South Africa - growing pains in a highly regulated market

25 February 2000

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Benin - no telephone lines, no wired society?

 

News Update 10 - Benin Republic

 

What follows is a report by Ken Lohento about the state of the internet in the West African Republic of Benin. His report shows both the real potential emerging and the considerable distance still to be traveled. In short, no telephone lines, no wired society.

 

If our correspondent is "off the mark" or you have factual amendments, mail them to us and we will include them in subsequent News Updates. If you'd like to contribute, write and let us know.

 

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COMING SOON: MORE ON ZAMBIA AND MP3 IN AN AFRICAN CONTEXT

Benin - No telephone lines, no wired society?

 

Benin has been connected to the internet since November 1995. At present the connection is at 128 Kbits/s which does not compare favorably to other West African countries. The national telecom operator has a monopoly on land-line telecommunications and is responsible for the national node. However since 2000, there is no longer a monopoly on mobile communications. Three international projects, the francophone SYFED-REFER (www.refer.org), the American Leland Initiative (www.usaid.gov) and the Sustainable Development Networking Programme of UNDP (www.undp.org) have all been involved in trying to foster the development of the internet in the country.

 

The internet is potentially accessible throughout the whole country but almost 90% of the ISPs are based in Cotonou, its capital city.

 

ISPs

 

There are six active commercial ISPs, among which, the Office des Postes et Telecommunications (OPT, the national telecom operator) (www.opt.bj) the main provider, having a monopoly on leased lines. In 1998, under the influence of the Leland Initiative, eight companies signed an agreement with OPT. Four of them agreed to start offering dial up services. They have 64 KBits/s connections. Another ISP (SECNI http://elodia.internet.bj) was operating before this agreement but operated with a poorer connection of 28 KBits/s (PPP leased lines). The providers included in this agreement are EIT (www.EIT.bj), firstnet (www.firstnet.bj), les Arts Bobo (www.artsbobo.bj) and SOBIEX Informatique (www.sobiex.bj). Apart from the commercial ISPs, two others are given over to government use.

 

Costs

 

For an individual, the cost of a dial-up connection is somewhere between FF75-300 (all prices quoted are with value added tax). For NGOs, it usually costs between FF100-300 and for companies between FF100-500. Some ISPs do not distinguish between different categories of customers (OPT, SECNI, SOBIEX, EIT), while Firstnet and les Arts Bobo do. SYFED-REFER's services are largely aimed at students (FF15 per month) and the academic staff of the national university (FF25 per month) but this cost only covers an e-mail service. Access to the web is charged separately at 5FF per hour. (approx FF100 = US$13.58)

 

The private ISPs must pay the national telco, OPT FF28,000 (!) per month for operating a 64 KBits leased line and the owner of a PPP connection must pay FF4,000 per month. Clearly these costs are too high and since 1998 OPT has been promising reductions on them.

 

Cybercentres

 

Cybercentres have sprung up recently. Whereas in 1997 only four places offered "walk-in" internet access, today the number is considerably larger. Many companies who just own a computer and a telephone line are offering public internet access. This is a phenomenon that is rather typical of business in Benin: once a business appears to be profitable, every one rushes into it. There are probably 200 or more but only about 10 of them have gained much of a public profile. All cybercentres, except three (Centre SYFED, les Arts Bobo and AIP DOPHIA) have a dial up connection. These centres can be divided into two categories: "e-mail-first" and web access services.

 

E-mail-first

 

E-mail is more widely used than the web so this service makes good sense in the Benin context. Web access is an add-on. Most of these service providers own a server host abroad and offer their services on a "store-and-forward" basis. The frequency of their connection to the net varies but it is at least twice a day. Subscribers have their own e-mail addresses. The costs are very affordable (FF20 per nonth an FF3 per e-mail or FF20-60 per month for unlimited messages sent and received. Imedia Informatique (www.beninweb.org), H2COM (www.h2com.com), Cyber Songhai (www.songhai.org), and les Arts Bobo offer this type of service. These service providers offer access to a large number of computers.

