REGIONAL ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION PROJECTS TARGETING ETHIOPIA

Lishan Adam

Coordinator, CABECA, UNECA, P.O.Box 3001

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

lishan@padis.gn.apc.org

Introduction

There are a few projects in the area of electronic communications targeting developing countries. Ethiopia is one of those countries. Recently the country is becoming a center of attention by commercial networking service providers. Commercial service providers will concentrate on profit and may not bring the desired change in bridging the gap between the user community in global networking. Major efforts towards cooperative non-profit networking with donor assistance is still required.

The major reasons that limit donor interest in electronic communications are varied. Insufficient knowledge of electronic networks and their impact on national capacity building in research and development by the donors; nature of electronic networks projects resulting in non-measurable impact; high cost or unavailability of trained personnel in the area of low cost communications are some of the problems that hindered donors support. National economic crisis of African countries which forced them to set priorities in the needy area such as agriculture, relief and rehabilitation's also created a wall to develop other sectors such as electronic communications. Major donor support to Africa tend to cover mainly relief costs.

At the center of negligence of electronic communications lie the conception of all African telecommunications infrastructure as "bad telephone lines". Coupled with poor internal management, lack of networking policy and unsatisfactory services by African telecommunications operators, the conception of "bad lines" created a hard block towards any effort to bring about development through electronic communications. A number of telecommunication restructuring projects such as the PANAFTEL, UNTCDA I & II were unable to bring the desired changes. Some countries even devised outrageous polices in all aspects to the extent of censoring telephone calls and faxes. With low telephone penetration (Africa owns 2% of the world telephone lines), un-availability of Public Data Networks, high telephone tariffs, donors interest in providing assistance to circumvent communications problems of the region was crippled. On the other hand, African countries lack the necessary financial resources. Trained proactive indigenous human resource to solicit development and develop projects in the area of electronic networking is non-existent.

There is a pressing need for linking African countries to the Internet. Access to research material, bridging the wider gap of isolation from information and colleagues are common forces towards networking. Recent discovery of network potentials to as a tool for research and development brought about explosive need for electronic communication in the region. During the last few years a number of projects were executed in the region in which Ethiopia participated.

a. BITNET Link

In 1990 the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS) and the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) initiated a project to link African researchers to the BITNET using the United Nations, Alternate Voice and Data (AVD) line. Similar to any such high cost effort the project was not successful. The main reasons include:

* resources for initial investment and continuous operations were not fully available.

* networking was a new idea to most academic institutions and to the implementers themselves

* conditions for advanced networking were at a premature stage. There was a lack of necessary network supporting infrastructure including all determinant factors for network building such as:

* high level of organization management and coordination of research institutions

* well informed user base

* capacity to negotiate with industry, consultants, etc. to set up networks working under existing conditions

* pioneers who are able to manage the idea, creates the condition for the network emergence, make it happen and keep effort on going.

b. Fido link

Since the 1987 low cost electronic communication networks have increased in importance and appropriateness as tools for development and social change in Africa. The poor telecommunications infrastructure and the cost of long distance interactive calls to remote hosts prevented active participation and were beyond economic means of those residing in Africa. The proliferation of NGO networks using electronic mail, interactive data bases including conferences as important tool for exchange of information resulted in the adoption of low cost networking technologies in Africa.

Low cost e-mail and interactive data base networks were practiced and preached by Interdoc an international and interdisciplinary partnership of NGO and NGOs network. The main focus of Interdoc was improving information exchange for social change through the provision of low cost access to e-mail and data bases. In 1990 Interdoc hosted a conference on a theme of "information exchange for social change" which provided opportunities for development of ideas, and projects including technical issues. Fido and low cost communication systems was suggested to be the tool for developing countries.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) on the other hand promoted low cost conferencing among NGOs worldwide. APC is a global communications network which provides environmental, development, peace and human rights networking and information resources to over 17,000 subscribers in 94 countries. One of the significant impact of APC was the provision of Fido gateway for African networks. GnFido gateway connects African countries which cannot be connected via the main 'Zone' gateway in South Africa. In addition APC provided a forum for various users and system operators to cooperate in areas of technical developments for gateways, user end and host software, documentation, translation etc. This ensured that the progressive nature of the information exchange is matched by user led technology.

Role of IDRC

The International Development Research center (IDRC) through its telematics section funded five research projects between 1990 and 1992 which picked low cost technology up and implemented Fido links in the region. FidoNet uses automated computer 'fidonet' software which simplifies 'email' communications and reduces on-line costs is gaining use with a series of small store-and- forward 'email' hosts. The low cost endeavor has brought about a cheap, reliable and effective form of communication for hundreds of organizations who previously found electronic networking prohibitive due to economic and technical restrictions.

The IDRC research projects in which Ethiopia was participated through PADIS node did not only introduce the possibility of networking academic community cheaply but also indicated steps to be followed in accordance of existing infrastructure. Few major lessons in this direction indicate that:

- UUCP networking which assists academic institutions one step forward to full Internet connectivity should be developed parallel to Fido networks

- user base must be expanded dramatically before international Internet connectivity using leased lines can be economically justified.

- in order to expand user base low cost technology and networking through demonstration is essential.

- full Internet connectivity is inevitable and will be the direction of ultimate goal for every academic institutions.

