I connect, therefore I am
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CTA. 2001. I connect, therefore I am. Spore 92. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/46105
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore92.pdf
While the techies have been twiddling away with the Internet, and you've been wondering if you'd be left out, the phone has still been getting on with connecting people. Yesterday's future is tantalisingly close, today. Make that call. Send that...
While the techies have been twiddling away with the Internet, and you ve been wondering if you d be left out, the phone has still been getting on with connecting people. Yesterday s future is tantalisingly close, today. Make that call. Send that email. Hands up if you have not seen an Internet café or telecentre in a market near you this year! There are thousands in ACP countries. Some are public, others private, and a good many are geared up to provide market information (from costs of inputs and goods available, to sales opportunities) for agricultural producers and traders, as just a part of their services. Some are fumbling to translate their fuzzy vision of an ICT-enabled knowledge society into working reality, and some are more sanguinely trying to sort out the most reliable sources of market information. None are yet financially viable, in the same way that most Internet services in the West are still climbing their expensive learning curves. The rise and fall of dot com companies in the years 1999 - 2000, when the balloon-like faith of finance companies inelectronic commerce swelled and burst, bear witness to the volatility of the new economics (see Spore 88). Far from being dead, electronic commerce, or e-commerce, has now culled its weak and weak-hearted and is preparing for a serious surge from 2002 onwards. Unlike what happened in the first wave, many ACP countries will be relatively well equipped to join in. There is reason for confidence; some even talk euphorically of e-velopment. Some of today s initiatives will indeed flourish. They will be the ones that looked before they leaped. They will be taking a deep breath and ensuring financial stamina to get through the thankless early days. They understand that cash flow will come from social phone calls, emails or Internet searches (illness, family news, lotto results, shopping lists for visitors from the diaspora, even ecotourism bookings!). Calls and emails about fertiliser prices, shipping costs or veterinary services will not alone provide the critical volume of business. Is the waiting almost over? We think so, for most. A kind of magic, all the same It all started with the second telephone, and the world s first telephone call, in 1876. The world has not looked back since then. For the 3 billion people who allegedly have never made a phone call, most of them in Africa and Asia, the notion of hearing the voice of an unknown person, an untold distance away, will be a surprise. It will come soon, as more people become wired . The stated goal of the telecommunications people Universal Service has suffered from the Last Mile problem. This defines the technical and financial difficulty of installing telephone cables from a central point in a city, or a market town, to customers in surrounding communities. With apologies to the copper producers amongst us, we have to stop thinking of only phone wires, and Think Wireless. Revolutionary: from cell to cell While many specialists have focussed on how to computerise ACP countries, the telephone infrastructure has been growing fast. A virtual miracle has appeared in the form of the handheld mobile cellular phone, and low-cost satellite links. What has made the mobile a revolutionary tool, even in rural areas? The cost of installing and maintaining local receiver/transmitter stations (called cells) has fallen dramatically, as have the costs of sending signals by satellite. Each local station needs to be at most at a few kilometres distance from the next cell, literally to pass signals along. In isolated areas where there are no or few customers, and access is hard for maintenance, the signals can now be leapfrogged over longer distances via satellite. Where there are just a few dozen customers in a settlement, it makes most sense to establish a local station with fixed-line phone on the spot, ideally in a so-called telecentre which provides fax and computer services too. If there are several hundred customers in the area, cellular mobile phones become viable. The economics of covering an entire nation are not yet sound even parts of the densely-populated Netherlands have no mobile phone access but it is now feasible to provide such access to a good 95% of your population in any country. Universal Service has been quietly replaced by Universal Access. If you can get your hands on a mobile phone, or go to a telecentre, you can reach any other phone or computer in the world. Many governments have resisted the de-regulation which would allow such systems to flourish, in part because a heavily regulated system offered a slim chance of collecting significant revenues from incoming international phone calls. The global telecommunications market, however, is fast becoming a free-for-all, and there are opportunities galore. Barefoot telecentres Normally such liberal talk excludes much of the ACP world. Not here. Here is not a reason to curse globalisation, nor to despair at the prospect of your rural community being isolated and never getting connected. Those classical reactions just do not work. The technology is evolving so quickly that notions of 'being priced out of the system' or 'the unbridged Last Mile' no longer apply. Hence, The Economist magazine reported in November 2000, Ghana now has five Internet service providers, and three mobile-phone operators. They set up a subscriber with a phone for $50 and a crystal clear connection within four hours, instead of the dark tunnel of a $150 connection, when it came, from the former state monopoly. It takes little to see what that means for entrepreneurs with an eye for ICTs. The Grameen Bank saw it first, seven years ago, in Bangladesh, where almost every village now has its barefoot telecentres which rent out mobiles. In ACP countries with deregulated telecoms, the telecentre booths that line most markets show what a flourishing trade there is in linking into the national phone network. No network nearby? No trouble (stay within the law though!); make your own links. The Economist: 'The most deregulated and dynamic system in Africa is in Somalia. The state system was destroyed in the civil war and has now been replaced, at least in the main towns, by enterprising Somalis. They simply buy a satellite dish and telephones, build a shed of phone booths and charge $1 a minute for anywhere in the world. A model for the rest of the continent?'. Isn t it time you called someone today? [caption to illustration] Placing calls and placing orders is easier now. [caption to illustration] Do you see what I see? The way we share information has changed. [caption to illustration] It could be true today: To Bolga Farmers Retail Coop via Kumasi: Thank you for your email price list of 11h00 today. Please confirm you can deliver by airfreight to Amsterdam for arrival on 29 June 2001: 500 crates of medium size mangoes, 40 per crate, 1200 kg of small green peas. We shall confirm by fax after your reply. Thanks, ACP Traders bv, Amsterdam 26 June 2001