Date: Tue, 24 Sep 1996 12:30:01 +0200

From: Michiel Hegener (


Michiel Hegener


The following article about telecommunications in Africa originally appeared in the 25 November 1995 issue of the Dutch weekly `Vrij Nederland', in an abbreviated version of about 7700 words, 3000 less than this one. Telecommunications in Africa is gaining a lot of momentum these days--especially now that telecommunication is no longer seen as a luxury for developing countries, but as a prerequisite for their economic growth. This way of looking at telecommunication in the developing world started in the beginnings of the 1980's, when the Internet was still in its infancy; it owes much of it's present popularity to the rapid growth of datacommunications, via the Internet in particular. While Africa is bustling with plans for new telecoms applications using the existing infrastructure, and for grand new designs, I hope that this article will serve as a general introduction. Telecommunications is bound to profoundly alter the economic, social and political landscapes of Africa--probably even more so than in area's where a good telecommunications infrastructure was already in place when the current, exiting developments began to change the world as a whole. Publication of this article, or parts of it, is subject to my prior consent, but any recipient should feel free to forward it as a datafile.

A www-version is available at

"Hahaha," roars Professor Donald Ekong in this spacious villa on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, that is home to the Association of African Universities. The Nigerian Secretary-General [1] has a keen eye for the funny side of life, including some of the consequences of Africa's poor telecoms infrastructure. "Haha! Fortunately, we could just read the Internet address at the top of the fax you sent us. Otherwise, you would never have got a reply."

Two weeks earlier and a few hours after sending my fax, I had received an e-mail reply from Accra. Interference on the line had made my fax illegible except for one or two fragments that luckily included my e-mail address and allowed Ekong to find out who I was and what my fax was about. I e-mailed him back that I had heard from various sources how the AAU had been trying to encourage the use of electronic mail among its members, and that I wanted to talk to him about it. Of course, the spread of the Internet in African higher education cannot be considered in isolation from the development of the Internet on the continent as a whole. And that inevitably raises the subject of its telecoms infrastructure, because Internet traffic almost always travels down ordinary telephone lines, usually those of the public telephone network. This partly explains why the Internet has mushroomed in regions of the world with high telephone density: the network was already in place. It also goes some way to explaining why less than one percent of the world's Internet traffic currently reaches Africa: the telephone network hardly exists. Compare Sweden (with 68 telephone connections per 100 inhabitants), the USA (with 57), and the Netherlands (49) on the one hand to Zimbabwe (with 1.22), Ghana (0.3), and Chad (0.07) on the other. Not all Internet traffic travels via the public telephone network. Very busy routes are served by lines with very large throughput capacity, which are dedicated to Internet traffic and usually leased from the public network. But these "backbones" of the Internet are found nowhere in Africa except South Africa. To obtain a fast Internet connection in Kenya or Cameroon, you need a leased line to the UK, France, or South Africa. Unfortunately, leased lines are so expensive that most African Internet traffic travels the cheap "store-and-forward" way. This is the method used by the AAU, which sends and receives all its Internet communications via a computer in South Africa where they are temporarily stored. Every eight hours, the central computer at the AAU-headquarters in Accra automatically dials the computer in South Africa, picks up its incoming e-mail messages, and fires off outgoing ones all over the world.

In Africa, e-mail is not a luxury but a bare necessity--much more so than in Europe. The main reason, says Ekong, is that other modes of telecommunication are too costly for African budgets. It takes ten minutes to read 2,000 words aloud, and a ten-minute voice phone call from the Netherlands to Ghana costs 34 USD. And although the fax machine is faster and cheaper (2,000 words in a compact font will take two minutes to send), the same operation will still cost 7 USD. By contrast, an e-mail message of 2,000 words (around 12 kilobytes or 96 kilobits in digital terms), sent via a modem with a throughput speed of 14 kilobits per second, will take seven seconds to reach Accra from Amsterdam, and cost 0,40 USD. What is more, if the telephone line is good, a 28 k/s modem working at full speed will further halve the transmission charge--making it 175 times cheaper than a voice phone call across the same distance. No wonder e-mail is so important to the developing world--not least for the planet's poorest continent. It is the only mode of international telecommunication that Africa can afford on any reasonable scale.

The AAU now unites 119 universities in 42 African countries. Its main task is to promote cooperation and communication among its members. Africa did not fail to notice the Internet's breakthrough as a medium of communication among Western universities in the early 1990s. Ekong explains: "We conducted a feasibility study, and our conclusion was that, for African universities, e-mail was the mode of telecommunication of the future. In June 1995 we linked up all the PCs at our headquarters in a Novell Network over ethernet cabling, essentially to improve our own internal capacity. By doing so we also developed a more reliable data communication infrastructure in order to support full Internet connectivity in the future--and to gain experience now. Since then, our technicians have given seminars to university staff on setting up a store-and-forward e-mail system. The AAU is not in the business of installing e-mail for its members--that's not part of our mandate. We do however give information and advice." In addition to a fully-functional telephone network, e-mail requires PCs. The first thing most Dutch people ask when they hear about the Internet in Africa is: "But they hardly have any PCs there, do they?" This is a fallacy, says Professor Ekong: "PCs are widespread in African universities--that's not the problem. The greatest factor limiting the spread of e-mail in Africa is the lack of technical knowhow, followed by the faulty telecommunications infrastructure." The AAU's Internet connection will continue experimentally until the end of 1995. That is as long as the AAU can pay the bill for phoning South Africa three times a day. External users such as the University of Ghana and the British Council will provide experimental support up to then. In return, the AAU will allow them free e-mail access, making them pay only the telephone charges between their PCs and the AAU's server connection to South Africa. Even though things are still at the experi-mental stage, the advantages of datacommunications are strikingly obvious. Ekong has rarely lost an e-mail message, and he is favourably impressed with his two-year experience with the modem. This impression is echoed by the 40-odd AAU members who now have e-mail. They receive messages within a day after their transmission--many times faster than members who still use "snail mail".

When you walk through the main door of the AAU library, at first glance nothing seems amiss--until you notice the publication years of its books and magazines. The dog-eared Encyclopedia Britannica, for instan-ce, dates from 1974; and the magazines are often months, sometimes years, out of date. In a back office, AAU network manager John Bart-Plange is giving telephone advice to computer users with problems. At the end of a call, he says: "Yesterday, I received a postal query from a lady in Nigeria. She sent it four months ago! The postal services in Africa are extremely slow, the delays are endless, and many letters never even reach their destination. Whenever I'm outside Africa and I see the Internet working--as at a recent conference of the Internet Society in Hawaii--I know that this is what we need! It's as clear as day. For education in Africa, you need the Internet--it'll give you all the information you can possibly desire." The fact that the AAU has only a store-and-forward connection to the Internet (also often called a dial-up link) does not mean that the Internet's tens of thousands of databases and hundreds of thousands of "homepages" are entirely out of reach; they are just harder to access. The information that Dutch Internet subscribers dig up using the World Wide Web, Gopher, and Telnet is available to Bart-Plange by means of automatic search keys that he sends as e-mail. The next time he contacts South Africa, they return with the information he has requested, like a dog fetching the newspaper. "For example, some time ago I needed a software program for the people here who work with Apple Macintoshes, but it was unobtainable in Ghana," says Bart-Plange. "I could have ordered it in America, sent a dollar cheque, and then had to wait for ages. Instead of that, I did an Archie search. I then received a list in my e-mail of all the ftp sites where that software could be obtained free. I ordered it from one of them yesterday, and this morning it was here. I've already installed it on the Macintoshes."

