My wife and I moved from the United States to Uganda in 1994 to serve as missionaries and development workers in the rural areas of eastern Uganda. We left America in the nascent stages of Internet revolution and arrived in Uganda where 95% of the community had yet to experience analog technology much less anything digital. There were no service providers and no cell phones. We communicated with our family in the US by sending an occasional fax at a whopping $9 a page.
Eight years later, things have radically changed. Cell phones have swept the country, offering reliable and moderately affordable communication for the masses. Internet connectivity has progressed from a rare luxury for the rich to a felt need for the middle class. Internet cafes are flourishing throughout the capital city of Kampala, with prices for a minute’s use falling to less than one-tenth of the cost three years ago. Ugandans have abandoned those $9 faxes and are now sending the same information for mere pennies.
But even as communication barriers fell, new divides (some immediate, some gradual) emerged in Uganda. Internet access, though certainly affordable to the middle class in the urban area of Kampala, is still mostly non-existent for the 90% of Ugandans who live away from Kampala. (Granted, the majority of that 90% are busy searching for things that you can’t find on Yahoo, like water and food, but a substantial percentage of the population is informed and ready to access information on the Web.)
While it is true to say that the digital divide in Uganda finds itself drawn along the same traditional dividing lines that delineate “haves” and “have nots” in other countries -- economic, educational and ethnic/racial factors -- it is also important to note that there is another key factor in Africa playing a fundamental role in dividing the “haves” and the “have nots” in our communities. That factor is proximity. In a land-locked nation like Uganda, where fiber optic networks are virtually non-existent, a community’s proximity to a VSAT link (they are called IDG’s -- International Data Gateways -- in Uganda) is a primary factor in the affordability of Internet access for that community. That’s bad news for places like Uganda, where very few IDG’s exist -- and none exist outside the capital city.
A few years ago we launched a community connectivity initiative aimed at doing something about our “proximity” problems. The number of users was steadily growing in our community of Jinja, the second largest urban area in Uganda. Those who wanted to get connected were making expensive long-distance calls to the capital city of Kampala. That meant that in addition to a $50 a month charge by the ISP for dial-up privileges, customers were paying an average of $75 a month to the local telecom for long-distance charges. Internet access was dreadfully slow and to add insult to injury, exorbitantly expensive.
Convinced that we had enough users in our community to deserve a hearing, we made a trip to the largest ISP in the country and asked if we might work together with them to put in a local Internet point of presence (PoP) in our community. We explained to them how we were already running a community development project that was serving as a community idea and information center. We had a small cafe, a library, some computers and videos available to the community at little or no cost. We were willing to provide them a location for their local PoP and to ensure that the electrical power was always on and the phone lines free. We wanted no pay and were even willing to absorb some of the running costs; we just wanted connectivity for our community. They refused our offer, noting that the number of users in our community would not offer a profit for them.
We left that meeting more discouraged than ever about the prospects of securing a dedicated connection for our community. That afternoon I met with a friend at a local coffee shop to commiserate our failure, and the idea of a community-oriented ISP was born as we scribbled on a napkin.
We contacted some friends in Dallas, Texas, who listened to our business plan and decided to loan us the $7,000 we needed to buy our equipment. Another friend who worked for Cisco Systems chimed in with a list of the equipment we needed. Within a few months we had successfully bid on eBay for a rack of old modems ($150), a Port Master (yesteryear’s backbone for dial-in technology), and a used Cisco 1600 series router. We loaded Linux on an old Pentium PC (it still serves as our mail server), and our makeshift ISP was launched.
We were fortunate that the old state-run Uganda telecom had just sold to an international consortium that had begun a comprehensive upgrade of facilities. They had, for example, just installed a new digital switch at our local telephone house, so we were the first to utilize a technology that allowed our users to reach our server by dialing just one number.
After an initial stage of dialing into Kampala to pick up our customers’ mail, we gathered a large enough group of community users to lease a dedicated Internet connection from the local telecom. Using a cable modem, we provided a 64-kilobit pipe to our users. It was a service that no single user in our town could afford, but collectively we were able to provide for ourselves.
We now have in excess of 150 dial-in users and have played a leading role in bringing reduced Internet access costs to our community. We have proudly connected schools and NGOs, and we have offered affordable access to the public via our Internet cafe. Perhaps most importantly, the majority of our daily operations are managed by bright, young, tech-savvy Ugandans. They are far more familiar with the technologies vital to our sustainability than those of us who launched the project.
Recent stages of the project have included the addition of large multinational companies to our community initiative. Our newest partner, a Scandinavian-based construction company, hopes eventually to secure a 512k dedicated link to the Internet -- that’s many times larger than our entire town of 40,000 people currently has access! As long as we are able to manage the bandwidth and ensure that they get their maximum upon request, they are thrilled that their pipe will be available to the community during their downtime. In addition to being sold on the idea of helping the community, they quickly saw the financial incentive to working with us to use our collective buying power to purchase pipes to the Internet at reduced rates.
Our hope is that our community connectivity initiative can spur interest in other areas of Africa where large multinational organizations are already piping connectivity into their worksites and office buildings. In many areas, there are several firms working alongside one another with each firm commandeering high quality, dedicated Internet access as a necessity to their day-to-day operations. If these companies could follow our lead in Jinja and allow their connectivity to be shared by others in town, they would realize not only better service but also lower prices for their connectivity. (For example, the price would go down if they bought a 256k pipe collectively as opposed to four separate 64k connections.) In Uganda, the savings realized by buying big pipes as opposed to smaller ones is as much as 25 percent.
The missing ingredient in most areas is the presence of a community-oriented provider with the integrity to ensure that each partner gets their bandwidth on demand. The companies themselves cannot be expected to fill this role; their bottom line is profit. The ISP’s cannot fill this role because selling connectivity to each organization separately is in their best interest financially. Failure to work together creates the situation currently seen all over in Africa where dedicated bandwidth sits idle every weekend and evening after 5pm. It is as if each company has built its own very smooth super highway to drive on and refused access to the public even when the highway is not in use by the company trucks! This is acceptable in western countries where the community has plenty of alternative routes to the Internet. In places like Uganda it’s a shame, because sharing the bandwidth with the community would not cost the companies anything. Again, the key ingredient is someone to direct traffic.
Many challenges face our project in the future. We do not expect, for example, to compete in the long-term with for-profit providers that are now arriving in our community. Eventually they will be better able and better equipped to serve our community with reliable, affordable access. At that point we will step aside and look for new, creative ways to serve our community, content with the realization that we played a role in showing them that providing access to our community was worth their time.
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