ACT 2000: TAKING THE PULSE OF INTERNET DEVELOPMENT

9 June 2000

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This special issue is a report from the ACT 2000 Conference at South Africa's Sun City: it is quite literally Africa's ICT water hole. Over 500 "movers and shakers" drawn from across Africa came together to discuss the theme of Making IT Work for Africa. It provided a unique opportunity to look at the obstacles facing the development of the internet in Africa and how these might be overcome. Balancing Act's Russell Southwood (who was at the conference as a speaker on African web content) reports his impressions.

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* ACT 2000: TAKING THE PULSE OF INTERNET DEVELOPMENT

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The future development of the internet in Africa is like trying to untangle a knot of seemingly insuperable complexity. There has to be a legal and regulatory framework to encourage the development of the necessary bandwidth. There has to be the investment in technology to meet the special conditions found in Africa. The banking and finance system has to function to allow e-commerce top take off. Compelling content has to be available to

make people want to use it. And if that list were not already daunting enough, there has to be new ways of creating access for massive numbers of people who simply do not have the money to go online....

*   UNSTOPPABLE MOMENTUM FOR LIBERLIZATION

The ACT 2000 conference provided some hope for progress on all these issues.

The African Telecommunication Regulators Forum which had planned a single session at the conference needed to run several sessions to accommodate the levels of interest shown. Under the skilful chairing of Jan Mutai of the African Telecommunications Union, the Regulators Forum agreed a statement that committed them to the development of the telecommunications resources of the continent for the benefit of all. To those from outside the continent, it may have sounded a bit anodyne but it was clearly anachievement to get this statement of commitment.

The first session of the conference was a speech by Andile Ngcaba, Director-General of the Department of Communications of South Africa on the lessons of the policy formulation process. Overall the policy has the following objectives:

- To improve the quality of life

- Grow the economy

- Give access to "info-awareness" (the creation of knowledge workers)

- Security

- Confidentiality and privacy.

There is a green paper on e-commerce and the legislation will be in place by the end of 2001. The regulatory framework has a strong strand focusing on universal access and he said that he would like to see every citizen have the right to their own e-mail address. In response to a question about what type of framework, he talked about orderly market access so that as many people as possible have access to global markets.

Is orderly a code word for "half-way house" privatization or a genuinely an attempt to prevent chaos? Although speakers all espoused privatization, most were anxious to emphasise "the African way" to it or redescribe it to help get the best from it. Barry McGuire of MCIWorldCom Southern Africa came up with the phrase "competisation" to try and encapsulate the best of the competition and privatization frameworks.

The momentum behind telecomms privatization seems unstoppable. It may take time and it won¹t be the same as the USA or Europe, but it will take place.

This is the end of the beginning. However the news of progress so far is less upbeat. Richard Mwanza of the Zambian Communications Authority told delegates that there were "issues of procrastination" in Zamtel implementing what the regulator requested. Apparently it still felt that it¹s part of government.

Peter Davies, Managing Director of AT&T Global Network Services, South Africa described the legal action the company had undertaken in order to get Telkom to supply VANs services. He pointed out that the South African regulator had been given a framework by the Government that contained ambiguities. He pointed out that there had been political interference. He cited the fact that the Minister responsible was a respondent in three High Court cases. Telekom as a mononpoly simply wanted "to raise the bar on what is covered by its monopoly."

*   THE TECHNOLOGY'S THERE BUT IS THE INVESTMENT?

If it moves fast, Africa can leapfrog entire generations of technology and find cheaper more appropriate solutions for its infrastructure requirements.

It can happen and it might even happen faster than the sceptics would concede. The main issue is one of investor confidence. They want to know whether African governments can get the legal and regulatory framework right before committing themselves.

Colin Van Shallwyk of Cisco Systems was asked in one forum session to answer the question : what motivates a private sector investor go into a particular African country ? He said they assessed the level of business and at whether the regulatory climate would protect their new business. He also pointed out that there was a huge disparity between the size of potential in South Africa and other African countriesS

Barry McGuire of MCIWorldCom was one of several speakers to point out how Africa can leapfrog landline investment. You couldn't move quickly through the blizzard of acronyms that covered the range of technologies on offer. At one point I felt that if another speaker explained yet another variant on satellite or wireless technology, my brain would go into meltdown. The most telling example given was a practical one given by Chris Bell of Redwing Satellite Solutions. A network of rural malaria research centres was connected to the internet via satellite to exchange research findings for a monthly running cost that seemed amazingly cheap in the context.