Requesting database directories is another tactic for exploring the Internet using a store-and-forward system. Database hosts will e-mail complete menu structures to Accra, where Bart-Plange then makes a choice offline. "Database menus also give the size of available files. So I can decide if the cost justifies downloading a particular file." Only recently have such decisions have no longer been a daily necessity for William Tevie, chief systems engineer at Network Computer Systems and a leading figure among Ghanaian computer professionals [2]. There are ten telephone lines in Ghana permanently dedicated to datacoms traffic with Europe. The lines are leased from the Ghanaian PTT; and some of the datacoms hardware and software was installed by Network Computer Systems. One of these lines is leased by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which allows a Ghanaian bank clerk to see in a matter of seconds whether your credit card is valid, even if the information is stored in San Francisco or Zurich. Another dedicated line is leased by SITA, the worldwide network that lets you book a seat in Beijing on a plane flying from Rio de Janeiro to Montevideo. Network Computer Systems is primarily a computer importer. But you get more out of a computer if you use it for datacoms, too. So the company's acquisition of a leased line to the Internet was a major step forward. The line went into operation on 21 August 1995, making Ghana the first country in West Africa to have a permanent Internet connection. Sitting in a villa even more spacious than the AAU headquarters, Tevie says: "It costs a lot of money: 7,500 dollars a month for a 14 k/s connection to Cambridge, England--which is our gateway to the Internet--plus the actual Internet linkup charges and the necessary hardware." A lot of money, but the investment is already proving profitable. The Ghanaian linkup now has more than 100 users who each pay 100 dollars per month: more than four times as much as the average Dutch Internet user. "Unaffordable for the average Ghanaian," Tevie points out. "Our customers are expats, large companies, and a few Ghanaian researchers." A maximum of seven Internet users with '.gh' at the end of their e-mail address can call Network Computer Systems at one time--that's as many modems as they have right now. There wouldn't be any point in getting any more, because the 14 k/s line fills up as soon as that many Ghanaians all start downloading World Wide Web pages.

This state of affairs is bound to change. Tevie has big plans. Negotiations are already under way for Network Computer Systems to provide Internet connections for Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon. And in 1996, Ghana will probably acquire a 64 k/s line dedicated to datacoms--with new access nodes in the towns of Kumasi and Takoradi if enough demand builds up. Tevie: "People here still don't realise how much use and pleasure you can get from the Internet. Mind you, this realisation only hit the West a couple of years ago. I predict an explosion in the sale of computers in Ghana. And now that we can offer the Internet, more and more buyers will be wanting a modem and an Internet course with it." Network Computer Systems also delivers complete homepages to order. An Accra-based construction company already has one, so customers in London or Amsterdam can start deciding on their new Ghanaian headquarters from home. And a Ghanaian fabric printing company wants a homepage, so that its worldwide customers can make choices without leaving the house and see the ordered goods before they arrive.

In a continent where most roads are terrible, where the postal services will often deliver only to post office boxes, and where there is a serious information deficit in almost all fields, a large number of connections to the Internet would be very useful. According to Donald Ekong, African scientists often hardly know what their colleagues at other universities are doing, and they lack the capability to disseminate their own research results throughout Africa. The extreme shortage of up-to-date academic publications at practically all African universities could be remedied with a robust Internet link, a powerful printer, and a plentiful supply of paper.

Wide, reliable channels for international datacoms traffic (not necessarily via the Internet) could also clear the way for telemedicine. A doctor in a bush hospital might insert an X-ray photo of a complicated fracture into a scanner, and the picture would flit down the telephone line to a PC screen in the West, where a specialist colleague would give assistance with diagnosis and treatment. Telemedicine already has a central place in the plans of the World Health Organisation. The technology, money, and organisation are all available--all that is missing is the telecoms link to the places where telemedicine could be really useful. To contact a fellow doctor in the West, the average doctor in the developing world first needs to drive at least half a day by jeep to reach a city with a working telephone.

Problem-free datacoms connections between the West and the developing world would soon be paying their own way because thousands of deve-lopment workers could stay at home. This would save a fortune in air tickets, tropical salary supplements, all-terrain vehicles, and rented homes with security staff.

Human rights and democracy also thrive on a good telecommunications infrastructure. Empirical research by American academic Tom Stonier has demonstrated that totalitarian regimes are incompatible with a telephone density of more than twenty lines per 100 inhabitants. [3] These are just one or two examples. Much longer and more detailed accounts of this type have been available in the past few years in the publications of UNESCO, The World Bank, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

In addition, more and more development cooperation organisations and ministries are opening their eyes to two new gaps that divide the world, more or less parallel with the old gap between rich and poor: the telecommunications gap and the information gap. Maybe it is just one new gap, now that telecommunications and electronic information are converging. Whatever the truth, this new global problem was growing for many years before it was recognised. In the development cooperation climate of the 1980s and before, a motorbike was considered of more use to an eight-year-old boy than a good telecoms infrastructure to Africa. That would come later--it was thought--after the water wells and women's projects. In the early 1980s, there was a change in Western thinking on the role of telecommunications in developing countries. In late 1982, at a Nairobi session of the ITU General Assembly, general support was given to "the fundamental importance of communications infrastructures as an essential element in the economic and social development of all countries"--including the poorest.

It is striking that at that time telecommunications were regarded essentially as a luxury: one of the pleasant side-effects of progress to which developing countries are also entitled. The ideal was a society in which everyone had a moped, a television, a fridge, and a telephone. In May 1983, the ITU set up an international committee of world-class telecoms experts to indicate how this goal might be achieved. The 123-page report of the Maitland Commission, named after its British chairman Sir Donald Maitland, was published in January 1985. According to the report, entitled The Missing Link, telecommunications were not the fruit of economic development--quite the reverse, in fact. The report claimed that a good telecoms infrastructure was a condition for economic progress. However, its conclusions had little impact on Dutch development cooperation policy. Until 1994, there was no cover for "telecommunications" in its yearly four billion dollar budget. Holland was not a big exception, however. The Missing Link disappeared into drawers all over the world. But with the advent of the information-based society in the West--accompanied by the breakthrough of the Internet and multimedia desktop computers--the Maitland Commission's work has gained new relevance. All kind of organisations have been dusting it down and re-reading it--and the ITU has come up with a major follow-up study. In March 1994, the World Telecommunication Development Conference met in Buenos Aires--not to draw up a follow-up report, but to plan a systematic attack on the communications deficit in developing countries. The Conference produced 50,000 words of resolutions, recommendations, terms of reference for working groups, and agendas for follow-up conferences.

