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Wiring the South: Internet and the developing world

Stuck in the Ruts on the Information Superhighway

by Samuel Inyang
Director of Projects
ProHealth Foundation, Nigeria

(extracted from "Ceres",The FAO Review, No. 158 - March-April 1996)


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Jos is the capital of Plateau state, one of the 30 states making up Nigeria. The climate is mild and pleasant and so attracts a lot of expatriates with mission agencies and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One such NGO is the River Blindness Foundation (RBF). RBF's headquarters in Houston commissioned Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA) in 1991 to look into improving communications between RBF's U.S. head office and Nigeria. VITA suggested a radio-based communications system within Nigeria. For communications between Jos and Houston, VITA suggested three alternatives:

  1. Standard C-Immarsat satellite terminal (a satellite dish) for transmission of text-only messages from remote areas. Disadvantages: non-text files such as graphics files, word-processing or spreadsheet files could not be transmitted. Although the cost of the terminal was reasonable, the cost of air time was exorbitant.
  2. Telex for text transmission had the advantage of being cheap, but there was no practical way to bridge data gap from a computer to the telex terminal. Therefore, all messages generated locally using the computer would have to be re-keyed for telex transmission.
  3. A telephone-based e-mail system using a computer, a modem and ordinary telephone lines. This setup would allow transfer of all types of files - word-processing, spreadsheets and graphics files. Unfortunately, the speed of the modem available would limit the size of files transferred.

The last was the option chosen when in 1993, I was doing some computer consulting with RBF and was asked to set up and troubleshoot a pilot e-mail system in Jos in association with VITA. E-mail is cheap and convenient - a 50-page document could be transmitted in less than three minutes, which is obviously cheaper than sending it by fax via Nigeria's expensive telephone system.

The main problem with an e-mail system for us (and much of Africa) is the unreliability of electricity and telephone lines, which are often out of order for days on end. Even when they're working, power surges and poor telephone connections can dash attempts at communicating through telematics (a term denoting the convergence of computing, telecommunications and information).

Local conditions meant we would be in the slow lane on the Information Superhighway. E-mail messages in the First World zip between sender and receiver in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Ours would be a "stored and forwarded system:" communications would be gathered, stored, then forwarded a few times a week at predetermined intervals to take advantage of slack time on telephone lines and lower calling charges in off-peak hours. The equipment and software were already available: a Toshiba 286 laptop computer with an external Hayes 2400 modem. (Computer signals are digital, while telephone signals are analogue. Modems convert one to the other for transmission via telephone lines or radio microwaves to telecommunications satellites for transmission.)

Because Jos does not have an international direct dial service, the system would be based on the calls originating in Houston. Using one of the many e-mail software packages available, the computer would be set up to receive calls and upload (send out) and download (receive) files and messages without any human intervention. The only requirement was that the computer and modem remain on at night. This setup also eliminated the need of a dedicated machine as the computer could be used for normal work during office hours.

A laptop, modem and software

The system was set up with the laptop, modem and software configured to await incoming calls. Gary Garriott of VITA handled the U.S. end and using its software (Frontdoor), the computer in the United States was programmed to call the Jos computer at regular intervals. (Phone calls from Nigeria to the United States cost two to three times the amount of placing a call from the U.S. to Nigeria.) Once the phone link is made between the two, information can be sent either way.

We made some voice calls to sort out the configuration and the timing of the calls. At first we wanted the U.S. computer to call at 5 a.m. to take advantage of low calling volume and low telephone tariffs, with the dialling computer programmed to make at least 20 tries to connect with the Jos computer. However, for the convenience of VITA, whose computer was running communications with other groups around the world, it was decided the U.S. computer would call Jos at 9 p.m. EST three times a week and limit retries to a one-hour window.

The first time transmission was tried, I stayed awake to monitor the call and transmission, and both were uneventful. The computers connected after two or three tries of unsuccessful "handshaking" and were able to download and upload the messages Gary and RBF-Jos had left each other. Back in Nigeria, we continued testing and were able to transfer word-processing files and binary files. Line quality was fair but sometimes it got so bad that the modems did not connect after many tries, or the lines would fail halfway through transmission.

As mentioned, the lack of adequate infrastructure is the key problem in establishing telematics in Africa. Nigeria's phone lines can go off for days or weeks on end, and it takes persistence and follow-up by repair technicians with NITEL, the national phone company, to get the lines fixed. Power supply is also a problem - too little and too much. We lost a modem during one power outage which was followed by a power surge: the next morning, we found the modem all burnt up and melted. Luckily, there was no combustible material nearby so the fire didn't spread.

To protect against this and other hazards, a surge protector for the modem and the phone line itself were acquired. We also got a UPS (uninterrupted power supply) to maintain power for some minutes in the event of an electricity outage. Even though we were using a laptop with a battery, the UPS was necessary because the external modem would need power in the event of a power failure. Sadly, after the initial test period of three to six months, RBF did not follow the project up, and the e-mail was not implemented for them. With many of the bugs worked out, it would be worth giving it a second look. Jos does have one private e-mail system, operated by the Sudan Interior Mission.

Our dream: a national e-mail system in Nigeria

Our most basic goal remains the establishment of a limited e-mail setup between Jos and the United States. Drawing from the experience with RBF, a "notebook" computer with an integrated fax-modem and surge protector would be the computer of choice. If a desktop system is chosen, it should include not just a UPS and surge protector but also a device turning the system on when the telephone rings and off when communication is finished. This reduces the risk of fire or other damage to the computer or modem. An intermediate-level plan is to set up an Internet AIDS information centre in collaboration with European and U.S. organizations. However, we have not yet received any funding. Our larger dream is to set up a national E-mail system for Nigeria. This is even more of a priority now that postal services are unreliable and very slow. Jos could be the main "gateway," collecting e-mail from the rest of Nigeria for transmission internationally.

Rates for international telecommunications out of Nigeria remain discouragingly high. One way around this is to subscribe to one of the companies that offer "call back" services from the United States through which callers around the world can access U.S. telephone services which cost less and offer better service. [For callback services, those without access to the Internet could contact the Telecommunications Resellers' Association, 1155 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 401, Washington, DC 20036, U.S.A. Fax: (202) 835-9893. Contact: Ernest B. Kelley.]

One hold-up in establishing e-mail in developing countries is their phone lines cannot handle rapid data transmission, calculated in "bps" (bits per second), which has made e-mail so affordable. While the norm in the First World is 56 000 bps, in Nigeria our phones can handle just 28 800 bps. Happily, both Compuserve and America On-Line will soon be offering 28 800 bps access, which improves prospects for general e-mail access and opens the door to "real time" conference calls on computer.

The city of Jos will soon get a digital telephone network and International Direct Dial (IDD) will be possible. One would like to find out from NITEL whether the digital services offer "ISDN" capability (through which phone lines can carry video, telephone and computer-generated information) and at what extra cost. This would make on-line access much faster. It would be great if funding for such a project could be obtained so that an experimental system to provide e-mail could start. This could be expanded over time to cover the major towns and would help Nigeria join the technological revolution faster, an increasingly crucial advancement in light of growing economic crisis in the country.


Contact:
Dr S. Inyang
ProHealth Foundation
34 Rwang Pam St.
P.O. Box 903
Jos, Nigeria
Tel: 234-73-58092; fax: 234-73-56370.

This paper was presented at the African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development, held by the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in April 1995. Proceedings of the conference can be found at:
http://www.sas.upenn.edu/African_Studies/Padis/menu_padis.html


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