The figures for the spread of mobiles provide a pointer to the speed of change: GSM penetration went from 0.5% to 5% in a four year period in South Africa. As McGuire observed, whatever the difficulties, the need is there.

GSM covers 30% of Africa and is growing by 30,000 subscribers a month. As someone I spoke to pointed out, cellphones have doubled the number of telephone connections in Zimbabwe. There was a widespread belief that WAP phones would be the vehicle that delivered wider internet access. It has to be said that many who had this belief had not tried accessing the internet on a WAP phone.

The same feeling of acronym overload came off of the discussions held by the UN Economic Commission for Africa in its African Development Forum Process.

To be fair, the acronyms signalled a considerable number of initiatives that all will make some impact on the changing debate about how ICT can benefit Africa. (For details see ECA and the promotion of information technology for development in Africa on http://www.uneca.org )

All of this will place additional pressure on state owned telcos. IDDD (international direct dial) revenues are slowing down and revenues are trickling away to other forms of access: private leased lines, VOIP, closed user groups and illegal terminators. Dave Reddy of Motorola pointed that TRASA (the Telecom Regulators of Southern Africa) had created a frequency plan for SADC countries and that other African countries should follow suite.

In a Q and A session, one respondent noted that it might be cheaper to roll out DSL technology than invest in the more costly ISDN route. The Namibians who possess the only fully functioning ISDN network on the continent (see next issue of News Update) may feel less than happy about this.

*   E-COMMERCE AND E-GOVERNMENT: DREAMS OF TOMORROW

There may be practically no e-commerce on the continent outside of South Africa but a number of very serious players had a serious gleam in their eye about it. Richard Lawson of Lawson Software identified the economic model through which e-commerce might deliver growth in an Africa context: technology substitution. As he put it:"New technologies level the playing field." He told an anecdote about a Seattle-based bookshop that adopted an

e-commerce strategy and discovered that 20% of its stock was producing 60% of the revenues. It closed its store and went permanently online.

Ayisi Makatiani, CEO of Africa Online described how it planned to create "community centers" ­ telecentres that offered more services and features than even an African computer user might find at home. On the basis of its market research, he identified the potential in Africa in the next two years as follows:

People with computers   1 million

People with cellphones 5 million

People with the need to communicate 20 million

In a day filled with trillions and billions he was graceful enough to concede that the figures were not accurate to the Nth degree but informed guesswork.

Marc Bosaert of e-Government Solutions, IBM identified the main drivers for e-government. There were all the usual reasons governments give themselves : to serve their citizens better, to encourage business and to promote economic development. However there were two more profound reasons. The first was the desire to create e-communities : groups of people who had an interest in particular aspects of government so that they could be kept well informed. Also the fashionable concept of digital democracy. As he pointed out, this is not just about voting but the whole process of conveying information and consulting your citizens. To reinforce these ideas, the speaker quoted a survey that said that 74% of European politicians saw technology and the internet as things that will strengthen democracy.

Examples given for what could be done from simple to complex applications included : getting a presence with a portal on the internet, helping service providers to use it to deliver better services and finally making « e-government » responsive with a « life-event » portal. This phrase was meant to capture the sense that the citizen would be able to interact with Government through the portal at moments of his or her choosing. An increasingly large number of African countries have made first base. Their ministries have web sites and they nearly always work. They may not always be useful but they¹re there. From an optimistic viewpoint, things can only get better.

Now the sceptics at the back of the room were already saying to themselves how on earth is this going to happen in my country? We'd settle for goodgovernment in Africa, never mind e-government. Profound changes of this kind can only really be made if there was a clear understanding of what goodgovernment was in the first place. Rogers Okot-Uma, Chief Programme Officer of the Commonwealth Secretariat pointed out that this discussion of good governance was relatively recent (over the last ten years) and that people had widely varying understandings of what was involved. There is now a Commonwealth Centre for Electronic Governance which will be a useful stopping point for those starting down this road.