The World Bank too expressed deep concern, at least enough for it to set up a brand new programme. The Information for Development Program (or InfoDev) started early 1995 on the considerable task of "helping developing countries integrate fully into the information economy by benefitting from the promise of information technology".

In June 1995, an InfoDev delegation toured Western Europe to put The World Bank's new-found calling to audiences concerned with telecommunications in the developing world. In the the Netherlands the audience was rather small. With some difficulty the Directorate-General for International Cooperation managed to get ten interested people around a table, about half of whom had the desired audience profile. Nevertheless, Elkyn Chaparro, senior adviser to the Vice-President on finance and private sector development, still managed to make a very impassioned speech. InfoDev's vision for telecommunications in the developing world rests on the expectation that telecommunications charges will fall much faster than they have done up to now so that geographical distance will cease to be of any great importance within the next ten years. Anyone wanting to phone Zaire still thinks twice before doing so--but that will change. InfoDev also expects the borderline between computer technology and telecommunications to become more and more blurred, and possibly even disappear. The result will be an information-based society whose telecoms infrastructure is a carrier of more and more economically relevant activity. Large-scale worldwide teleworking by individuals and companies will lead to nothing less than `the end of geography'. Once the global information infrastructure has become the binding factor in the world economy and everyone is equally able to get access to it--whether in an office in New York or in a village in the Congo--opportunities will blossom in areas now gripped by scarcity and isolation.

Chaparro's sparse audience was already in jubilant mood when he started to consider the other side of the coin. The blessings of the worldwide information-based society would be unlikely to accrue equally to every part of the world: some developing countries would use the new opportunities to optimum benefit, but others would do so hardly at all. Differences between countries would be determined not by climate, terrain, or location, but by the mentality of the inhabitants, especially of those in power. In March 1995, The World Bank published a report entitled Increasing Internet Connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa [4], which made this point sharply and succinctly: "The information revolution offers Africa a dramatic opportunity to leapfrog into the future, breaking out of decades of stagnation or decline. Africa must seize this opportunity, quickly. If African countries cannot make advantage of the information revolution and surf this great wave of technological change, they may be crushed by it. In that case, they are likely to be even more marginalized and economically stagnant in the future than they are today."

Recent ITU reports have shown how great the danger really is. In the 48 least developed countries (LDCs), telephone density (the number of telephone lines per 100 inhabitants) has increased from 0.19 to 0.29 in the past ten years. Over the same period, telephone density in all the other countries with low incomes has quadrupled. 29 LDCs are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The problem is so great that development aid can only make any sort of mark in specific, clearly defined cases. Most insiders seem to agree that telecommunications in Africa can only be improved by the free flow of capital, on which countries with a heavily regulated telecoms sector cannot rely. The Telecommunications and Informatics Division of The World Bank stopped giving aid for infrastructural improvements a few years ago. It now offers aid only when PTTs are being privatised and telecoms monopolies deregulated. The private sector is expected to do the rest.

For Sam Pitroda, former chairman of the Telecom Commission of India and holder of more than fifty world patents for digital communication, the key question is not who invests in the developing world's telecoms infrastructure, but whether such investment takes place. Since May 1995, Pitroda has been chairman of WorldTel, hitherto the ITU's most ambitious initiative to close the telecommunications gap. The Maitland Commission had already proposed setting up a body such as WorldTel, to coordinate the development of telecommunications worldwide. In 1989, the ITU member states--practically every country in the world--decided to subject the old plan to a new study. Early in 1995, this resulted in a favourable report from the Australian division of the McKinsey consultancy, and shortly thereafter in the establishment of WorldTel.

Pitroda and I met at the largest telecommunications exhibition of all time: Telecom '95, last October in Geneva. On show was the latest in electronics from AT&T;, Microsoft, IBM, Sprint, Unisource, Alcatel, Intel, Intelsat, Nortel, British Telecom, Belgacom, Informcosmos, Motorola, Beijing Telecommunications Equipment Factory, Ericsson Telecommunicazioni, and hundreds of other companies--not to mention the Indonesia Pavilion, the Ireland Pavilion, the Israel Pavilion, the Portugal Pavilion, and the Iran Pavilion. The exhibitors spent more than a billion dollars and the best part of two months making it all look good. Unfortunately, the seven halls of Geneva's exhibition centre measure only ten hectares in total. The result is a serious lack of space. France, for instance, had requested 12,000 square metres and got only 4,800. And several large telecoms operators had to spend well over five million USD constructing three or more floors, sometimes right up to the 18-metre-high ceiling. All this despite the fact that Telecom 95's organiser, the ITU, had asked the exhibitors to avoid such excess this time--at the previous Telecom exhibition, the German Pavilion had cost more than 30 million dollars.

More modest exhibition stands would certainly have been more in keeping with Telecom 95's theme of telecommunications in the developing world, but would such modesty have detracted from the cause? Probably not. As the chief executives of the world's telecoms giants all know, where telephone lines are sparse, there will always be a market for new ones.

This brings us back to Sam Pitroda and WorldTel, the ITU's response to the fact that 70% of the world's population have to make do with 3% of the world's telephone lines and that three-quarters of Africans have never made a telephone call. Anyone prepared to invest 50 million dollars of risk capital in the developing world's telecoms sector can apply to WorldTel for guidance, advice, and project proposals. That is roughly the idea--and roughly how candidate countries are approached: "Tell us what you want--and we'll say what we want," says Pitroda. "If there's no chance of at least a 20% profit per year, we won't even think about it. Otherwise, the investors will just go elsewhere. To the oil sector or somewhere. We are talking about an investment deficit of 50 billion dollars a year. There's no way you can make up for that with development aid."

