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Broadcasting and the Internet in Developing Countries

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Kotmale Community Radio - Sri Lanka

Indonesia Local Radio Project - UNESCO Photo

Knowledge in the Village: Mixing and Matching Technologies for Connectivity

Rohan Samarajiva1

Keynote address

Kuala Lampur, September 4, 1999.

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Escaping poverty requires knowledge: Knowledge of how to do things (know-how as in how to get more milk from a cow) as well as knowledge of attributes (e.g., how likely am I to get my money back if I lend this person money). The World Bank’s latest World Development Report2 explicitly and eloquently states what has been known in an amorphous way for a long time. Knowledge matters.

In today’s fast changing global environment, traditional forms of knowledge acquisition fall short. Adults as well as children need access to mechanisms that foster creativity and access to multiple sources of "facts" that can no longer be learned for life. Many think the Internet and associated technologies are such a mechanism. But, knowledge by itself, or the Internet by itself, is no panacea. Knowledge is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the betterment of the human condition.3 Access to the Internet, in today’s world, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for knowledge work.

The United States frets over the uneven terms of access to the Internet by its citizens.4 But disparities of access within the US are nothing compared to those in developing countries. The numbers are not precise and they keep changing, but the evidence is clear: an overwhelming majority of people living in developing countries, especially those living in rural areas, are not connected to any form of electronic network, except the one-way medium of radio broadcasting. Unless conventional thinking is abandoned, these people will not have interactive connectivity in their lifetimes. And without that connectivity, they and their children will have difficulty in becoming knowledgeable. Without knowledge, they will continue to be poor and are likely to be disaffected. And large numbers of disaffected people are not conducive to stable prosperous societies.

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Sri Lanka, which is generally considered to be a success story of institutional reform in telecommunications,5 provides a good illustration of the problems (and possibly of the solutions). It was estimated that by the end of the First Quarter of 1999, there were around 38,000 persons with access to the Internet in this country with a population of over 18 million and a per capita GNP of around US$ 800. There were 250 registered servers.6 There are a number of barriers to Internet access in Sri Lanka:

  1. With a teledensity of 2.8 at the end of 1998, there are only a few households that are in a position to get Internet access. This is despite extraordinary annual growth rates of 40-50% in recent years driven by head-to-head competition.
  2. The network is highly congested, partly because of bad design and dimensioning and partly because of the rapid growth rates. The problem is particularly acute for users outside Colombo.
  3. Metered billing causes additional costs to Internet users who tend to stay online for long periods. The recently created "Internet chargeband" from 10 PM to 5 AM alleviates the problem to some extent.
  4. ISP [Internet Service Provider] charges are relatively high. This may be caused by possible anti-competitive practices in the supply of leased lines. Some feel that the license fees of US$ 4,000 (one-time) and 0.3% of turnover annually may also be contributing to the problem. But the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) has stated that it will not limit the number of ISPs (more than 10 so far) which should control prices. The Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications & the Media has allowed all licensed ISPs direct access to satellites which should ease their congestion problems and also help bring down costs. The Commission has initiated a public hearing on Internet access and quality that should help identify the appropriate solutions.

Rural access is affected by additional problems:

  1. Even after over 100 years as a "public service" monopoly, the major supplier still has a majority of its lines in metro Colombo. At end 1998, metro Colombo had 240,067 lines against the 215,531 in the rest of the country.
  2. The competitive fixed-access providers licensed in 1996 are only beginning to enter the rural market. Currently they have over 70,000 lines concentrated in the densely populated Western seaboard.
  3. Leased lines are easier to obtain in Colombo. For the line for the Kotmale project (about 150 km from Colombo), the Commission spent over $ 7,500 in the first year. If not for the high-level of government commitment to the project, such a line may not have been provided by the major supplier.
  4. Obtaining service and support in rural areas is difficult for both computers and Internet services. ISPs do not market in rural areas. However, there are some indications that MTT Networks and DPMC Electronics, two recent ISP licensees, are pushing their services outside the urban areas.
  5. Because of the lack of ISP points of presence outside Colombo (with a few exceptions), users outside the very large 01 dialing area centered around Colombo have to pay national rates every time they connect to their ISPs (except in the 10 PM to 5AM chargeband where national local charges are identical). This amounts to a 50-100% premium.
  6. As a result of the above, even calls to ISP helpdesks are more expensive for users outside metro Colombo.