All of these e-government applications will be heavily reliant on combining voice and data traffic. Mark Copas of EMEA and Dan Winters of Telekom described how LAN telephony can be used to underpin these kinds of developments. Government officers can be in a position where all the information they require can go with them using internet-based databases. I leave you with the image of a Ministry of Agriculture official plugging in his laptop on some rural farmS

 

* CONTENT AND ACCESS

 

In an industry conference concerned with technology, there was (not surprisingly) very little mention of the content that would drive usage.

This point was the main thrust of the speech I gave to a session on developing the internet. Without compelling content, the internet in Africa will simply be a quaint unused technology, a large scale equivalent of betamax. It thrived on people having something to say.

Africa currently has very few sites actually produced on the continent compared with the millions of North American and European sites. There were hardly any in the languages of the countries where they were produced.

Traffic for these sites was predictably highest in South Africa but quite modest in other countries. Nonetheless the web was beginning to provide a comparatively cheap medium for African organisations to address the world, whether they were companies, governments or NGOs.

Whilst everyone acknowledged the scale of the digital divide, few speakers addressed this directly (see Ayisi Makatiani above). The best presentations on this subject came from Ashiek Manie of intekom and Shafika Isaacs of Schoolnet. They described eloquently a range of initiatives, both in South Africa and elsewhere that sought to bridge the digital divide with NGOs and the private sector working together.

The Conference concluded with a meeting of the African IT Education Trust that has been set up by the company organising the conference, AITEC. Its patron Graca Machel came to her first meeting and spoke with considerable passion about the need to connect IT work with rural communities. The Trust is currently investigating getting involved with two projects: further details in future News Updates.

In summary, there was a tremendous feeling of hope in the air. This may actually be Africa's moment to climb out of poverty. As one panel Chair pointed out although numbers of telephones related to GDP, at some point the relationship changed: a country reaches a point where it is richer because it has more phones. The heady optimism was tempered by a repeated sense from private conversations of the distance still to be travelled. It will be interesting to see what has changed by the time ACT 2001 reconvenes in Sun City this time next year.

For details of ACT 2001 contact AITEC on info@aitecafrica.com or see their web site: http://www.aitecafrica.com.

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SNIPPETS ­ IN CONVERSATION AT THE CONFERENCE

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*   Botswana Telecom suffered such embarrassing difficulties with its changeover to computerized billing that it had to go back to the government for more fundingS

*   Israeli IP Planet is now offering satellite connections to several ISPs in Kenya, Ghana and EgyptS

*   The South African Certification Agency estimates that it has built up a customer base of between 3-5000 users. This must be some kind of indicator of the e-commerce sector in South AfricaS

*   UUNet announced during the opening ceremony of the conference its intention of going into 15 African countriesS

*   One IT executive was relating how at one African University none of the phones really worked. Except for one but the person who controlled it was charging university people to use it. Perhaps they should put him in charge of telecomsS

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WHAT THEY SAID

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On Africa catching up : "We can¹t always be catching up in AfricaSWe¹re rolling out today products, not catch-up products." Dan Winters, Telekom SA

On the African rennaisance : "The African Renaisance will remain a rather fuzzy, warm concept until Africa becomes part of the global framework." Ian Cumming-Bruce, General Manager, British Telecom (Southern Africa)

On international investors interested in Africa:"These are the kind of people who tell you what they¹re making and you check the GDP of your country." Ayisi Makatiani, Africa Online

On ICT initiatives:"Nothing will be implemented unless you have world class project management." Vernon Hodge, General Manager, IBM

On the digital divide:"In the USA they talk about the digital divide. We don¹t have a digital divide. We are the digital divide." Colin Van Shallwyk, Market Development Manager, Cisco Systems

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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 our web site at www.balancingact-africa.com.

For further information about Balancing Act and its pilot projects, contact

Russell Southwood on info@balancingact-africa.com. All material is copyright but can be used if permission is sought.