 

Web services

 

The most developed web access providers offer direct access to the web and customers get a free web-based mail service. They pay between FF10-75 per hour. Access is the bottom end of that scale at night or on Sundays. Competition seems to have driven prices down. The main companies are AID DOPHIA (dial-up and PPP connection), EIT and SOBIEX. Again these companies offer access to a large number of computers.

 

The less well developed web access provider simply has one computer and people send e-mail through the one address of the centre. In this case messages are charged per unit and in some cases per page of text! Most cybercentres in Benin fall within this category.

 

Internet subscribers

 

There are around 4000 subscribers Beninese ISPs and cybercentres (many people have web-based free e-mail accounts). However the number of people using these internet services is probably three or four times that amount.

 

Internet awareness

 

Although the word "internet" has been heard by most young people and literate adults (less than 30% of the population) its applications and potential are used and recognized by far fewer people. There is no governmental strategy to harness the technology for the economic development of the country. Content production is not developed and promoted. However, in the framework of the activities of the already mentioned international projects (Leland, SDNP, SYFED-REFER), NGOs (ORIDEV www.anais.org/oridev/, ISOC-Benin (www.isoc.bj) and the services offered by cybercentres and ISPs, awareness of the internet is growing quite quickly.

 

The Leland Initiative has helped some NGOs and journalists to discover the internet. SNDP will raise awareness amongst government and the private sector through the framework of its internet. It has also supported events like an internet festival. Apart from delivering internet to the academic community, SYFED-REFER has organised awareness sessions for groups like librarians. ORIDEV trains young people and NGO employees, holds an information resource on ICT and put out a bullet on the development of ICT in Benin. Other organisations like Vinotic and Jeune Chambre have also supported internet awareness initiatives. But the task is so enormous and the problem's facing the internet's development so numerous that these initiatives can sometimes seem insufficient or insignificant.

 

Problems limiting growth

 

The major problems limiting growth are:

 

   computer illiteracy

   a poor telecommunication system

   the current unavailability of telephone lines in many areas, especially in major towns outside Cotonou

   the monopoly of the national operator

   the cost of computers and telecommunications and therefore of the internet itself

   lack of awareness of the government and no national strategy for the whole sector.

 

In terms of computer literacy for example, there is no national programme of training in public schools. Even in the private schools that began to be established in 1990, computer communications is hardly taught. Therefore most students finish their studies ignorant of how to use a keyboard. It is worth remembering that data processing only began to be taught in Benin about 10 years ago. A new computer will cost 28 times the minimum wage (FF5500): even a clone costs around FF7000). Even though the tax on imported computer materials has been reduced since the beginning of this year (almost to zero), computer costs are still high. Moreover, whereas the average US citizen, many times richer than the average Beninese, doesn't pay for internet access (local telephone calls are free), beninese that possess a connected computer at home pay at least FF13.20 per hour for local phone access. Also there is the most basic but cricial problem to overcome: even getting a phone line. It can take years to get one. No telephone line, no wired society.

 

If the web is to play a real part in national development, all of these difficulties need to be tackled urgently. Perhaps only through lobbying and advocacy can the issue real become an important one for the whole country.

 

Ken Lohento

e-mail: Kenloh@h2com.com

web: www.sura.org/~patois/docs/benin/

 

 

SNIPPETS

 

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party in Zimbabwe is making what might be a first for a political party using the internet: it is offering free MP3 downloads. Why? Well Thomas Mapfumo has has had two songs from his album Chimurengo Explosion removed from the playlists of Zimbabwe's radio stations. The two tracks - Tattered Rags and Disaster - are both critical of the government.

 

Web: www.in2zw.com/mdc/

 

South African NGO is offering a free e-letter covering South African politics.

 

Web: www.idasa.org.za/

 

RESPONSES

 

South African Internet market - Telekom was t a bit long on opinion and a little short on fact.

 

The industry is presently dominated by Vodacom WorldOnline and M-Web, both of whom have spent tens of millions buying market share. This is to create captive markets for their data products which they will deliver over their GSM cellular networks. Telkom's ISP, Intekom, also has a big share of the market, and since Telkom owns 50% of Vodacom, you can say Telkom is the country's biggest ISP.

 

I don't dispute your writer's view that Telkom wants the entire market, but I do find his analysis simplistic. I hold no brief for Telkom, but I don't think it is wholly responsible for the mess. The blame should be laid mostly at the government's door.

