Deliver Communication to the People

People's ability to communicate and to acquire information is a good in itself; but it now also has major implications for their material well-being. Ability to communicate will be a major determining factor in the shape of future trade, economics and development. Developments in communication technology and capacity are creating exciting new opportunities both for trade and for participation in civil society. The shape of these new forms of trade, and the scope of civil participation, will be determined by who has the power to communicate: who is taking part.This is not some piece of futurism which can be put off until the future arrives. It is happening now.The key questions are: Who will get "wired"? When? What determines this?When I go shopping for food, if I turn left I am in Bangladesh. There are scarred and tasty skinny purple eggplants; and nameless roots in Bangladeshi soil; and monstrous fatty river-fish eyeing me from the freezer.If I turn right, I am in London's East End -- Cockneys and Mock-neys and Yuppies buying plastic trays of numerically perfect baby sweetcorn and toddler's-finger carrots.As I check the eggplants for rot, I see behind them a comfortable Bangaldeshi businessman with a fax machine in a colonial-era bungalow in Dacca, and trucks painted like hallucinogenic mosques, and lean village traders, and farmers receiving a tiny cut of what I pay.And as I hand my baby corn in at the supermarket checkout, news of my purchase is packeted up for a computer in distant hi-tech stockroom, and a digital note is made. My perfect corn was placed in its cocoon yesterday afternoon by a factory worker, fortunate to receive minimum wage, somewhere in Zimbabwe or Kenya. Tomorrow morning her employer, a comfortable expatriate in a bungalow with a satellite dish, will read the day's revised sweetcorn order on his computer screen.And meanwhile Ranil Senanyake, in Nairobi or more likely in a plane somewhere, is scheming his deal with Earth MarketPlace. If it works, it will soon go like this: A delicatessen in Oakland, California, survives by tickling its patrons' jaded palates. Once a week the manager connects her computer, through the Internet, to the Earth MarketPlace service. This encourages her to fetch details of a farmers' co-operative in Suriname from a computer in Nairobi. She reads the description of their products and then negotiates a deal directly with the farmers, who read and reply to her messages on a computer in the co-operative's office. The profits go straight to the local producers.It is clear that the kind of economic development which is possible in a given place is partly determined by the kind of electronic communications available there. The government of Singapore, at one extreme, envisages its economic future as a "middle office" between Northern corporations and their manufacturing plants in less-developed countries. Its IT2000 initiative for a "wired island" aimed in 1995 to put high-speed communications into every major building within five years.The corporations barely need to worry, though, about communications infrastructure in the low-wage regions where they build manufacturing plants. They can afford to install links for their private use wherever they go. Around US$10,000 buys equipment to communicate with Inmarsat communications satellites from anywhere on the surface of the earth.At the other extreme, developments such as Earth MarketPlace offer at least the prospect of a higher proportion of the surplus in international trade staying geographically closer to the producers. Its political goal is, of course, that a higher proportion of the surplus should stay with the producers themselves. This will increasingly depend on low-cost public access to communications.How, then, is the work of wiring the world progressing?The Internet Society produces occasional maps showing which states and territories have Internet connections. The latest edition, dated June 1996, shows the task almost complete: only Myanmar, North Korea, and war-torn parts of Africa and West Asia have no connectivity. But the fact that there is a full Internet connection into the university in Ulan Bator means nothing for someone living and working twenty kilometers away, who may have difficulty getting a plain old telephone connection. If one re-colors the Internet Society map to show approximately the geographical, rather than political, areas where public Internet access is available, the picture is very different: only North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and the capital city regions of most other countries remain.Consider the minimum that an individual, a school or a farmers' co-operative needs in order to use the Internet to gather information or to conduct trade:* a computer -- a 1990 "antique" will do nicely, but a new personal computer costs more than three year's salary for a Calcutta schoolteacher;* a modem (to convert computer files to and from a code of squawks which can be sent over the phone);* a telephone line -- of high quality by the standards of less- developed countries. In those developing countries included in the International Telecommunications Union's Top 40 list, the number of telephone lines per 100 people is 5.2, and these are overwhelmingly concentrated in capital cities;* a reliable supply of electricity; and* an "account" for their modem to dial up (that is, permission to use facilities on a computer which itself has a link to the rest of the Internet).Obviously, telecommunications are a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for the "information-poor" to join in the educational and economic benefits of the