WorldTel is not concerned with the profit--which goes to the investors--but with the construction of a basic telecoms infrastructure. Asked why WorldTel literature makes hardly any mention of the Internet, Petroda replies categorically: "Because the Internet comes after the telecoms network." He is no advocate of interim solutions for obtaining the Internet or other forms of telecommunication. In recent years, for instance, cellular telephone networks have sprung up all over the developing world. In the big cities of poor countries such as Zaire and Sudan, the rich are already talking to one another on portable phones. The number of users of cellular phones rose in Africa from 25,000 in late 1992 to more than 250,000 in late 1994, and this exponential growth is continuing. On the other hand, however, it is often impossible to make a phone call to another city (because the only transmission equipment is an old half-rotting PTT copper wire). Of course, cellular networks hardly extend into the coutryside. Even poor suburbs are often left out. And in the sparsely populated countryside, no one is in a hurry to replace them. Pitroda has the same objection to small-scale satellite connections for datacoms using VSATs (very small aperture terminals), which have been selling like hot cakes in recent years, particularly in the USA and southeast Asia. "VSATs are good for solving specific problems, but they are not much use to a whole coun-try. The point is that, if everyone is running around seeking different solutions, you will never get a proper infrastructure. Cellular phones and VSATs came to the west at a time when a basic infrastructure was already in place--thanks to state telecoms monopolies, don't forget! There is a time to privatise--but what, when, and how are complex questions." WorldTel's only concern is to obtain large profits for the investors and a good basic infrastructure for the developing countries. "If these aims can be achieved only by restructuring the telecoms sector and adjusting the charges, that's the way it'll have to be," explains Pitroda in one of the many nooks and crannies of the ITU stand. And what if a country doesn't want it? "Then WorldTel will go somewhere else. And we will say: "You aren't ready for it yet, let us know when you are."

Ivory Coast is one of the African countries at the forefront of telecoms privatisation. The necessary legislation was passed in 1995, and is expected to enter into force in March 1996. The two key actors in the privatisation strategy are the Agence du Telecom and the Conseil du Telecom. The secretary-general of the Council, Samson Brou Yapo, sits in his spacious office on one of the top floors of one of Abidjan's highest buildings, headquarters of the soon-to-be-privatised state concern CI-TELCOM. Dozens of metres below, the Atlantic Ocean washes around Le Plateau, the most prosperous part of the capital. Only the dense masses of small traders on practically every pavement remind the passer-by of the poverty of Africa. The view from Brou Yapo's office window confirms Ivory Coast's reputation as one of the richest countries in Africa: wide arterial roads and a sea of high-rise office buildings dominate the scene. Nevertheless, the 13.5 million inhabitants have to make do with only 114,000 telephone lines, a waiting list of 80,000, and 8,400 villages with no telephone. "For the villages, we've made a separate arrangement," says Brou Yapo. "After all, once CI-TELCOM is privatised, it is unlikely to do much, since the connection is very expensive and not very profitable. The plan is for the government to go in search of soft loans and guarantee them. We now have a detailed plan to install telephones in 379 villages, using a French wireless system, and then transfer their operation to CI-TELCOM. A large part of the telephone charges will then go on paying off the loan."

The privatisation of CI-TELCOM is a fact, and in recent months, the search has been on for outside capital. Brou Yapo hopes that by March 1996 the result will be clear. CI-TELCOM has a monopoly only for telex and telephone by wire. Anyone wanting to start a new cellular network or install VSATs has to apply for permission--but only to prevent uncoordinated use of the radio spectrum. Brou Yapo comments: "CI-TELCOM is not concerned with the Internet, but anyone who wants to install new dedicated lines is free to do so--or they can lease existing lines from CI-TELCOM." For the Internet and other forms of data transmission to have a realistic chance in Africa, the continent will need solid, large-scale, cheap international connections with the rest of the world. The bad news is that the telecoms infrastructure between African countries is so poor compared to, say, Europe. The good news is that two large new projects look like changing this situation within the next twelve months. The first is Africa ONE, an AT&T; project to lay optical fibre cable around the continent, with 2.5 gigabit/s gateways to all the coastal countries interested. The other project is RASCOM, the Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation. The idea for Africa ONE was launched in spring 1994. RASCOM has been in existence since 1993, but will receive a big push this year, partly thanks to AT&T;'s plan. Just to take a step back in history: electronic telecommunications began with the first telegraph line in England in 1837. The first transatlantic telegraph cable followed in 1868. The invention of the telephone (1876) and wireless telegraphy (1895) were important milestones, and telecommunications developed gradually and dynamically. Since its foundation in 1865, the ITU has provided worldwide telecoms direction, especially for the standardisation of systems. Another milestone was an article in the October 1945 issue of the British magazine Wireless World entitled `Extra-terrestrial relays--can rocket stations give world radio coverage?'--written by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (born in 1917). Clarke later made enough money with such bestsellers as 2001: `A Space Odyssey' (1968) never to have any financial worries. But if he had patented the idea he launched just 50 years ago, he might have found himself the richest man in the world. Clarke understood that we would never manage to provide every village in the world with telecoms access by cable alone.

Radio waves were potentially much more useful. However, there were two major obstacles to their use over long distances: first, they cannot travel in curves (which is a problem since the Earth is round); and second, interference from the atmosphere causes radio signals to lose much of their power. Twelve years before the launch of the first satellite--Russia's Sputnik--Clarke came up with a brilliant solution to both these problems. There is always a fixed relationship between the speed of a satellite and diameter of its orbit. For instance, a satellite travelling at an altitude of 35,786.4 kilometres will encircle the Earth in exactly 23 hours 56 minutes--at the same speed is the rotation of the Earth itself. If you ensure that the orbit lies precisely in the equatorial field and turns in exactly the same direction as the Earth--from the Earth, it will seem not to move. You can exchange signals with a satellite in a "geostationary" orbit--often called a Clarke orbit--from a fixed dish antenna. Within the "footprint" of this geostationary satellite--which covers about 42 percent of the Earth's surface--two or more transmitter/receivers will be able to communicate with one another in wireless mode by allowing radio waves to travel via the satellite. The satellite will then relay the signal along the curve of the Earth's surface and boost it with solar energy to compensate for the loss of strength that inevitably takes place over such a long distance.

The first communications satellite to be positioned at a geostationary altitude, albeit in an inclined orbit (i.e. not in the equatorial plane), was NASA's Syncom 2, which relayed the first satellite conversation between President Kennedy and the prime minister of Nigeria. A year later, on 19 August 1964, came the launch of Syncom-3, the first satellite to circle the Earth following the Clarke orbit. A few days later, eleven countries, including the Netherlands, signed an agreement for an international cooperative venture, the Inter-national Telecommunications Satellite Organisation, to exploit Clarke's unpatented idea to the full. Since then, its membership has increased to 138, and Intelsat has developed into a keystone of world telecommunications. Today, the world's busiest routes are served by optical fibre cable--but the rest are largely dependent on communications via space. The fact that we can now phone from Katmandu to Entebbe, from Paramaribo to Oslo, and from Accra to New Delhi is thanks not to cable but to communications satellites--especially the 24 belonging to Intelsat, each of which can process tens of thousands of telephone calls simultaneously, up to 100.000 and even more with digital compression. In Africa, only South Africa, Djibouti, and a few North African states have optical fibre, while France is still connected to Senegal and Ivory Coast by an old copper cable under the Atlantic Ocean. The rest, including most telecommunications between and within African countries, goes by satellite.

