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NEPAD’s e-Africa Commission has set ambitious targets for wiring up the continent’s primary and secondary schools. Even if these targets are only partly met, the education sector will become a major market for hardware and software suppliers. But getting connections and kit in place is really only half the story. Keeping school internet connections Œlive’ is a costly business. The creation of a special reduced rate for the education sector called e-rate is being put forward as one way of addressing this issue. SchoolNet Africa commissioned Daniel Espitia of Lesoba Consultant to look at how it might be done in Africa. Russell Southwood summarises the different approaches and looks at the tricky question of who pays for it.

Progress in connecting Africa’s schools has been slow. In places where they lack electricity and even basic text books it has been hard to make it a priority. In some countries ­ like Angola ­ civil war has destroyed electricity and telephone systems. There have been wider difficulties. The Education for All Assessment discovered that 60% of eligible children in Africa were not starting grade one at the official age.

Many countries still have local import tariffs that make computers prohibitively expensive. Even where an internet connection was put in place, the high cost of paying for it meant it was soon shut down: for example, Fransisco Manyanga High School in Maputo were paying US$270 a month before they shut down their connection.

Private-public partnership has in places helped to address this problem. Zambian ISP Zamnet provided cheaper access rates to SchoolNet members and Angola’s Ebonet agreed to link four schools to the internet using a special rate which was 30% less than the normal rate. However these kinds of agreements tend to be time-limited and only cover a limited number of schools.

In view of these difficulties, Daniel Espitia of Lesoba Consult concluded: "The strategic solution for SchoolNet Africa must address connectivity at its root, to solve the basic problem that leads to lack of connectivity, that is affordability of bandwidthŠSchoolNet’s solution (must be) the use of a combination of policy and regulatory tools and negotiation with stakeholders that will achieve affordability of connectivity."

Started in the USA, e-rate is at its simplest a nationally agreed discounted rate for internet access for schools: often this rate is enshrined in the relevant telecoms legislation at a national level and therefore the responsibility of the regulator. Brief descriptions of several approaches in Africa and elsewhere give a flavour of what it seeks to achieve:

USA: The US scheme is administered by a not-for-profit organisation that was established by the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Fund. The scheme has six different levels of discount in order to focus the maximum subsidy in poor and rural areas. The method used to measure poverty is the percentage of students eligible for the national school lunch programme that provides a free lunch to poor students. In its first two years, the e-rate programme connected one million classrooms. Whilst the multiple discount levels are admirable, they would probably work less well in Africa where need of this kind is more widely distributed.

Senegal: The Ministry of Education and Sonatel signed an agreement that establishes preferential terms for access to the internet to make it more affordable to learning institutions. Discounts vary depending on the type of connection but can go as high as 75%. Installation costs are also discounted. Sonatel is directly responsible for invoicing the schools. Sonatel and the Ministry of Education have appointed a co-ordinator for the programme.

South Africa: An amendment to the Telecom Act includes e-rate which it wants to introduce "to stimulate and facilitate Internet usage by public schools. The e-rate will allow public schools a 50% discount on calls to access the internet as well as internet access charges." Although the provision has been made in the Act, implementation of a national scheme has been slow although things are now beginning to move (See Jacob Zuma’s announcement in People below).

Two issues are probably vital for implementing an e-rate scheme in Africa: providing quality bandwidth and a fixed and predictable monthly cost for schools’ users. Without quality bandwidth, the experience of using the internet is likely to put off rather than encourage potential users. Also if as in the UK the scheme offers a fixed monthly ("always-on") cost for an agreed level of bandwidth school budgeting will be much easier.

The study makes the link between connectivity and content:"With connectivity the door to content opens; it begins with a passive access to content created by others, usually in English, to a more active role in developing local content in local languages, with applications that are more meaningful at the level of the community."

So who pays for this discounted access? There are three "usual suspects": international donors, governments and the private sector. International donors may "pump-prime" the process but are unlikely to have the scale of funds required to stay behind the process in the long-term. The line between donor and government spending is blurred in those countries where international donors provide a substantial part of funding for government programmes: for example Mozambique and Zambia.

Government’s money for these kinds of schemes will be raised by taxing the sector or "social agreements": for example, where a mobile company gets a profitable licence and in exchange forgoes a certain level of income to underwrite one of the Government’s social objectives. Increasingly these "one-off" deals are being consolidated through contributions to Universal Service or Access Funds. The private sector will only part with its money if it can be convinced that the scheme is well run, the schools can pay and it genuinely begins to expand the market. Ultimately Government will have to pay the majority of costs in one form or another and it will be important to make e-rate part of broader government commitments to providing quality universal education.

Both SchoolNet Africa and the e-Africa Commission will need to address how this relatively expensive set of facilities can be widely used at a community level, particularly in those areas that may not have any other form of connectivity. It will be important to create frameworks that allow "out-of-school-hours" uses for the facilities. Some teachers will need to become "social entrepreneurs" to ensure that there is good take-up outside school students for training and familiarisation work.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author except where otherwise stated. My thanks to Daniel Espitia and School Net Africa for access to the study.