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Internet access for African countries

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue November, November 1- November 30, 2002 | BY Fred Kofi de Heer-Menlah 

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Exploring the factors that hinder and help the development of Internet access in Africa


Exploring the factors that hinder and help the development of Internet access in Africa



This article looks at the current state of Internet access in the African countries of Ghana (in West Africa), Kenya (in East Africa) and South Africa. The different approaches for hooking onto the Internet backbone are discussed with a view to the availability and cost to Internet services for the community at large. These approaches range from a government hands-off approach in terms of regulating the businesses involved in the provision of Internet services, through firm control on who can operate as Internet Service Providers (ISP), to full control of the content that emanates from these countries. This article further examines some causes of the current problems facing African countries and the high cost of Internet access to the ordinary person. Finally some initiatives to bridge the digital divide are presented and analysed in terms of how to maximize their returns.

The Ghana Government Internet Access policy regulates who can operate as an Internet Service Provider [1]. A license is therefore needed to operate as an ISP. Acquiring such a license can take anywhere from a month to a year. In this way the government controls who can enter the Internet market place. Once an ISP secures a license it can operate by hooking onto the backbone directly by VSAT. This is the way most ISPs connect onto the backbone. Although the use of a leased line to Ghana Telekom is possible, it is expensive and quite unreliable due to poor planning and infrastructure. The provision of a dail-up Internet access to the general public is plus or minus $25 per month. A dedicated radio link of 64kbps may cost as much $500 per month.

Until recently many Internet cafes operated on a dial-up connection with four to eight computers, but this has almost vanished as almost all the ISPs have been over subscribed rendering dial-up Internet access extremely slow if not impossible. The over-subscription by the ISPs results in numerous breaks that further results in high telephone bills for these small Internet cafe operators. Most of these cafes have had to close down. A valuable service to the public is now lost. However, a new breed of Internet cafe is now springing up. These use at least 30 PCs, a dedicated radio link of 64kbps or 128kbps to an ISP and in some cases a VSAT connection onto the backbone directly. These cafes usually boast of state-of-the-art technology. There is no control on how these cafes and ISPs connect to the Internet backbone or on the content that can be uploaded or downloaded from these ISPs.

The scenario in Kenya is quite similar with an added control on the content that can be uploaded from the country [2]. While there is no control on the material that can be downloaded, there is government control on information that can be uploaded from Kenya. All ISPs and other Internet users must go through the government network, Jambo-Net, to upload content onto the Internet. This network is equipped with filters to prevent certain content material from being uploaded from Kenya. This makes an interesting Internet access policy for Kenya. The VSATs used by Kenyan ISPs are uni-directional for downloads only. One can debate the pros and cons of this policy extensively but the question is should political interests drive policies on the use of a very useful technology such as the Internet to this extent? This is a case of a good idea turned bad. The original intention of an Internet Exchange Point (IPX) Jambo-Net (to keep local traffic within the country) has found a political use. The Kenyan ISPs have had to build another IPX for their use. Ghana has no IPX. The result is that all local traffic gets routed outside the country to US, or Denmark or wherever the ISP may be terminating before being routed back into Ghana. This is the scenario in many other African countries such as Nigeria.

Internet should be accessible to all to share information, to promote intellectual work and business, and to facilitate communication. In a real Internet spirit the South African government does not regulate who can operate as an ISP or the content that can be uploaded or downloaded from the Internet [3]. This may be due to the history of the Internet in South Africa, which started as a research work in Rhodes University, Grahamstown. The simple beginning of a dial-up connection from the Rhodes Computer Center to a friend in the US eventually gained support, assistance and funding from the government in the late '80s. All successive governments have supported a hands-off approach in terms of regulating Internet access. This has resulted in an excellent academic Internet infrastructure and a vibrant business Internet infrastructure.

Internet access in South Africa is free for some academic institutions and customers of ABSA bank [4]. Commercial dial-up rates are as low as $5 per a month making it affordable for most urban dwellers. The use of ISDN from home and small businesses is available as well as dedicated lines for corporate use and ISPs. Various business initiatives and good telecommunication infrastructure make dial-up connection instantaneous to many small Internet cafes operating on dial-ups with plus or minus four PCs. Value-added services search the Ananzi search engine for local South African Websites have added additional value to the Internet in South Africa. Almost every SME and all the big businesses have Internet presence (Websites) and above all they promote their country code top-level domains, the .co.za (dot coza) and the .ac.za, etc.

The top-level domain name management of a country is a public service provided by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) [6]. This if enforced will promote an African country's presence on the Internet. Currently it is very difficult to tell how many sites on the Internet are from African countries. This is due to the exorbitant amounts charged by some ccTLD (country code top-level domain) managers,. for example $35 plus VAT in Ghana. Many Website developers, SMEs and individuals register domain names from the .com, .net, .org etc for as low as $9. Many African governments are not bothered about this lack of promotion of their countries on the Internet. The writer hopes African governments will take a clue from this. Pioneers who have contributed immensely to the establishment of the Internet should be acknowledged, and ways found to make Internet access and presence affordable to the general public.