wired world. What is being done to bridge the gap between them and the developed world?On the one hand there are the mega-projects. The US AT&T corporation is leading the Africa One project. If sufficient African telecommunications companies and authorities sign up in September 1997, work will start on this US$2.65 billion project to lay a ring of undersea fiber-optic cable around the continent. This will ensure high-speed connectivity -- into capital cities.Schemes such as Motorola's Iridium and the Gates/McCaw Teledesic promise telephone service anywhere on the surface of the earth, with hand-held receivers communicating directly with satellites in Low Earth Orbit. Both were in Spring 1997 proposing to start satellite launches by the end of the year. It is rumored, however, that Iridium's target market is the one million people on the planet who pay first-class air fares from their own pockets.Since the Panos Institute Briefing document "The Internet: Superhighway or dirt-track for the South?" was published in October 1995, there has been a flurry of medium-scale commercial activity. In Uganda, for example, in January 1996 StarCom arrived in Kampala, with the backing of US Sprint and the Norwegian phone company Telenor. It provides 1 Mbit/second of full Internet capacity in Kampala through a "VSAT" satellite dish. And by early 1996, the private Network Computer Systems Internet host in Ghana's capital had 140 subscribers paying US$1300 a year each. Martin Mulligan of the Financial Times points out that this is the entire annual income of a Ghanaian journalist. "Our customers are expatriates, large companies, and a few Ghanaian researchers," Network Computer Systems Deputy Director William Tevie told Dutch journalist Michiel Hegener.On the other hand, there are the activities of Non-Governmental organizations. The first Internet links into most African countries were installed by intrepid activists with a mission to communicate, fanning out across the continent with rucksacks full of modems. (The French did their bit in a rather more elegant way, through the ORSTOM research institute.) One of these was Karen Banks, associated with GreenNet in London, which is affiliated with the Rio de Janeiro-based Association for Progressive Communications (APC). Between mid-1993 and the end of 1995, Banks says, GreenNet forwarded 2.2 million messages between the developed and less-developed worlds, at a total cost of US$80,000: an average of US$0.036 per message. It did this mostly using the lowest technology applicable to the Internet, so-called "direct-dial FIDOnet" connections. A GreenNet computer in London makes a call at 2am, over normal telephone lines, to a computer in Kampala and asks what messages it has which need to be forwarded to the rest of the world.The projects with which APC works are committed to providing connectivity for people rather than for states. They offer training and continuing technical support to the charities, activists and community groups which they connect. The arrival of commercial Internet service providers (ISPs), creaming off the highest-spending customers, may be a threat to these "missionary" activities. But it also allows them to improve their service, as the Mukla project in Uganda has done by negotiating with StarCom for use of its bandwidth -- part of that set aside, under the agreement with Norway, for free use by universities.In South Africa, networking was seeded by people who can now admit to being associated with COSATU, the Communist federation of trade unions, and with Church-based human rights groups. Their goals were precisely to help "civil society" to communicate.In the sense popularized by Czech poet-president Vaclav Havel, "civil society" is all the clubs, associations, pressure groups and play-groups without which there is, indeed, no such thing as society: only investors, hired hands and consumers.Karen Banks reports that at a workshop on women and technology in Delhi, participants were asked by an aid worker "but how does email improve the quality of women's lives?" Their answer should be sufficient: "It allows us to communicate!"The participants also recounted how email had enabled them to communicate the actual results of an election count to colleagues in Delhi, before "revised" results could be published.WorkNet started in 1987 as a FIDOnet operation. Andriette Esterhuysen, now its director, says the motive was simple: "I was working on human rights information, and wanted to feed information about South Africa to other countries directly, not through the North." From the beginning, WorkNet workers traveled the country with rucksacks of modems, connecting community organizations in small towns and villages.Now rechristened SangoNet, the project is one of many full- Internet service providers in the country -- and the low-tech part is still essential to communication with small towns and villages.Andriette Esterhuysen reports "a lot of discussion about community access in South Africa -- for example through multi- purpose community centers. But there's not a lot of clear direction or commitment from the center." At present, the onus for providing that sense of direction almost certainly rests with SangoNet.Provision of connectivity through community centers of various kinds does seem to be the main route to providing access for civil society. In particular, in most of the world connectivity provided to commercial enterprises will reach only locally-rich men. Collective or communal access points seem to be the only way to extend access to women, children and, in fact, anyone but those who are rich in local terms.

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