 

The problem is that the government has not defined Telkom's role clearly at a time when technologies are converging. Telkom is legally required to provide 2.8 million new lines in five years. The government wants Telkom to earn the money to pay for them. So it gave Telkom a five/six year exclusive licence over international, long distance and local telephony, and allowed it to compete in the value added services market. But this means all value added service providers must use Telkom infrastructure.

 

The law specifically bans the resale of spare capacity to third parties or switching between third parties by value added network service providers. As a result, Telkom is both supplier and customer when it comes to value added services, and it is very hard to say where one activity stops and another starts. And of course, when customers send voice as data, how can you tell what the ones and zeros represent?

 

Also, technological advances, particularly the rapid rise of the Internet and the use of packet switching as the basic transport technology, have made the law obsolete.

Your correspondent should be aware that Telkom is working very hard to build an IP backbone network that sits on an ATM/SDH infrastructure, and that it has invested heavily in digital satellite bandwidth.

 

It intends to compete fully, and is now trying to prevent the potential new entrants from getting a head start. Telkom will obviously try to claim more than it is really entitiled to and will hold up resolution of a situation where it can only lose.

 

Of course, the current legislative and regulatory mess the sector is in may deter new entrants, so Telkom's actions may be in vain, but they must be done, if only to show what a mess the sector is in. The danger to Telkom is that the mess is resolved by allowing more than one competitor in 2002/3 and not imposing univeral service obligations on the new entrants. But this is unlikely for political and "natural justice" reasons.

 

Telkom's exclusivity with respect to the provision of public switched telecommunications services has been confirmed by both the courts and the regulator. But the squabble is on-going - the most recent court decision found that Satra had not acted with natural justice in its ruling that Telkom is behaving uncompetitively, but it also denied Telkom's prayer for relief against Satra's ruling.

 

Telkom's denial of extra bandwidth to some customers is also subject to an intergovernment dispute between the US and SA on the basis of a complaint by AT&T; against Telkom. Basically, Telkom has until 16 June to give AT&T; more bandwidth or the US will take SA to the World Trade Organisation for breach of the international agreement on supply of telecom services..

 

Telkom's profits will be down for the second year in a row, mainly as a result of paying for lay-offs, outsourcing and a smaller income from international services. Also the income from higher local call charges is offset by more bad debt and the cost of renewing infrastructure which is stolen and/or damaged by thieves or bad weather.

 

If the rules of the game are less than Queensbury, you can hardly expect the protagonists to fight fair. C'est la vie.

 

I hope that provides a little more perspective.

 

On a more personal note, what is it that you do and how did you come to be doing it?

 

Ian Grant

African Telecosm

 

Hits vs users - A readers question

 

In News Update 8 you said that Wo Yaa has 300,000 hits per month. Could you please explain what these hits are as this term is often confusing. It can be user sessions, number of unique visitors, page views, or just total hits of every single file on the site including images and banners. Software is able to generate all of these and not all of them are useful to determine the popularity of the web site.

 

If by hits you mean just the total number of file loadings (the latter), then Woo Yaa and AfricaNewsNow are not so popular!

 

Chanda Chisala

Zambia Online

 

News Update reply:

 

Nearly all web sites (including yours) measure how well they are used in terms of "hits" - the total number of file loadings. As you rightly point out the number of users is likely to be a smaller number of users unless the site owner exaggerates his hits by using software to mimic usage. AfricaNewsNow has recorded 283,717 hits up to May 17 2000 (logs supplied to us) so looks set to break the 300,000 barrier before the end of the month. Its aim is to reach 700,000 "hits" because at this point various e-advertising agencies have told it that they will consider advertising their clients on the site. Various people have mentioned software packages that can distinguish user levels. Does anyone have one they might recommend?

 

News Update is a free e-letter covering African internet content and infrastructure developments published by Balancing Act. The latest issue and all previous issues appear on the Kabissa.org web site (www.kabissa.org), which is a Balancing Act pilot project. For further information about Balancing Act and its pilot projects, contact Russell Southwood on southwood@boyden.demon.co.uk.