The question most African governments need to ask is: How to provide Internet access to citizens at affordable prices and make Internet access available to the rural communities? A simple comparism of prices for Internet access in African countries tells of a gloomy picture for the poorer African countries. The poorer countries without good telecommunication infrastructure are those that pay high prices for Internet access, for example $33.75 per a month in Ghana [7]. Surprisingly, these are the countries with all sorts of control mechanisms. Are these countries concentrating on controlling the Internet instead of expanding it to the whole community? The situation in many other countries is quite similar. These controls are a big hindrance to Internet development and contribute to the ever-increasing digital divide. The African countries should concentrate on ensuring quality of service from the market players and ensuring that there is transfer of technology to the indigenous population and not just moneymaking service providers with no regard to delivery of services. If the governments will ensure that the service providers deliver an acceptable quality of service, this will keep the state of the Internet quite healthy in most countries.

This year there have been a number of conferences worldwide on bridging the digital divide. How have these conferences helped African countries to provide affordable Internet access? Is controlling the entrance of new players into the Internet market place the answer to the digital divide? Is it the lack of appropriate knowledge or the lack of capital for these projects, or the lack of manpower, inadequate telecommunication infrastructure, or a combination of these and other factors that cause the ever-widening gap in the digital divide? Have African countries encouraged local citizens to find innovative ways of providing Internet access at affordable prices to their citizens? Why is one country, South Africa, able to offer free Internet access and Internet access for as low as $5 a month while the poor (HIPIC) countries are charging between $30 and $60 a month for a simple dial-up connection?

The questions above require that we examine some of the positive points of the South African scenario. This is not to say that the South African scenario has no shortcomings but some of their basic factors need mentioning here to draw the attention of African governments and also donor agencies. These factors include the following.

-- The numerous controls imposed by governments continue to retard the development of Internet access in some countries.

-- Each government should develop a well-planned scalable telecommunication infrastructure that is capable of utilizing new technologies as they arise.

-- The telecom infrastructure must be maintained and upgraded constantly in line with modern technology.

-- Web presence should be promoted with the use of the country code top-level domain name. In this regard ccTLD management should be a public service charging a minimal fee for domain name registrations. Private companies will then act as registrars and value-added sellers.

-- A policy is needed for every player in the hi-tech industry and related fields that a certain quota of their services be offered to the rural community and another quota towards education in the rural community for each year.

South Africa would not be where it is today had Mike Lawrie and the Rhodes University Computer Center been prevented on the grounds of license requirement, or the telecommunication infrastructure of South Africa had not been maintained and upgraded constantly. If fair competition and research had not been supported and if academics not assisted with research grants the Internet successes of South Africa would not have been possible. With business entities offering a certain quota of their services, or profits to rural community development and education every year, most of the countryside in Africa would have cell phone coverage.

In many African countries, such as Ghana, there are initiatives involving NGOs, businesses and parastatals to address the question of the digital divide. Notably amongst these is the United Nations Digital Bridge to Africa venture from which sprang the projects such as the Ghana Cyber Group, Digital Project [8]. Many of these projects such as the Multi-Purpose Community Centers, Telecenters of South Africa, and Community Technology Centers (CTCs) in Ghana seek to expand computer and Internet access to schools. While these projects will go a long way to provide Internet access, where these are supported by donor money and grants, care must be taken against consultancy services taking large chunks of these budgets to the detriment of the actual delivery of resources for Internet access. Most IT academics will be willing to help.

A study done earlier this year at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana reveals that 1 in 25 students had access to a computer. If this is taken as the proportion of students with access to the Internet this is extremely low. African countries should pay attention to providing Internet access to all students of higher learning. The cost of Internet access is quite exorbitant for most institutions. A PC with Internet access for higher learning is a priority. Governments can find innovative ways to meet this need.

References:

[1] Peter Yu. Ghana, Communication Laws in Transition newsletter. Vol 1 No: 7, September 4 2000. http://pcmlp.socleg.ox.ac.uk/transition/issue07/ghana.htm
[2] World: Africa Kenya net shutdown. BBC News Thursday, 16 September 1999. http://news.bbc.co .uk/1/hi/world/africa/448426.stm
[3] Bobby Jordan Internet 'kidnapping' storm. Sunday Times, 16 June 2002 http://ww w.cs.ru.ac.za/CSc101/society/lecture2/Lawrie2.html
[4] ABSA Internet banking. http://www.absa.co.za
[5] Ananzi search engine. http://www.ananzi.co.za
[6] Discussion Draft of Letter to Governments Regarding ccTLD Managers (12 November 2000) http://www.icann.org/cctlds/
[7] Internet Registration form. http://www.ghana.com/intern et-service.htm
[8] Ghana Digital Project. http://www.ghanacybergroup.com/

The writer Fred Kofi de Heer-Menlah (kofideheer@hotmail.com) formerly a lecturer and then Senior lecturer at Rhodes University and University of South Africa has joined the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA). He is working on the IT infrastructure for GIMPA and is interested in collaborative research work on improving Internet Infrastructure for educational institutions and rural communities.

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