AT& T Intelligent Networks Lab., Columbus, OH
It is said the third world is made up of nations who missed the industrial revolution. Now the information revolution is long underway and the third world nations are posed to miss this one too. The fate of nations who missed the industrial revolution was being colonies of the industrialized nations. The fate of those who are onlookers in the information age may just be a repeat of the past. The much heralded information super high way is gaining steam. A high speed drive on the information super-highway is to take us to the future. What vehicle we use is entirely up to us. What is to make the core of the information super highway has been around for years. It is the Internet.
The Internet is the largest computer network in the world. The network spans national boundaries, cuts across cultural difference and puts millions of people in contact with each other. Nobody knows exactly how many computers or users are on the network. Estimates are millions of host computers and millions of users are connected to the network.
The Internet was born about 22 years ago by the US defense department the ARPA net. ARPA net connected a few research institutions and universities that were mainly engaged in government funded research. Over the years the network grew to include mainly universities and colleges. Today the Internet has expanded to reach all corners of the world. It has even reached Africa.
The information revolution is spreading to Africa. African nations have overcome technical problems of low grade telecommunications infra structure often unreliable telephone lines, administrative hurdles, and often hostile local laws to open and un- censored communications, to set up several links to the global computer network - the Internet.
As information technology becomes more common place and essential in modern business, industry and science, the development of computer data networks across the African continent will be especially significant for African countries.
Recently in Cambridge, Great Britain, the African Information Systems Federation was formed to promote the expansion of computer networking. Several countries in Africa have national sub-networks that serve as exit ramps to the information super highways via gateway nodes. In Zimbabwe; there are two hundred NGOs, researchers and universities on the Mango network. In South Africa the Sangonet provides access to Internet. In North Africa several countries have access to global computer networks via the GULFNET which is the middle eastern segment of BITNET. In Egypt, the Egyptian National Science and Technology Information Network (ENSTINET) serves a wide range of users including universities, NGOs, research institutes and private Internet users. In Uganda the Mukla network operated by the University of Makerere serves 200 users spread over 165 sites. In Kenya, Arccnet links 150 university departments, United Nations agencies, government departments and NGOs to the rest of the world. In Ethiopia, Padisnet was formed in 1991 to connect the thirty six member states of the UN's Economic Commission for Africa to communicate with each other.
Major African banks and international banks operating in Africa (Barclays, Chase Manhattan), multinational companies, government agencies and NGOs are rushing to get access to global computer networks and online computer services provided by the network. The creation of email groups like CLEO and others has opened a new medium of communication for Ethiopians all over the world. It has created a virtual Ethiopian community. Even though information exchange via electronic media has grown with leaps and bounds in the past few years within the Ethiopian community, it has a ways to go and large areas to cover. The number of Ethiopians who have access to basic email service within Ethiopia and overseas is limited.
The problem of providing access to network access to Ethiopians may be grouped in two categories.
1. The first is popularizing the medium among Ethiopians and providing access to the service.
2. The second providing useful services to those who have access.
The issue of popularizing and providing access to Ethiopians is the most challenging problem. It gets even more difficult to meet the challenge in Ethiopia. The sole supplier of email service in Ethiopia is PADISNET. Currently there are a few hundred email users in Ethiopia. The service is available to anybody in the country for a fee. There are email users in the city of Harrar, Gondar, Makelle, Addis Ababa. In addition several departments and research institutes associated with the Addis Abeba University have access to email service.
In spite of the efforts of PADIS and other groups formed to encourage email use in Ethiopia, the state of networking in the country is in its infantile stage. The biggest hindrance to the expansion of email service is not lack of access to technology. Most Ethiopian users of the service from within the country are not aware of the potential benefits of cyberspace. Their use of email is limited to exchanging a few status messages a year.
It has not been used to benefit the user in a wide range of issues, such as contact with peers out side of Ethiopia, database searches via email, participation in bulletin boards of either for professional or other interests. The manner and rate of usage has not created the demand for more services or for the expansion of the network that already exists. Unless there is a grass root effort for the expansion of email use and services from within the user community in the country, a push only from the outside will not bring the desired outcome. Email service was established and is now being used for contact with points outside of the country. This is just one side of the problem. The grass root effort should start by encouraging email usage within the country. Various bulletin boards on different topics and interests should be started to attract and familiarize the thousands of PC owners and users in Ethiopia. This will increase interest in email modestly. A word of caution here is - there are a few thousand PCs in Ethiopia and even a fewer number owned privately. Thus even after doing all this, the number of email users may be in hundreds not in thousands. Nevertheless spreading email service outside of NGOs and academic institutions is a major and important step. In the end email service just like most imported ideas and services should not be limited to the elites only.
In North America, Western Europe and Australia, Internet accounts are provided free of charge to anybody for the asking in many communities. All that is needed is a PC of any make and model or dummy terminal and a modem. A study of what is available in terms of free or affordable access to email in communities where there are significant Ethiopian population and then actively popularizing the use of email by providing technical support and training will increase the number of Ethiopian users. Other add on items such as terminal emulator software can be distributed free of charge to interested prospective users.
Once global computer network access is available, unless there are services via these networks that are meaningful and useful to the Ethiopian community, network access only will not be of much use. If such groups like CLEO and others were not in existence, many Ethiopian computer network users may not have been interested in the technology or even subscribe to computer network services at all. Thus services offered via the networks is very important in attracting users to the technology. The technological hurdle of providing computer network access to the Ethiopian community is minuscule compared to the challenges of inventing meaningful and useful services to the Ethiopian community via computer networks. So far what little effort spared have been spent on providing network access to the Ethiopian community. The problem of designing services focusing on issues and concerns unique to the Ethiopian community should be taken seriously.
Ethiopian business men and women and entrepreneur should be encouraged to be both service providers and consumers using network services. Already with the help of international trading agencies a database on Ethiopia is being constructed. The database will be used primarily by business and corporation who are importers or exporters to Ethiopia or by any entity who has interest on importing and exporting to Ethiopia. Such database will be of a great value to Ethiopian business by providing them with information to help them gain a competitive edge. The establishment of similar service will increase the number of computer network users.
The efforts made so far to provide computer network services to Ethiopian community is encouraging but more needs to be done to accelerate the delivery of useful services to the Ethiopian community. This need not and should not be left to government agencies or international organizations such as the UN. Ethiopians should play a leading role in the process. There should be a grass root effort within and outside of the country to champion for computer network access and network services. Ethiopian businesses should participate in the effort by making their product available via computer networks. When network services help solve the day to day problem of Ethiopians, the need for computer access and computer technology will become self promoting and a necessity thereby making the average Ethiopian be a participant in the information revolution and help shape the information age and happily cruising to the future on the information super highway.