ACT 2002 AND 1ST EAST AFRICAN INTERNET FORUM - ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS

26 July 2002

Top Story

In this week’s special issue, we report from the joint ACT 2002 Summit and the first East African Internet Forum in Nairobi. Moderator for the opening session Henry Chasia of Inmarsat spoke of the gap between talk about the digital divide and action and challenged delegates to come up with concrete proposals. African ICT gatherings tend to be in the habit of making grand pronouncements that are are a little short of the "who, where, when, what and how" detail. Unusually for events of this kind, delegates took Henry Chasia at his word and proceeded to "get down to business".

 

There were two kinds of news coming out of the conference that seemed to fit the description: firstly a series of news announcements and secondly, a series of omens that show that "digital Africa" is on its way here.

 

First the news announcements. Three clear proposals are to be implemented:

Formed at ACT 2001, the African ISP Association (AFRISPA) announced that it had a programme to set 16 local internet exchange points across Africa. Significantly Nigeria will be one of them. The programme would also include strengthening existing IXPs. The existence of these IXPs will mean that the continent saves enormously on international calling charges and that things like streaming become a realistic proposition at a local level. Furthermore, the next step - regional IXPs - cannot be too far away. The programme is being supported by the UK’s DFID, Canada’s IDRC, Cisco and the Berkman Centre at Harvard University. Also an IXP Task Force has been set up to look at similar work in Francophone Africa.

 

 

NEPAD’s e-Commission has adopted the idea of getting a sub-marine fibre optic cable for the eastern side of the continent as one of its main infrastructure projects. It may not yet have the funding but it has considerable goodwill and may yet be able to pull it off. Sad then that the e-Commission has not seen fit to involve anyone from the private sector in its current structure. If you don’t involve them in formulating your plans, how do you expect them to get enthusiastic about implementing them. However, there’s still time to remedy that....

 

 

Finally, AfriNIC is to go ahead with setting up a regional register for African domain names with support from RIPE NCC. It will be sending a hostmaster to Amsterdam for training (see People beloe) and will be selecting a country to base the registry in shortly. The road to here has been slow and with enough setbacks to try the patience of a saint but AfriNIC seems to have set itself a cracking pace for the implementation phase. Let’s hope it can keep it on track. At a local level, KENIC provides a clear model for all those African countries that want to take control of their own domain name without this becoming simply a Government take-over.

 

AfriNIC currently has US$8200 in the bank and $1500 in pledges. It now needs to raise enough money from members and others to complete the setting up process. Offers of contributions to Ayitey Bulley who is handling the finances: bulley@ghana.com For more information: www.afrinic.org

 

All too often in the past two years, people speaking about digital developments in Africa have focused on the "general proposition": how this or that will make a difference to the continent without getting down to the detail of how. This conference was shot through with speakers who were offering the "how". Three key examples will suffice:

RURAL TELECOMS: The first of these is an emphasis on rural telecoms and getting connectivity out into the areas where 80% of Africas population lives. As one panel member pointed this was also a power problem as many rural areas also had no access to power. As if one of the gods with a sense of humour had been listening, a short power cut threw the gathered delegates into total darkness for some moments. As the panel member joked, at least we now knew what it meant to live in a rural area. Kenya itself is about to have a second try at addressing the problem. The opening speaker, Kenya’s Minister of Transport and Communications (see What They Said below) announced the setting up of Rural Telecommunications Funds to do just this.

 

Andrew Dymond of Intelecon who was responsible for helping setting up a rural development fund in Uganda gave a presentation on how to drive rural telecom development. The essence of it was that the public sector should use the subsidy it has available to meet social needs more effectively. It needed to help stretch the market (by offering incentives) to get private operators interested in supplying services to places that were unserved. He asked the question: do you want a low cost service that is never delivered or a higher cost service that will exist? The point of the question was that the incumbents have rarely or never delivered on social commitments to these areas.

 

He drew a distinction between the market gap and the access gap. The market gap was one that with the right regulatory approach could be filled by private operators. The access gap was one could only currently be filled by subsidy. The aim should be to make the latter as small as possible so that subsidy could be applied effectively to it. He pointed that large numbers of rural areas were now connected and that it was often urban sons and daughters who were buying their parents phones.

 

The parents would do a rural version of call-back: they would ring and their urban relative who would then return the call. As a result, there was a greater volume of calls into rural areas than out of them, mirroring the imbalance of calls at an international level. The myth was that people couldn’t afford the means to buy communication.

