Mike Jensen has been promoting ICTs for development for more than 15 years, and has probably seen it all. In the early 1990s he travelled around Africa helping NGOs install their first store-and-forward email systems, which were supported by APC/GreenNet. Today, he is one of the most sought-after ICT4D policy advisers of African governments and international organizations.
CTA: Mike, in your opinion, which ICT application holds particular promise to provide affordable access to the Internet rural areas of ACP countries?
MJ: Terrestrial (fibre) telecom infrastructures provide the cheapest means to connect to the Internet. However, it will take at least another 10 years before such an infrastructure is in place in the rural areas of Africa. In the meantime, I believe that a wireless ICT application providing broadband two-way Internet access via satellite is the most promising option to meet immediate needs. This ICT application is ‘Ku-band VSAT’ and was first demonstrated to me during one of CTA’s ICT Observatory meetings three years ago.
CTA: What is Ku-band VSAT?
MJ: VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) is a catchy acronym that is used for all types of satellite products, ranging from small components to complete systems. A VSAT is a two-way satellite communication system with very small dishes (antennas) about 1 metre across that uses a specific frequency (Ku-band). Today, the total costs of this type of two-way satellite communication equipment are less than $2000, and the service charges less than $100 per month. With such a system, a small business such as a cybercafe, or government or NGO offices anywhere in Africa can get connected to the Internet, regardless of the distance to the nearest connection to the terrestrial telecom infrastructure. Combined with WiFi (wireless local area network application) many people in a village could share such a VSAT system and its costs. Within the next five years, if national telecom regulations on the use of private VSAT and wireless Internet are relaxed, this technology could help to meet the growing demand for Internet connectivity.
CTA: At present, development policy makers and professionals tend to concentrate on ICT applications based on Internet technology. Last year, ICT Update began to report on many imaginative projects that are using other ICTs and their applications (geographic information systems, global positioning systems, personal digital assistants, etc.). What could ACP policy makers do to nurture this second wave of ICT4D?
MJ: First, they could promote better and in particular cheaper access to the Internet both in urban and rural areas. Without adequate Internet access many of these new ICT applications featured in ICT Update can not be used. There is little point in encouraging the use of tools such as personal digital assistants (PDAs, or hand-held computers), for instance, unless the communication costs are low enough to make them affordable to use. Second, policy makers should promote efforts to build local capacity to use ICTs. Third, they should help raise awareness of the utility of these new tools to enhance the outreach and quality of many rural development services. In particular, they could show how they can be used for decision support and other practical applications such as the weather forecasts and education. In conclusion, I would like to encourage policy makers to take the lead and to start investing in e-government services, such as websites that provide a range of information services for the public.
CTA: CTA has built up an extensive network among development policy makers in ACP countries. How can the Centre help to promote the notion that ICTs are catalysts of economic and agricultural development?
MJ: CTA could collaborate with other agencies working in this area, such as the Farm Radio Network, the FAO, UNESCO and DFID, to develop a common strategy to encourage policy makers to adopt and invest in ICT supportive strategies. Government officials and NGO leaders should become much more proactively involved in the national telecom policy dialogue in order to press the interests of their rural constituencies. CTA could help them by developing a ‘telecom advocacy manual’ on how to participate in telecom policy dialogues. CTA could further assist them in developing their capacities to lobby effectively for change among the telecom policy makers. Interestingly, it seems that one of the few benefits of the WSIS process has been to promote this sort of multi-stakeholder telecom policy dialogue. Rural people in ACP countries have much to gain from policy changes that will lead to allow private use of VSAT and wireless technologies. We should strike while the iron is still hot.
Mike Jensen is a leading ICT for Development Policy Advisor based in South Africa.