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SOUTHERN AFRICAN INTERNET FORUM CALLS FOR LIBERALISATION TO ENCOURAGE GROWTH

The Southern African Internet Forum participants called for liberalisation of the current African regulatory frameworks to encourage internet growth in the region. They also highlighted the need for strong user groups in the private sector and elsewhere to create an active groundswell of opinion that will help transform the pace of change for the sector. Russell Southwood reports on what people were saying at the Forum.

This last year has not been a vintage one for the internet in Africa. In many countries the growth in subscriber numbers is levelling off. Any further falls in access prices will need a more substantial review of the whole basis of the industry looking at revenue sharing and the end to the monopolies on international call terminations. Margins for both ISPs and cyber-cafes are almost entirely price-driven and this reality has not been kind to many, Africa Online being the most notable example. As many participants at the Forum echoed, ISPs have all been struggling to find higher ground in the corporate sector or with other value-added services. The Forum’s participants included: ISPs, incumbent telcos, regulators, connectivity providers and civil society ICT organisations drawn from across the region.

Against this background, one of the opening speakers, Mike Jensen pointed to a whole range of technologies - both existing and potential - that will change the bandwidth price equation. The SAT/WAF3 cable now connects 11 countries and discussions continue on creating an East African extension. It was now possible to deliver a wireless user access point for US$200 and carrying digital fibre over power lines (although it had received some initial bad press) was now a reality. For example Eskom has put in place a fibre link from South Africa to just short of Maputo and is likely to "roll-out" more of this approach if it is part of the winning SNO consortium. He argued that hybrid systems were a vital component: for example SMS texting on GSM phones and things like e-post where people could send an e-mail to a Post Office to be picked up by hand in paper form.

He pointed to a number of current obstacles. Many Southern African countries allowed satellites but licence fees were still high. South Africa’s regulatory framework still did not. The key underlying issue was access to the international gateway via fibre for countries in the region: access via South Africa’s Telkom to the fibre route was still 5-10 timers more expensive than its satellite equivalents when it should be cheaper.

Johann Prinsloo of Intelsat pointed out that recent African internet growth had been the largest in the world but from a very low base. He argued that because there was a need for inter-regional networks that satellite was needed despite the existence of the fibre cable. He said that the price of VSAT access was falling rapidly and that the selling point of satellite in the African context was "its ubiquity": there was almost that you could not get a signal. With sharing, usage costs could fall and the cheapest commercial service was US$50 per month. The next stage was to get a simple "plug and play" type installation similar to DSTV that would launch the internet to a whole new group of people, TV owners. He said that government regulations covering taxes on satellite equipment in some countries meant that on occasions he had to recommend a cheaper rather than the best (or most cost-effective) solutions: this could easily be changed by Government.

William Stucke of ZANet Internet Services told the Forum that a number of African countries now allowed wi-fi but South Africa had not even started to offer licences. He said all too often African users messages were bounced from the continent to North America and back simply to get across town: local internet exchanges were the way to keep this traffic in the country and avoid paying the international call costs. The African ISP Association (Afrispa) was encouraging the setting up of local IXPs and there were now 12 peering points in Africa (including the DRC who were represented at the Forum). He extended the point by saying it was imperative to create regional and perhaps even a continental peering points if the major international peering points were ever to be interested. The potential for a Pan-African Virtual Internet Exchange (PAVIX) was essential. There were however two obstacles that needed to be overcome: political issues around ownership in the widest sense and current legislation. (an article based on Brian Longwe’s workshop will appear in a later issue).

LIBERALISATION - NO GOOD SETTING OFF IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING

Russell Southwood, Balancing Act said that liberalisation was usually implemented piecemeal without any clear idea of the final destination. Those embarking on the journey needed to know where they wanted to go. Without being able to have a vision for the improvements or benefits it could deliver it would be hard to shape the regulatory framework to facilitate economic growth and social improvement. Theresa Peters, Bridges.org pointed out the obvious but all too often forgotten truth that "political will = public support". Mike Van Den Bergh of Gateway Communications made a similar point when he talked about private sector lobbying. He described how he and a colleague had waylaid a key legislator in a car park one night and bent his ear on various issues. The legislator ended up by saying I might agree with everything you say but what are you bringing me that I can use to sell it politically. Where are the wider benefits?

He made the point that the private sector had several grounds on which it might lobby government but that self-interest was by far the strongest but that "the challenge was to ensure that the interests of any one interest group do not overwhelm the interests of other groups and parties". Business itself was heterogeneous and it was often difficult to reach a consensus within it. Self-interest enabled you to explain the benefit to companies you might raise money from to lobby. But once you started tackling an issue you had to widen your focus to show that what you were recommending benefited the nation as a whole: narrowly-focused, self-interest was bound to fail.