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It is well known that most dominant telecommunication providers in developing countries have proved themselves to be incapable of supplying the expressed demand for telephone service. Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest barrier to Internet access in these countries is the poor state of the telephone network. It is reasonable to ask why more sophisticated services such as the Internet should be given priority over voice telephony. There are four main reasons:

  1. A phone in every home in low-density countries is a chimera. Unless household incomes increase, market saturation is reached well before household saturation. The ITU sets 5% of household income as the maximum outlay on telecommunications services and estimates that the average annual operational cost of a line is $200. What this means is that conventional circuit-switched telephone service will never be available to a majority of households in poor countries, especially to those located in rural areas. Even with the most innovative tariff designs, basic service cannot be given at $5/month. With the ongoing process of rate rebalancing, local call charges and rentals will keep increasing while international prices decrease, causing serious problems for the urban middle classes, let alone the poor.
  2. The Internet is where the innovative momentum is. The best minds of our time are engaged in developing technical and entrepreneurial solutions to problems of access fueled by large amounts of venture capital. This cauldron of creativity is more likely to yield the innovative solutions required to get the rural multitudes of the developing world connected.
  3. Data is the future. Running data on networks designed for voice is unavoidable, at least in the short term, for countries with fully developed networks because of sunk investments. However, over time, voice will be carried on networks designed for data, not vice versa. Countries or regions with small, low-quality networks can get a start on the future right now. The dynamic mobile networks can meet short-term voice communication needs until the rough edges of voice over data are smoothened out and scaling problems are solved.
  4. While plain old telephone service is wonderful, especially for those who’ve had no telephones at all, it pales in comparison with the metamedium that is the Internet. The Internet allows for one-to-one communication using voice, text and/or graphics. This can be "real-time" or asynchronous. It allows for one-to-many (as in e-mail lists) or few-to-few communication as with conferencing applications. The Internet allows access to a blooming, buzzing profusion of information sources in multiple formats and languages and also allows dissemination of one’s own information to as many or as few recipients whose attention can be attracted. The Internet is also a platform for transactions, that includes search and payment capabilities, and in some case, even the ability to deliver the purchased item. While e-commerce can be done over the phone, it is primitive in relation to what can be done on the Net.

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In terms of policy, countries who wish to get their populations, especially those living in rural areas, connected to the knowledge resources represented by the Internet, should avoid getting locked into following the staid sequence of building voice networks and then running data over them. Given the magnitude of the challenge, risks will have to be taken. The staid sequence simply takes too long.

There is no simple policy recipe that can be adopted by the governments of the low-teledensity countries. Even the ITU-sponsored solution of multipurpose telecenters is not a complete solution, though they can play a useful role within a multi-pronged effort as demonstration projects. They must be encouraged in tandem with other initiatives such as hybrid Internet-radio initiatives and various other experimental approaches.

The actual solutions can only come from entrepreneurial activity. What governments that wish to keep their rural populations connected can do is to create the space for experimentation by data operators and innovators seeking to mix and match various technologies without being stifled by the old ways of thinking. For example, some functions of the Internet can be provided by marrying a conventional computer-at-the-end-of-a-phone-line to different forms of broadcasting such as low-power radio or cable. Cheap e-mail only terminals that are beginning to be made available in the US could be combined with mobile telephones.

It’s not easy to create the conditions for innovation in these environments. After all, these countries are poor because they lack knowledge and are not very good at innovation. One solution is to shift the terms of the discourse around technology. For good or ill the playful, hyped-up information technology discourse from the developed countries is spilling over into the poorer parts of the world. A locally designed media campaign may leverage this spillover to build an environment conducive to innovation.

High levels of awareness generated by media programs as well as demonstration projects can also yield demand for the new services. Sri Lanka’s experience of over one year with weekly Internet programs on government TV and radio directed to non-users shows how this can be done. The surprisingly high levels of awareness of Internet related services discovered by the survey of rural communication needs commissioned by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission is evidence of the efficacy of these efforts. Of course, if the generated demand is not matched by supply, one could see repeat of the "revolution of rising expectations" leading to disaffection. But then, high yield can only be achieved at high risk.

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1 Associate Professor of Communication, Public Policy & Management, The Ohio State University, Columbus OH 43210-1339, USA. [email protected]; +1 614 292 2055 (f); +1 614 292 3713 (v). - back -

2 World Bank (1999). Knowledge for development (New York: Oxford University Press). Downloadable at the World Bank website. - back -

3 Mansell, Robin & Wehn, Ute (1998). Knowledge Societies (New York: Oxford University Press). - back -

4 See, - back -

5 E.g., Shetty, Vineeta (1999). "As the wheel turns" Communications International, March. - back -

6 User data from Telecommunications Regulatory Commission; Server data from Council for Information Technology (CINTEC). - back -

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Indonesia Local Radio Project - UNESCO Photo


Friedrich Ebert Foundation Converging Responsibility - Broadcasting and the Internet in Developing Countries is hosted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.



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