Lane Smith coordinates the USAID’s Leland Initiative, an effort to extend full Internet connectivity to more than 20 African countries in order to promote sustainable development. Rahul Tongia is a research engineer of engineering and public policy and a systems scientist of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Their WTF 2004 presentations touched on the opportunities the Internet can bring developing countries, as well as the challenges that face organizations who work to bring communications technology to people on continents such as Africa. What follows is a partial transcript of their talk.
Lane Smith: How many people have heard of Mickey Leland? He was a congressman from Houston back when it was pretty racist. When he was elected, he was a very strong force for fighting hunger and a strong advocate for Africa. He died in a plane crash. In the middle ’90s, the Internet Society started saying why shouldn’t Africa take part in the process? They sent a proposal to the White House, which asked USAID to design a program. I was asked to run the initiative, and I didnt even know what the Internet was.
Still, today, I’m a very poor user of the Internet. In 1995, about six countries of Africa had Internet access. By 2000, we brought the Internet to the 54th and final African country. I started with the Peace Corps, I’m still with USAID, and I’m funded by your tax dollars. To have worked in Africa during that transition was a gift. I didn’t do any of it; it was all done by Africans. There was an ISP in Morocco, and his company installed the national gateways for 10 countries.
The Internet Society said that if we’d go with the old telecom model, it’s not going to work. We sat down with 40 countries at a conference and asked which of you would like to bring in the Internet? All the hands went up. So we asked who’d allow competition at the local level. Only 10 hands went up. We started working with those 10 countries. The last country that said we want to do this was Eritrea in 1999.
How scarce was bandwidth? We bought the circuit for the first year. 128 kbps was enough to support about four ISPs in a country. As they grew, the ISPs started to sneak their way around that. If we couldn’t deal with that policy challenge, we wouldn’t get anywhere.
There are three legs to the Leland Initiative, the policy reform and regulation, the infrastructure and access, and the users. Every country had a regulatory body of some form. Theyve been very powerful voices for independent regulation. Then you need training content. We also worked on direct assistance to selected countries.
Rahul Tongia: I do policy work, but I’m not in the policy school. I’m in the engineering division. My background, even though it’s academic, is very real world. We have dealt with governments and companies for a long while. Carnegie Mellon got deeply involved in India several years ago. We told the country don’t treat voice and data the same. This was back in 1998. We spent three years trying to redesign a network, and after a lot of time and money, we walked out because of politics. Unless you’re willing to work the long haul, it’s going to be very difficult. It boiled down to arguments you can’t win against.
ICT is very important for the developing world. International is very important. In Brazil, 90% of tax returns are done online. But if we compare voice versus Internet, a lot of countries have call-completion charges. In the Internet world, these guys need to pay for sending and receiving traffic. That worries people.
When 2.8 billion people live in poverty, we use ICT for development. That’s not about getting people a computer. Developing countries don’t know how to react to telecom and change. The U.S. has a lot of concern about incumbents. In developing countries, the government is the incumbent. They fear convergence.
But the thing that really matters in developing countries is cost. The U.S. is not the cheapest in the world [in terms of the cost of Net access per income]. Hong Kong is the best in the world. But in the Congo, it’s 968% of your income. Forget about the legacy and the small amount of users. Let’s redesign networks from scratch, leapfrog, and go for the triple play. It’s not a technology bottleneck. You have to do all sorts of regulatory changes first.
Also, you can’t just leave it to competition. The role of government needs to be understood. There was an article this month in Foreign Policy called “Broadband Marxism.” Maybe they need to rethink the role of government. I like the utopian model, the Utah Network. In the U.S. there are choices, but China now has more DSL lines than the United States. It’s not just Korea and Japan. In terms of absolute numbers, in the US voice is saturated, and it’s about redividing the pie. The developing world is a growth industry.