem to solve.
Well thats a few thoughts to be going on with. One interesting technology
that's appearing on the horizon is digital radio - although this is only at
an early stage in the UK, in 5 years time when prices have dropped, this
may be an interesting way of disseminating Internet content without
having to use telecoms infrastructure.