Charley Lewis of the LINK Centre pointed to the value of civil society involving themselves in these kinds of policy issues. They could build alliances around a common issue; act as the voice of reason; use the power of publicity to embarrass government and exert strategic leverage. Both Charley Lewis and Mike Van Den Bergh talked about the frustrations of public consultation processes in South Africa where those who had been consulted and made a considerable effort to reach a consensus had simply been ignored by those drafting bills. As William Stucke remarked, "government needs to be a porous membrane."

There were a number of issues that were of considerable interest including: access and roll-out-universality, pricing and affordability, access to information and content, freedom of expression, consumer protection and quality of service, intellectual property rights and things like open source and employment and workplace issues.

DIGITAL RIGHTS - WHAT ARE THEY AND HOW DO WE GET THEM?

The Forum presented what was probably a topic that will grow in intensity as internet use levels increase on the continent. Bretton Vine of the Future Foundation described himself as an internet anarchist and identified four key rights:

He told participants that the ethos and values of the internet were crucial to understanding the culture it was encouraging and the challenges it posed: in other words, the initial "rights" were properties of the network. He illustrated the issues and dilemmas raised by describing a number of archetypal internet users.

He talked about a 14-year old computer gamer who moderated his own group on the subject and would resist any attempt to have people say what he could or could not say. He played violent computer games but knew that it was just a game but that these games worried his parents. Another individual downloaded DVD films but bought those films that he enjoyed. To do this he was large user of bandwidth, something that his employer might not have realised. Another user downloaded music he was interested in from a file sharing network and also uploaded his own music. He might be worried that the record companies would come after him and try and stop him downloading. His final archetype was Groovy TrOOp3r who was an experienced user but an inexperienced netizen. He was responsible for DDOS attacks that caused things like web sites to crash. He was concerned about getting caught but wanted to be famous for being a hacker.

Lawyer Ryk Meiring highlighted the issues that were causing the most concern and often posed significant legal or practical challenges: spamming; illegal pornography; privacy in the workplace; terrorist use of the internet and intellectual property infringement. Privacy in the workplace was a particular issue for Africa as many users sent their e-mails from work computers, not having one at home. He said that intellectual property rights had steadily increased and it was not just access control but also control over use.

He believed that the law could include a rights framework. He gave the example of a group of hackers who had put grafitti all over the South African lottery site because it was not distributing the funds raised. The Lotto went after 2600.co.za who it believed was responsible but they were able to successfully defend themselves.

FREEING UP TELECOMS FOR THE PEOPLE - DEREGULATION AND USER GROUPS

At the end of the Forum, participants were asked to identify things that would enable the internet in Africa to grow. In a short space of time, the participants had named a list of things that needed to be done including liberalisation revenue sharing, increasing fibre capacity, raising awareness, getting broadband, building regulator capacity and setting up user-interest bodies.

Participants were then asked to prioritise the things listed and liberalisation and the setting up of user-interest groups emerged as the two key issues for participants.

"Our purpose is to reinforce the efforts of AfrISPA (the pan-African umbrella body for national internet service provider associations) to work together to establish effective lobbying groups to achieve common objectives throughout Southern Africa," said SAIF co-organiser Sean Moroney of AITEC Africa.

AfrISPA has only nine members: Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Over 40 African countries have no such associations, said AfrISPA’s Kenyan representative Brian Longwe. He noted that there was insufficient participation in internet initiatives from Southern Africa.

Russell Southwood, Balancing Act, a co-organiser of the Forum said the key objective of the event was to help create a shared strategic agenda between private enterprise, regulators and civil society to tackle current obstacles to internet growth in Africa.

In forthcoming issues: Domain names, e-rate and PDAs/handhelds

FORUM: NUGGETS OF INFORMATION

* Mauritius has call centres for North Americans wanting to gamble by placing bets using 0800 numbers.

* There are 6670 registered LANGamers in South Africa, individuals who play computer games on and offline.

* Johannesburg Airport is the first wi-fi "hot-spot" in South Africa. It sits under the offices of Witel Africa.

* The .co.za registry has 120-130,000 registered users, 15% of all .za domains. The .org.za domains number between 5-7,000.

* It was estimated that South African IXPs carry 70% of the total internet traffic.

* The Botswana government has commissioned a satellite link for education and government use.

* Three out of the 14 SADC countries do not yet have a regulator.

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