A loud roar turns into an even louder roar as Leonard Alloh, chef de centre adjoint of the Akokro satellite ground station near Abidjan, opens the door to the transmitter room. The voice of every caller to Ivory Coast from outside West Africa or France travels in digital form through these huge boxes full of electronic gadgetry. To bridge 40,000 kilometres with a radio signal, you need strong transmitters that need constant cooling with powerful ventilators. Hence the noise. The building where we stand seems insignificant alongside the two dish antennas beside it, which relay signals from the atmosphere to cable and vice versa. The first one, which was ceremonially switched on by President Houphouet-Boigny in 1972, has a diameter of thirty metres and is trained on Intelsat 605, which was launched on the Clarke orbit by an Ariane 44L on 14 August 1991. Next to it stands an even larger dish, built in 1989, communicating with Intelsat 603 at 34.5 degrees west above the Equator. That is 400 kilometres north of the easternmost point in Brazil and 35,786 kilometres above it. The 605 is ten degrees further east. These are irrelevant details if you just want to phone Amsterdam to Abidjan--until you see your phone bill. Of course, Akokro ground station can communicate only with ground stations that also have a dish trained on Intelsat 603 or 605. In order to communicate with a country with no dish trained on either satellite, assistance from a third groundstation, usually in the West, is needed: the signal will travel through space twice: first from Akroko via Intelsat 603 or 605 to an Intelsat station in Europe, and then to its destination via a second satellite. This type of "double-hop" phone call is quite expensive, and the double time delay causes rather serious inconvenience. Phone calls from the Netherlands never travel via more than one satellite, but between developing countries they often do. One solution might be for a country with no dish trained on the 603 or 605, to build an additional one.

Fortunately, there is a much more intelligent solution: Pan-African cooperation on satellite communications. The idea originated 15 years ago, since when three paper organisations have come and gone. Till now, the fourth such organisation, RASCOM, also seems to have spent much more time on words than action. In 1992, the ITU published a feasibility study of 5,000 densely printed A4 pages costing $8 million, copies of which are available at $10,000 apiece. But here is a brief summary free of charge: "Yes, RASCOM is feasible". RASCOM's ambition is to carry all the satellite traffic within Africa: from Ghana to Ethiopia, from Zambia to Egypt, and for instance also between villages in Senegal, where a VSAT network is already in operation in rural areas. Essentially, RASCOM is a cooperative organisation for the large-scale purchase of satellite capacity. All the African countries are currently buying themselves a piece of satellite capacity, albeit mostly from the same supplier, Intelsat. The only notable exceptions are one or two North African countries that also use satellites belonging to Arabsat (and occasionally Eutelsat) and some countries like South Africa, which recently started buying capacity on satellites belonging to the American company PanamSat (the worlds first private satellite company with global coverage).

Stage One is for RASCOM to purchase a large amount of satellite capacity from Intelsat and resell it to the member states, currently numbering 42. Stage Two will then be for RASCOM to try to make use of just one satellite, as opposed to the six used now. This would enable people throughout Africa to see every television station in the continent with just one dish on their roof. It would also put an end to telephone calls within Africa being routed via Europe or America, the douple hop connections--which now cost Africa $900 million per year. RASCOM has been showing open interest in Intelsat 804, due for launch in March 1997 at 22 degrees west above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The drawback of this location is that it will appear very low on the horizon in Mozambique, Somalia, and especially Mauritius--and the lower the satellite, the further its signals have to travel through the atmosphere. For these countries to communicate successfully with 804, they would need larger, more expensive equipment.

RASCOM would therefore prefer a satellite located directly above Africa--say at 33 degrees east, above Lake Victoria. On the other hand, the advantage of 804 is that one of its antennas will be trained on the east coast of the United States, allowing RASCOM to provide an important intercontinental satellite link. America would fall outside the footprint of a satellite at 33 degrees east, although all of Europe would fall within it.

At present, the outlook is good. Speaking in Geneva, RASCOM director-general Gounde Adadja recently announced that the organisation hopes to have the $180 million necessary as startup capital to buy 50% of Intelsat 804's capacity. Since RASCOM wants to be primarily an African organisation, it demands that two-thirds of its funds be contributed by member states. According to the latest information, RASCOM hopes to submit the $180 million to Inselsat before 1 April 1996.

"Hello, how are you today?" says RASCOM's head of engineering and operations, Kenyan James Rege, to his secretary as he enters her room. "This is how I always start when I'm going to ask her a favour," he quips unselfconsciously. He asks his secretary to dive into the archives to retrieve two introductory parts of the feasibility study. When she has found them, he gives them--all 624 pages--to me free of charge, because a visit from a Western journalist to the RASCOM headquarters in Abidjan is such a rarity. "We have to take advantage of this opportunity to spread the word that RASCOM exists in a big way, and that it will continue to exist for the benefit of the people of Africa."

RASCOM's member states are free to buy satellite capacity from suppliers other than RASCOM. But Christian Kow Sagou, RASCOM's head of Marketing and International Relations, is quick to point out that this is not desirable. "It's important to remember that RASCOM is not an organisation that exists for its own benefit. We belong to African governments. If we get a satellite, it will be their satellite--and they will have to try to make a success of it." If the plan works, it may also herald an African breakthrough for the Internet. If every country in Africa has a dish trained on the same satellite, the Internet will be able to provide multimedia communication for the entire continent.

However, the ground stations will have to be linked in turn to good terrestrial networks, using either cable or microwave transmission. This is much more of a problem than satellite communication alone--ask anyone who has ever placed a phone call to or from Africa. The national Intelsat station is almost always near the capital city and connections with it are always good, so it is much easier to phone Nairobi or Bamako from the Netherlands than anywhere in the Kenyan or Malinese countryside. The only exceptions are provincial towns with smaller Intelsat stations (dishes with a diameter of five to ten metres, depending on the number of lines needed etc.). Twenty African countries are now using Intelsat for domestic communications, with anything from one to dozens of extra ground stations.

Contrary to the belief of many telecoms users, there is an important difference between satellite and cable communication. Cable networks and microwave transmitters follow and emphasise existing geographical structures. Cables connect areas of economic and demographic concentration--roughly speaking, cities--which reinforces the relative backwardness of the rest of the country. Satellite communication, on the other hand, is geographically egalitarian; it makes no difference whether your dish is located in the city or the desert. Rural depopulation and overcrowded cities are a feature of almost all developing countries, certainly in Africa. The absence of telecommunications in rural areas has contributed to this trend. It would be practically impossible to defeat rural isolation by laying more cables--they would be too expensive and vulnerable to the elements, and it would take too long. But satellite communication can do the job fast and well.

Thanks to European colonialists, all the large cities of the African coastal states are situated close to the ocean. To link them up, AT&T;, a world leader in the construction of underwater optical fibre cable, has come up with a project to lay a cable all around the continent's coast. If everything goes according to plan, construction will begin in 1997, and Africa ONE will be fully functional by 1999. Then all those big coastal cities will be connected with each other and the rest of the world. In many ways, this is a good--even courageous--plan. And on balance, all of Africa will benefit from it. The only question is: will Africa ONE do anything for the relative backwardness of the interior, which is 95% of Africa?