E-COMMERCE: In the e-commerce session, Barry Coetzee of iVeri, one of the few practitioners doing it for real focused on how if Africa wanted to create local e-commerce then tourism was the killer-app: the customers were able to use credit cards for transactions and as tourists were happy to be parted from their money so long as a good holiday was supplied. Although South African e-commerce is only worth a small percentage compared with retailing, it is nonetheless growing year on year.

 

There was an interesting discussion as several Nigerians set about him saying how could they start in their country? He said that in the first instance you had to convince a local bank to accept the transaction system. In effect, you’re selling to a double-headed customer: the bank and the person wanting to do e-commerce. His breakthrough came when a local promoter put on the opera Aida in a stadium and wanted to sell tickets in local currency.

 

He said that there was a disconnect between the speed of the public sector and what the private sector was doing. They had started four years ago and had now built up in African terms a substantial market but it was only last week that President Thabo Mbeki signed a bill into law covering the area. In a point of some significance on the words into action front, he counseled people to simply get on with it and that the law-makers and regulators would follow. On a lighter note, you should know that there are 20 plus e-commerce sites in South Africa dealing with homes and gardens and eight with womens lingerie. This reflects an e-commerce market that Barry described jokingly as wine, women and song with a little reading on the side.

 

If it can be done in South Africa, why can’t it be done in Kenya? About six months ago Kenyan Airways budget carrier Flamingo announced it would sell tickets over the internet. In its latest in-flight magazine it says that "security problems" have meant slow implementation. If flysaa.com and kulula.com (who face the same security problems) can do it and sell hundreds of tickets every week, why not Flamingo?

THE SUB $25 CONNECTED PDA: The holy grail for cracking the digital divide is a device cheap enough and with enough connectivity that it can be bought by millions of people and used in remote villages as well as cities. The recent release of Indias Simputer has been an attempt to create a sub-$300 PC version but already the price is creeping up. Vasee Nesiah, CEO of MediaSolv, a US messaging and groupware company has prototyped what could be a $25 PDA that might just fit the bill. It is already being piloted in Kenya.

 

The cheapest of current PDAs on the market cost US$200 (eg Palm Pilot) and it would cost you an extra $150 to add wireless connectivity. The proposed device has gone through three versions. The current version was shown based on something like a Blackberry PDA with a typical small-scale keyboard and PDA screen. The prototype is based on using an embedded chip in the PDA. It uses Bluetooth wireless technology (which keeps the energy requirement down) and in due course voice capability could be added at additional cost. It also has a PCMIA slot that can take a card for WAN, VOIP or satellite, obviously again at additional cost.

 

A single line can take up to seven PDAs at once and the connection could be made by landline, LAN or WAN. It can use what the company calls Personal Area Networks with hotspots in community centers or similar places. It uses regular rechargeable batteries.

 

So what can you do with it? It has all the functionality of a typical connected PDA: e-mail, address book, messaging, and a calender for appointments. Adding news is also a future option. Nesiah believes that it would be very suitable for micro-enterpises and micro-credit schemes because you have all the small business functions of existing PDAs. There is currently a pilot project in Kenya with Environmental Liaison Centre International who are trialing it for collecting environmental data in more remote locations.So is MediaSolv going to manufacture the device? As Nesiah told the session:We do technology. We do not want to build it so we are looking for partners.

 

For details contact: Vasee Nesiah, CEO, MediaSolv: vasee@mediasolv.com

 

Other developments happening "for real" included using ICTs for both school and professional education. C&W’s virtual academy already has regulators and telco staff taking three and five year qualifications online. Guateng Online spoke about connecting up 2500 schools in this South African province.

 

Overall there was an almost universal acknowledgement amongst conference delegates that it will take a large amount of funding to create the infrastructure required and this was largely a task best left to the private sector who should be facilitated to do it by Government. This is some progress over two years. However the rhetoric may be right but there is currently very little connect between this warming speech-making and what actually happens.

 

Sitting in a country that has failed to privatize its incumbent telco and hearing Amos Anyimadu from Ghana tell delegates of the unresolved sale of Ghana Telecom does not give one great hope that things really are happening fast enough. To be fair, the Nigerian Presidential Adviser on ICT told us that although the failure to sell NITEL was a negative, he could reasonably point to the work going forward on creating a second national carrier and a whole slew of wireless licences that have recently been given to local and national operators. William Stucke, Interim Chair of the African ISP Association, AFRISPA got up from the floor and said that it was simple: just deregulate and introduce competition and the rest will follow. There was spirited applause in response but it came from only about half the delegates. If the private sector are to be important in developing and implementing things then policy-makers are going to have to connect rhetoric with action.