- building local networks and national host and sub-regional backbones is not substitute for Internet connectivity in the region.

CABECA

Using these lessons IDRC launched another project "Capacity Building Project for Electronic Communication in Africa" (CABECA) project in 1993. CABECA is executed by the PADIS in Ethiopia. CABECA's focus is providing technical assistance to bring about sustainable computer-based networking in Africa, at an affordable cost, accessible to a wide variety of users from both the private and public sectors. To build African capacity for computer networking. CABECA trains a corps of systems operators who can train others in their area and offer continuing support to fledgling users to ensure the sustainability of national nodes with connections to international networks. The project's aim is to offer inexpensive and easy access to local and international information services on systems run by local operators and sustained by revenue from users. The project intends to assist users to be able to exchange electronic mail worldwide at a fraction of the cost of fax or telex and to have access to conference mail, file transfer and databases. It works towards facilitating African connectivity to the expanding range of Internet information services.

CABECA is providing assistance to Ethiopia in the following areas:

- Initial site visits to institutions evaluate needs and facilities and design an electronic communication plan.

- Sensitization workshops to introduce management and other users to the concept and potential of electronic networking.

- Skills training for systems operators and training for network users.

- Procurement, delivery, installation and testing of hardware and software.

- Supply of software manuals and other documentation.

- Assistance in forming network users groups to promote electronic communication.

- Technical support for both systems operators and users, through follow-up visits and on-line help.

Extensive network building activity is underway in Ethiopia through the CABECA project. Users from the academic, government, private and NGO community are constantly joining the PADIS electronic network. With the growth of users in the country it is now feasible to work towards full Internet connectivity. A preliminary survey of the cost of a leased line has been made. A number of international and aid agencies have indicated their interest in sharing an initial Internet link cost to Ethiopia.

With EEDN's network group, CABECA has been promoting the full Internet link concept for the last three years. A committee was set up at Addis Ababa University to look at a step-by-step growth to the Internet. The committee recommendation and cost proposal was sent to donors and international community to fund an initial cost of a leased line. CABECA is also subsidizing the national academic link.

In addition to the Fido international link stimulating work has been undertaken by PADIS to set up a local information exchange Bulletin Board System known as the Hornet. The Hornet is an electronic bulletin board system based at PADIS. The Hornet offers an introduction to the potential of electronic information systems to new local users and provides a reservoir of background information and discussion on the region, the Horn of Africa at a minimal cost.

Starting from February 1994, a new computer and phone line were secured, allowing the Hornet services to expand. Setting up a bulletin board had initially the following benefits:

* To offer FIDOnet conferences or echoes that PADIS was picking up anyway, to as wide an audience as possible, with no on-site software set-up necessary.

* To encourage the exchange of information and skills among users of the PADIS system, to encourage new users, and develop electronic networking community spirit.

* To offer a central store of information, files, help, useful Internet addresses, etc. accessible to all.

CABECA also serves on the advisory board of the HealthNet in Ethiopia. CABECA provided substantial technical assistance to the project's effort. Since CABECA office is located in Addis Ababa there is a wide opportunity for the country to use all its services.

HealthNet

HealthNet was conceived by the International Physician for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in 1985 to use micro-satellites for sharing of health information among professionals, particularly in developing countries. SatelLife an NGO in Boston manages HealthNet project. SatelLife adopted a packet radio technology linked to a micro satellite using receiving and transmitting antennas to bypass the "bad telephones" barrier. SatelLife installed ground station in over twelve countries in Africa including Ethiopia.

One of the major problems in getting HealthNet project to Ethiopia was securing the license to operate the ground station. The CABECA project was an instrumental during the installation of the ground station which took over a year to secure the license! The ground station at the Medical Faculty of the Addis Ababa University started to operate in April 1994. SatelLife is providing technical and financial assistance to the ground station. In order to improve use of the ground station, a terrestrial network linking medical professionals in the hospitals, medical schools in Gondor, Jimma and other field works is under consideration.

RINAF

Another regional project targeting Ethiopia is the Regional INformatic Network for Africa (RINAF) project. The RINAF project was conceived by UNESCO. It was began in 1991 with support form the Italian Government. RINAF aims to interconnect academic and research institutions in Africa among each other and with the international community. The official opening of the project was held in Dakar in 1992 in which the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission (focal point to RINAF) participated.

RINAF uses a top-down approach (using government as a focal point to networking) and all kinds of networking technologies whenever appropriate. The slow process in governments to identify benefits of communications and the longer implementation time required to understand, absorb and support networks made the RINAF approach difficult. In most cases government officials do not allow potential users to participate in and use communication links due to internal problems such as cultural, administrative and personal problems. The pay-off in using the RINAF's approach is the ability to solicit government officials to support communications as a tool for national development, which in turn affects the overall national network setup. Due to the above or other problems RINAF's activity in the Africa and particularly in Ethiopia is limited.

Clearly regional project will help to build the national networking infrastructure. As in the case of every network development national effort is critical for a success of Internet link and sustainability of its operation. The trend of regional project shows that future networking projects will concentrate on national capacity building which in turn improve sub-regional, regional and international link. National network users should join force to improve their "net", build high bandwidth link and access to each others information. Self sustaining electronic links will not emerge merely from donors assistance. National cooperation and resource sharing is a key factor for sustainabilty and growth.