This diversion brings us back to James Rege and Christian Kow Sagou. "RASCOM's mission is after all to help Africa obtain better telecommunications," says Kow Sagou. "The main goal is to get our own satellite; but in the end, technology is a secondary concern. We aim to become a very, very, very strong organisation." And this is why RASCOM signed a memorandum of understanding in May 1995 with Africa ONE. This memorandum also received the blessing of the Pan African Telecommunication Union (PATU, founded in 1977), which manages PanAfTel, an incomplete but reasonably good system of cable and microwave transmitters interconnecting African countries. "One of our aims is to turn Africa ONE into an African project--not just an AT&T; project," says Rege. And Kow Sagou adds: "RASCOM believes that African states should provide at least half the total investment of 2,7 billion dollars. If we can't manage that, then at least the management should be in African hands. A lot of people ask: 'Why are you cooperating with an optical fibre project--which is a competitor of the RASCOM satellite system?' But that's not the way we see it. We see Africa as a whole entity, and underwater cables are just as necessary as satellite communication." Rege continues: "We thought about it long and hard before deciding to cooperate. Suppose we did go into battle with AT&T;. An organisation that big could always turn around and tell you 'We're going to do it anyway.' And they would! They'd just lay that cable and connect every country that was interested." Kow Sagou disagrees: "Time was when people came to Africa to do what they wanted and then took off with the money. But those days are over. Practically every country in Africa is a member of RASCOM. If AT&T; approached any one of them with a contract to sign, its first question would be 'OK, but does RASCOM agree?'"

AT&T; is itself keen on African cooperation. "It is very important that non-coastal countries take part too. And this is why we're working closely with RASCOM and the PATU," says Blaise Judja-Sato on the phone from America. As AT&T; Submarine Systems' regional sales manager for West and Central Africa, Judja-Sato developed the sales strategy for Africa ONE. His desk diary is full of meetings with representatives of African PTTs, "but we haven't asked them to commit themselves yet." From 28 to 30 November 1995, he was in Botswana for negotiations with representatives from land-locked countries, "to see how they can best be connected via a few selected coastal states".

Politically, this is a very problematic area, because the necessary transit agreements require a great deal of trust. Lack of trust was one of the main reasons why the PATU microwave transmitter network was not a resounding success. It also partly explains why satellite communications have flourished so well in Africa: none of your neighbours can cut off your link with the outside world when relations are bad. On the other hand, Africa ONE's enormous capacity--40 gigabits per second in both directions--is bound to look attractive to investors. Judja-Sato still has no idea how Africa's 15 land-locked countries will be connected with Africa ONE, nor whether AT&T; cable constructors will do any digging on land, although the results of the negotiations in Botswana were encouraging. AT&T; itself does not want any satellite groundstations to close. "We are not out to connect all of Africa to the cable and disconnect them from the existing infrastructure," says Judja-Sato. "If only for diversity's sake, it's good to have dual technologies at work." In the back of Judja-Sato's mind, no doubt, lingers the outside chance of cables snapping or being cut, even though Africa ONE has the advantage of circularity; that is--if the cable breaks at one point, traffic will still be able to travel in the other direction. But a breach in one of the branch cables could cut off entire countries inland. Geostationary satellites are beyond the reach of terrorists and enemy armies; if one breaks down, you just train your dish on another one.

Africa ONE is incidentally not the only cable project on offer to the continent. Siemens and Alcatel are both working on projects to link up West African countries in an underwater Infobahn: Afrilink and Atlantis 2 respectively. There are plans however to integrate Atlantis 2 with Africa ONE. Afrilink, the $500 million Siemens cable, is intended to link all countries between Senegal and South Africa with each other, Europe and the USA. However, there is little chance that any part of the continent will be served by more than one cable, let alone three. As Samson Brou Yapo explains: "Ivory Coast will have to make a choice. Technically, the AT&T; plan is the best, but it may be a lot more expensive than other cable projects. And the cost depends heavily on what other West African countries do. We don't have enough information yet."

While technical and financial pros and cons undoubtedly cause some division and confusion in the African telecoms sector, the overall mood is one of idealism and hope. "You know," says Judja-Sato after replying to my last question, "the problem is so enormous. In Cameroon, where I was born, it's a nightmare to try to phone a neighbouring country. Time and time again, you don't get through, and what's more, it's terribly expensive. In Africa, travelling can be faster and cheaper than phoning. The postal services don't work. The universities can't get through to databases. All of this has got to change. And Africa ONE can help."

Similar thoughts are what drive the Malinese Hamadoun Toure, Intelsat's group director for Africa and the Middle East. "Africa ONE would be a very valuable project if it were conceived and funded by Africans," he comments from the first floor of Intelsat's stand at Telecom 95 in Geneva. "But rural telecommunications are the biggest problem, and you can't solve it with cables. Toure has had no contact with the Africa ONE team, though he has met people from RASCOM, if only because Director General Adadja is in town. Speaking to CommunicationsWeek International, Adadja commented: "Walking around this exhibition, I ask myself: 'Am I on the same planet? Is this global village not creating outcasts?'"

Toure is keen to point out what Intelsat is doing to prevent such a situation. "We have submitted a claim to the ITU for the 33 degrees east position so that we can put a satellite there for exclusive use by RASCOM," he says after a presentation on the interim Intelsat 804 plan. "At the moment, we're conducting a feasibility study. In December 1995, we'll decide. And in 1998, a satellite could be operational at 33 degrees east." (In December 1995 the Intelsat Board of Governors decided indeed to go ahead with the 805 at 33 degrees east.) Earlier than that, in March 1996, Intelsat will introduce demand-assigned multiple access (DAMA), first via the 605 and later via other satellites. DAMA is now the big buzzword in satellite communications. Brochures that don't mention it are becoming collector's items. DAMA is technologically very complex, but the idea is very simple: a certain amount of bandwidth, or satellite capacity, is shared by a number of ground stations in varying proportions. Whichever station needs the most capacity at a particular moment will get the most; if a station needs nothing, it will get nothing; and when it needs just one line, that is what it will get. Setting up a phone link with DAMA takes about three seconds. At present, Intelsat customers still hire fixed amounts of capacity for long periods, and the rate is the same however many calls they make (it is possible to hire satellite capacity for just half an hour--but the rate is higher, and you have to specify in advance which half hour you want). The result is that money is wasted when calls are few and far between, and at busy times the hired capacity is overloaded--especially in poorer countries, which hire the minimum.

