Life at the Thin end of the Net
Draft of article in the London Guardian by Peter Judge - Tel: (44)71 652 0827

Is the Internet bringing the world together, or is it driving the info-haves and the have-nots further apart? Are net-surfers the vanguard of a new 'open' society, or an elite playing with tools denied to the rest of the world?

Nashwa Abdul-Baki of Cairo University has a clear answer: 'Once people know the Internet, if the line goes down for one minute, they complain.' She should know; she is at the thin end of the Net, running Egypt's tenuous link into cyberspace. She supports up to 78 000 users in several centres across the country. And all these users, including business people, share a single line with a bandwidth which would not satisfy an individual hobbyist in the UK - 9600 bit/s.

Last month, Ms Abdul-Baki spent a week in Prague, with 165 other networkers from 80 countries, at a training workshop for 'technologically emerging countries' sponsored by the Internet Society. The workshop, the latest in a series, aimed to educate local 'champions' who can set up and run Internet connections in their own countries: 'It will have a major impact on the development of the global information infrastructure,' said the workshop leader, George Sadowsky of New York University.

It is not before time. Despite its claims to be the new global information highway, the Internet's map of the world resembles a medieval mariner's chart, albeit a mariner who set out from California. Most of Africa is a complete blank; the Far East has conspicuous holes, and Eastern Europe is still scarcely charted, while South America is sketched in pretty firmly.

The Internet connects more than 150 countries, but there are around 90 more outside it, and the have-nots all number among the world's poorer countries, according to Tony Rutkowski, executive director of the Internet Society - the governing body of the Internet (insofar as it has one).

The Society sponsored the workshop, to try and redress the balance. It was held in Prague to minimise Eastern Europeans' travel costs, and followed by the Internet Society's joint conference with RARE, the European research networking body. The Czech Republic gained an extra 2 1/2M bit/s of permanent Internet bandwidth, set up for the conference by BT, MCI and the Dante academic network.

The workshop students came from Africa, the Far East and Eastern Europe. Two even made it from Sarajevo, evading snipers and draft notices for the chance to get their country on the Infobahn. The syllabus was set by the students, with Ms Abdul Baki leading one stream; the teachers were all volunteers.

Most delegates had their fees and expenses paid, by a range of sponsors including UN agencies. Ironically, after years of trying to keep the Soviets out, NATO financed students from the former Soviet Union, who want access to Western networks.

Financier George Soros paid for many of the students, and has used his money to support Internet links in Albania, Bulgaria, Burma, Macedonia, Romania and Slovenia.'The Internet is the prototype of an open society,' he told the conference, in a keynote speech which the lack of support the West has given to countries emerging from Communist rule was partly to blame for ethnic violence.

Mr Soros sees Internet as a tool which can break down divisions within countries, and allow them to participate more fully in international commerce and diplomacy. 'Computer networking can provide an important tool and an inspiration,' he said.

The Russian Internet provider takes up this theme: it is called Glasnet.

The workshop was possible because rich-world development agencies now accept that telecommunications (and Internet in particular) can form part of a country's basic infrastructure. They are ready to give funds to support it. In many cases, the agency itself uses Internet and the costs of basic local access will be paid back in the savings made on couriers, postal services and fax machines.

The US Agency for International Development (US AID), for example, is shortly to give telecommunications a place alongside other programmes such as health, manufacturing, and education.

But there is a price to be paid by newcomers to the Net. They have to adopt American technology and the English language; for the majority of the world, even the alphabet on the keyboard is foreign. But most countries are ready to pay this price, for without telecommunications, they will be excluded from business in the 21st century.

Relatively privileged countries, such as the Eastern Europeans can even leapfrog to current technology, avoiding the costly detours and failed experiments which have littered the West's development.

But despite all this, the 'information deficit' between rich and poor may be getting wider, and the worst-hit area is Africa. African participation was down from last year's Internet conference, and many African countries still have no Internet link at all. Agencies like US AID are closing offices in Africa and shifting their attention to Eastern Europe.

Western net-surfers have graphical browsers like Mosaic, and experiment with voice and video links (your reporter appeared on an Internet video link from Prague to Stockholm). Our superhighway will be based on high bandwidth broadband technology. Meanwhile, Africa is struggling with second-hand modems and obsolete technology, in countries where telephone penetration may be less than 0.1 percent of the population.

It is here that the argument gets heated - and technical. Where a permanent connection is not available, it is possible to store messages, and forward them in bursts to other systems using phone lines. After a series of hops, the messages (should) reach the Internet, and get passed to their destination.

Is this technology obsolete rubbish being dumped on the Third World, or is it 'appropriate', and adapted to unreliable communications? This style of working was brought to Africa by the GreenNet organisation, which promotes ecological and development issues through its networks.

The UUCP system, based on UNIX machines, can be upgraded to a full Internet connection. South Africa is supporting UUCP links in neighbouring countries, and hopes to set up a regional Internet agency. Other countries, including Zambia, rely on Fido, a PC-based system. It is cheaper and more reliable, but less compatible.

'Fido is for conversations between friends, not for building an infrastructure,' said one African delegate. 'Every Fido in Africa is a nail in Africa's coffin. Once you've got Fido in, it is an immense job to move users on to the Internet.'

'Bullshit,' said Suchit Nanda, who runs a Fido bulletin board service as well as Internet connections to India. 'I have a 64k bit/s line running and I still use Fido. It is the most economical solution.'

It ia also less of a threat to the local telecommunications authorities, whose power to influence regulations is a crucial factor in many developing countries (and in the developed world too, of course).

In the end, the fundamental problems are not technological: 'People looking for a technical solution are faced with all the problems of developing countries,' says Dave Spooner of the One Foundation, a technology-centred development agency based in Amsterdam. 'These include broader developmental questions, such as political, cultural and linguistic issues.'

Governments often do not understand the issues involved: rather than welcome the links which local businesses need, the Indian Government sees bulletin boards as a revenue opportunity. Suchit Nanda is fighting a proposal to levy a $5000 annual licence fee on every bulletin board in India, which would kill grassroots support for the Net.

The local champions have to fight on several fronts. They must convince their government of the value of what they are doing, access whatever foreign funds are available, and somehow cobble a system together from whatever technology is available.

Most importantly, they must build local support. Educating and informing users of the possibilities can be the hardest task of all. One Westerner innocently suggested to an Africans' meeting that they should use press coverage to build grassroots support. 'We can't do that,' was one reply. 'If the government found out what we were doing, it would shut us down.'

These people are pioneers, ready to take risks to promote something crucial to life in the 21st century. Said Suchit Nanda: 'The carrier is like our heartbeat.'