With DAMA, therefore, they will receive a fairer bill. However, ground stations will first have to be equipped with DAMA equipment, which costs about a quarter of a million US dollars per station. "We're introducing DAMA at the large ground stations first," says Toure. "It'll be very cheap--10 cents a minute for a 64 kilobit channel. At a later stage, Intelsat's DAMA service will also be available for VSATs. A little DAMA/VSAT in a small village will connect it to the rest of the world." This new technology is also ideal for connections between isolated cellular telephone networks, which are becoming increasingly common in Africa. Cellular operators in Zaire have already expressed their interest to Intelsat.

New prospects are also unfolding for the Internet. Toure already receives more e-mail via the Internet than letters through the post. "I'm going to promote the Internet very aggressively in Africa, especially in conjunction with VSATs," he says. "With interest from a large number of countries, access will be simple." Conveniently, Intelsat and InfoDev both have their headquarters in Washington DC, and the first contacts have already been established.

At Telecom '95, Bruno d'Avanzo, Intelsat's vice president and chief operating officer, gave a special press conference and demonstration to show how good the Intelsat fleet is at relaying Internet traffic. A 256 k/s channel on the Intelsat 603 linked a VSAT in Geneva with a VSAT in Washington that was connected to the Internet via the local-area network at Intelsat's headquarters. It worked perfectly, and a video conference between the two places was set up using the same configuration. [5]

This technology could, at a stroke, eliminate the isolation endemic to higher education in Africa. A good VSAT network would now cost each university between a quarter and half a million USD a year, including transmission costs and equipment write-off. [6] There is a lot of African interest in the Internet, certainly in countries that have abolished state telecoms monopolies. However, the greatest obstacle to access is still cost, an area in which Africa can unfortunately expect little support from the West. The low priority accorded to telecoms by Africa experts was illustrated at the second world conference of the Global Coalition for Africa in Maastricht, The Netherlands, in November 1995. As a warm-up for the deliberations of an impressive list of heavyweights on the Africa scene, Jan Pronk, Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, launched a special book, Africa Now--People, Policies and Institutions, in which 18 world-famous experts expound their views on the problems of the Dark Continent: 150,000 words, four of which (if my counting is right) are about telecommunications!

On the other hand, the Dutch Directorate General for International Cooperation has come up with exploratory studies and prototype telecoms projects, such as the 9.6-kilobit/s leased line connecting Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo (Mozambique) to the Internet via South Africa. The project is being supervised by Delft University of Technology, and will be funded for the first two or three years--at a cost of $40,000 per year--by the Higher Education Cofunding Project. The line opened in 1995, and so far has been a great success. During a recent working visit to Delft, Venancio Massingue, director of Maputo University's Informatics Centre, said that he had practically stopped telling people his e-mail address, because if he did, he would be getting more messages on the Internet than he could cope with.

Ouagadougou. I assume that is where I am, given the dozens of great black vultures circling above the rails a few kilometres down the line. I had wanted to arrive here on Thursday morning, and it is now 3 pm Friday. Contrary to what my guidebook tells me, no train goes from Abidjan to Ouagadougou on Wednesdays, and the train that left at 8 am Thursday is seven hours late, because the locomotive broke down and had to be replaced. The result is that I have two hours of this working week left to do what I have to do, because I have to be out of here on Monday morning. Yes, it's Ouagadougou. I sprint from the station to the nearest hotel with telephones in the rooms--the Ranhotel, under enormous rustling trees full of bats, with a large swimming pool, restaurant, bar, TVs in the rooms, and air-conditioning. I don't come to this poor country very often, so I may as well give Ouagadougou a reasonable cash injection.

At 3.15, I am telephoning Sylvain Zongo, Burkina Faso's Internet linchpin, who has been expecting me for the last day and a half. Fortunately, I'll be able to talk to him on Saturday morning, so I have an hour and a half left for ONATEL, this friendly country's PTT. At the same moment, 4,500 kilometres further north, a message from ONATEL is rolling out of my fax machine to say that its director will be pleased to meet me for an interview. It arrived the day after my departure, even though I had clearly stated my date of departure in my fax to ONATEL. Interference on the line, perhaps.

While the director is waiting for me, I use an introduction given to me by a fellow passenger on the train, and arrive, an hour before the end of the working week, in the office of Brahima Sanou, ONATEL's Directeur des Etudes et de la Planification. He is in a hurry, too. In an adjacent room, an ONATEL delegation is busy with its final deliberations before leaving for an Africa ONE meeting in Cairo. AT&T; has invited every PTT in Africa to come and say how much telecoms capacity they are likely to need in the next few years.

The situation in Burkina Faso is typical of that in many developing countries. The country has over 20,000 lines, which are very unevenly shared out among the country's 10 million inhabitants. "One of our long-term goals is that no one in this country should be further than ten kilometres from a public telephone or a house with a private connection," says Sanou. "The lines that we have are far too densely concentrated in the cities." Sanou then cheers up as he unfolds a map of the network of microwave transmitters in Burkina Faso: 34 megabit/s beams connect the large cities, while 140 megabits/s--enough for 2,000 calls--are available between Ouagadougou and the capitals of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Niger, and Mali.

So many calls have never been made all at the same time. The international connections have been anticipating a growth that has not yet materialised. "Our big problem is rural areas. We have all sorts of plans for telephony in small villages, mainly using wireless systems, but we can't find the money for them." A substantial crowding of the network could soon clog up the domestic microwave transmission infrastructure, so Sanou is now thinking about replacing the current 34-megabit equipment.

In the next room, the buzz grows louder, certainly when the door is open. ONATEL's Africa ONE specialist comes in with a short message. When he has gone again, Sanou says: "You've got another five minutes". This is enough to learn that the AT&T; plan is provoking many questions among ONATEL's employees. The connection with the underwater cable may be at Accra or Abidjan. For the time being, Ivory Coast seems the more likely route for Burkina Faso's international telecoms traffic, given the tie of francophony. But how reliable are the Ivoiriens--and how reliable will they be in thirty years' time? The current microwave transmitter connection to the coast will not be powerful enough in the future, forecasts Sanou.

"But if we want to use Africa ONE, we ourselves will be responsible for making sure we get a better connection. It ought to be a project for the whole of Africa, including the interior. AT&T; has been wanting to move in that direction recently, but hasn't thought it through properly yet." One remaining question is whether Burkina Faso's two Intelsat dishes will stay in operation once the Africa ONE connection is a fact. Sanou agrees that the Internet promises enormous benefits for Burkina Faso, but does not know whether his state-owned employer will be offering it. "ONATEL can't do everything. We may have to leave this to other parties." [7]

Thanks to one such other party, e-mail--the harbinger of the Internet--is already available in Burkina Faso. Store-and-forward e-mail is now in operation in dozens of African countries--as it is in many other countries throughout the developing world, usually via an Internet gateway managed by a Western non-profit organisation. The Toolnet foundation in Amsterdam, for example, has a battery of computers and modems re-routing e-mail messages to and from 15 phone-in points in 15 developing countries. A similar Anglo-American organisation, APC Greennet, based in London, offers the same sort of service to countries that cannot afford a real Internet connection. And so does ORSTOM, the huge French development organisation, at the headquarters of its Reseau Intertropical d'Ordinateurs (RIO) in Montpellier.

One of the RIO's nodes is located in the ORSTOM complex on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. There, at last, I meet Sylvain Zongo, several weeks after we began our e-mail correspondence. His workspace consists essentially of one room with a desk and a computer--but then it is a computer that shrinks the distance between continents. "Since I've been doing this job, I've never had the feeling that I live in one of the world's backwaters," says Zongo, sitting in his office deep in the Sahel, 800 kilometres from the sea, in a country without even a decent bookshop. RIO was originally set up to connect ORSTOM's third-world operating bases-cum-research centres with each other, with France, and with the rest of the world. The neat, low buildings are amply equipped with computers in a local area network. Zongo's machine provides the server connection with the outside world. Six times a day, he calls the computer in Montpellier to deliver and collect electronicmail.

For the dispatch of very large quantities of information, however, the post-office-mailbag-mail-carrier solution is still a better alternative. At ORSTOM's headquarters in France, gigabytes of information relevant to Africa are downloaded from databases on the Internet and then posted on diskette or digital tape to Ouagadougou, where Zongo copies them onto the hard disk of his LAN server. Enthusiastically, he gives a short demonstration. The difference between this and an online Internet connection is scarcely discernible on screen, especially since Zongo uses the same software to open his "virtual" Internet--Netscape under Windows--as any wired netsurfer in the West--the only difference being that Zongo has just one database to consult.

What may seem a joke, in fact, serves a serious purpose. The small ORSTOM network is already being used in Ouagadougou, by one or two foreign organisations such as UN agencies and local users including the university. By calling the ORSTOM network by modem, they can not only e-mail the whole world, but also learn how to use the Internet. Zongo can practically guarantee that Burkina Faso will have its own online connection within a few years. Until then, there is plenty of time to practise and build a whole pile of homepages. "I'm not at all keen on getting an open Internet connection as soon as possible," he says quite seriously. "Burkina Faso is not really ready for it yet--at least not if you see the Internet as a platform for information exchange in two directions. We must also be able to offer databases to Internet users outside Burkina Faso, and we don't have enough of them yet." Store-and-forward e-mail and fragile but expensive online connections to the Internet have been spreading rapidly throughout Africa in recent years, especially at universities and other centres of knowledge. But to tackle the problems of African higher education effectively, we will need much sturdier hardware than the 9.6 k/s Mozambique link or the 64 k/s connection that Lusaka University, Zambia, opened in 1994 thanks to a World Bank donation. Since recently, plans for an African Virtual University have been circulating in InfoDev circles [4]. The idea is that its students will use broad communications channels to access university lectures, scientific libraries, and even laboratories throughout the world, including the rest of Africa--all without needing to leave their own university. Technologically, such a plan will be much easier to carry out around the year 2000 than is now the case, since by then the whole world will be able to make use of at least two new satellite systems developed specifically for this type of application. Bill Gates and Craig McCaw, both multibillionaires thanks to the success of Microsoft and McCaw Cellular (now sold to AT&T;) respectively, have together made nine billion dollars available for Teledesic, a system of 840 low-orbit satellites that will connect anyone anywhere in the world to the electronic superhighway by means of a simple device. The Teledesic planners are already planning at full tilt on the outskirts of Seattle. Meanwhile, in Germantown (Maryland), Hughes Network Systems (which manufactures more VSAT systems than all its rivals combined) and fellow General Motors subsidiary Hughes Space and Communications Co. (the world's largest builder of communications satellites) are developing `Galaxy/Spaceway': a superflexible system for communications via geostationary satellites. Galaxy/Spaceway users will be able to select a transmission speed: from a few hundred bits per second (suitable for bank transactions) to six megabits per second (for high quality TV). The yet to be launched satellites will each have a total capacity of 4.4 gigabits per second, and will be able to communicate with each other. North America will be able to use the Spaceway system as from 1998, and satellites for Europe and Africa are due to be available in 2000.

Anyone satisfied with less advanced technologies need not wait until then. James Rege says that the Internet Society has already approached RASCOM. "They wanted to know whether we could help set up a VSAT network in 20 countries. We wrote back that they could count on our support. And that RASCOM was ready to assist in mobilizing the 20 telecommunications authorities concerned. It's up to the Internet Society to make the next move--we're still waiting for that." He also expects the Internet to do a great deal for Africa. "For education alone, it's fantastic. RASCOM has to make a strong case for it. The PTTs are now often afraid of it. They see it as a system that will pass them by, as a result of which they will lose revenue. Perhaps they can delay the advance of the Internet in Africa ..." Kow Sagou: "... but it can't be stopped." Rege: "It's there, it's coming."


[1] Prof. Donald Ekong finished serving his term as AAU Secretary-General in December 1995 when Prof. Narciso Matos, former Vice-Chancellor of Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, took over.

[2] See also The Financial Times of 20 November 1995.

[3] "The Microelectronic Revolution--Soviet Political Structure and the Future of East/West Relations", in the Political Quarterly, Vol. 54/2, April-June 1983. Tha Jan/Feb 1996 issue of `On The Internet' (the magazine of the Internet Society), carried an important article about the correlation between electronic connectivity and democratic freedom: "Coincident Revolutions", by Christopher R. Kedzie (

[4] "Increasing Internet Connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa" as well as reports about the African Virtual University are downloadable free of charge by clicking `publications' at

[5] For more information about accessing the Internet by VSAT via the Intelsat fleet, see `Via Satellite' February 1996.

[6] The December 1995 issue of `Via Satellite' carried a good article about two new ways--both of them engineered by Hughes Network Systems--to connect to the Internet via a satellite link. --At about $1,100 the DirecPC hardware provides you with 400 kbps Internet connection, but it's a downlink only. In order to request a file a normal Internet connection is needed. A recipient-tag is attached to the requested file, which is then beamed down by a satellite. Of course, you need to find yourself in the footprint of a DirecPC satellite. The system is up and running in Northern America, will be available in Europe shortly, but regrettably, Africa will have to wait a few more years. More information: see Internet addresses.--The other far more expensive system is called NSN InSAT. It provides a full duplex Internet connection anywhere--either to serve one PC, or a whole local area network, or a whole place. In the latter case, a trunk connection is supplemented by a number of dial-in modems. An InSAT system currently links Uganda to the Internet.

[7] After this interview was given, Onatel decided to become a Internet provider itself in the near future.


African Virtual University:; see

also note [4] Association of African Universities:

AT&T; DirecPC InfoDev: Intelsat ITU: Orstom: Rascom: Is currently

working on an internet link and a web-site of their own. The net's `New

Member Welcome Center' will tell whether the connection has been

established yet. Toolnet: WorldBank: