Access and infrastructure –social models for extending
the reach of the Internet
has access to the internet but in many ways the digital divide
is just a prism through which all other inequalities – whether
of race, gender, class or whatever – are reflected. The
gap in internet access between developed and developing countries
is large and continues to grow. Low-income countries account
for almost 60% of the world’s population but have just
under 5% of the world’s internet users.
In the developed world, because internet access is fairly widely
distributed throughout the population, the digital divide is
less acute. Nonetheless governments spend significant sums of
money on digital divide initiatives aimed at offering access
to poorer people and those in rural areas. Although internet
use has grown rapidly from a low base in developing countries
(particularly in Africa), this progress is not keeping up with
advances in the more developed world. And by their very nature,
the governments of low-income countries find it hard to prioritise
spending on internet access over more pressing demands like health
Because companies providing internet access in low-in-come countries
need to make money (as indeed they do elsewhere), they will target
customers who can afford to pay; either middle-class individuals
or companies. Obviously there is a relationship between cost
of access and the number of users.
Simple economics means that lower costs mean lower access costs
and therefore more potential users. The example of the cost of
a telephone line illustrates the impact of lowering costs quite
clearly. As Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala, pioneer in affordable telecom
solutions, IIT-Madras in India puts it: “It currently costs
(an investment of) Rs30,000 to install a single telephone line.
To cover this investment, you need a revenue of at least Rs1000
per phone line per month. These rates are affordable to just
2-3% of the Indian population. But if you bring down the investment
needed for a phone line to Rs10,000, then affordability of telephones
could immediately go up to 30 per cent or more of our population”.
The same basic argument holds true for internet costs, which
are inextricably linked with telecom costs. The cost of a telephone
line is often a key component of overall access costs (see section
6.5). Where telecom companies are government-owned and/or have
no competition, the cost of installing new lines is inevitably
higher than the costs of lines installed by privately owned companies.
But however much you lower the costs, the market will only provide
internet access to those who can afford it. Nevertheless the
market can be ‘stretched’ to provide access to areas
that might not otherwise be connected by governments or regulators,
by offering continuous or one-off financial incentives. Again
these ‘market-stretch-ing’ initiatives will take
internet access out to another layer of people, often paying
the capital costs of putting in connections and sometimes subsidising
rural call costs.
Beyond the areas that might be served by these approaches lie
vast swathes of poor people who do not have the means to buy
internet access at all or who cannot afford market prices. For
example in Africa, large numbers of its poorest people live widely
dispersed across rural areas. Two problems converge: not only
are these amongst the poorest people on the planet but they are
also spread out and often in physically inaccessible villages.
For these areas internet access can only really be delivered
if it can be paid for by government or external donors as a social
cost. The arguments advanced would be very similar to those advanced
for access to telephones.
This has led to a rumbling debate in the development sector about
whether the internet is actually a cost effective means of delivering
communications benefits to poor people in low-income countries;
those living on less than a dollar a day. These are perhaps best
summarised in a World Bank paper by Charles Kenny called The
Costs and Benefits of ICTs for Direct Poverty Alleviation.
In essence the argument is that the internet compares badly in
cost terms as a means of reaching people. It is cheaper for an
individual to own a radio, and radio broadcasting reaches people
more cheaply in their own language. For example, a station in
central Mali broadcasts to 92,500 people a year at a cost of
just US$ 0.40 cents a person. Likewise a mobile or fixed phone – although
more costly than radio – can serve more people at a lower
cost than the internet.
The debate has been crystallised by international donors finding
that providing internet access (through telecentres) is becoming
one more demand on their already stretched resources. For as
Kenny puts it, “there is a movement in the development
community pushing for widespread rollout of community access
points to the internet as a tool for direct poverty relief.”
Manuel Castells's recipe for
"As for what to do, in general terms, it is relatively simple...
Besides the investment in telecom infrastructure adequate to the
needs of developing countries (meaning satellite-based and access
by mobile telephony to a large extent, plus open source software
with specifically developed applications), there are two key issues.
The first is education, particularly of teachers. Since there is
no time to proceed in the traditional way, this means mass, virtual
education based on the Internet. We have the technology, we have
the e-learning experience, and there are large institutions...that
could be retooled to go from their traditional role as distance
education institutions to the new technological medium. Second,
the Internet is not a gadget but a tool. So the key is to develop
and diffuse specific Internet-based models for agricultural development,
for international, high value-added tourism, for preventative health
care, for education, for adult literacy, for citizen information
and participation, for community-based security strategies, for
horizontal communication and for the diffusion of information,
as well as for the diffusion and eventual commercialization of
art and cultural creativity."
Source: Conversations with Manuel
Castells, 2003,pp 47-8.
Whether or not you accept this kind of argument, the underlying issue remains
one of who pays for the social cost of rolling-out internet access to areas
where people have very little money to pay for it. Again, what starts as
an internet issue very quickly becomes part of broader discussions about
the role of government. Until relatively recently, the telephone company
would have been owned by the government and the social priorities of the
government of the day would be reflected in what it did. For example, British
Telecom was obliged to provide call boxes in a wide range of locations across
Britain. Governments would usually cross-subsidise these social costs out
of the monopoly profits made from the rest of the operation.
In the world of privatised telecom companies, the role of government shifts.
It can no longer do everything, it has to become an ‘enabler’.
What does this word (much beloved by consultants) actually mean? Well, in this
context, it may mean that the government encourages the regulator to set up
a universal access fund into which licensed companies pay a contribution, and
that these contributions are used to fund rural roll-outs in poor areas.
For example Chile used its universal access scheme to run a reverse subsidy
auction in which private companies bid to provide public telephones to un-served
areas, the lowest subsidy bid being successful. In a similar fashion, Uganda’s
regulator has franchised out rural telephony in a particular area and in this
instance, the company providing the service will provide a telecentre in one
part of the region.
By acting as a facilitator, government can seek to encourage internet take-up
in a variety of different ways. E-rate is another example of an approach designed,
in this case, to encourage schools to connect to the internet. Started in the
USA, e-rate is at its simplest a nationally agreed discounted rate for internet
access for schools: often this rate is enshrined in the relevant telecoms legislation
at a national level, and therefore is the responsibility of the regulator.
Brief descriptions of several schemes give a flavour of what it seeks to achieve:
USA: The US scheme is administered by a not-for-profit organisation that was
established by the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Fund. The scheme
has six different levels of discount in order to focus the maximum subsidy
in poor and rural areas. The method used to measure poverty is the percentage
of students eligible for the national school lunch programme that provides
a free lunch to poor students. In its first two years, the e-rate programme
connected one million classrooms.
Senegal: The Ministry of Education and Sonatel
signed an agreement that establishes preferential terms for access to the internet
to make it more affordable to learning institutions. Discounts vary depending
on the type of connection but can go as high as 75%. Installation costs are
also discounted. Sonatel is directly responsible for invoicing the schools.
Sonatel and the Ministry of Education have appointed a co-ordinator for the
South Africa: An amendment to the Telecom
Act includes e-rate, which it wants to introduce “to stimulate and facilitate
internet usage by public schools. The e-rate will allow public schools a 50%
discount on calls to access the internet as well as internet access charges.” Although
the provision has been made in the Act, implementation of a national scheme
has been slow but things are now beginning to move.
The experience of telecentres offers another way providing wider internet access
in developing countries. Like cyber cafes they offer the user a chance to connect
to the internet without having to buy a PC and often at subsidised rates.
Based on a study carried out Peter Benjamin of the Link Centre in South Africa
on telecentres in Africa1
, it is possible to summarise what
the experience has been and the costs of providing them. Of the centres surveyed,
the average cost of providing a telecentre is up to US$250,000. These projects
stress community participation and sustainability, but to date none have proven
that they can be self-sustaining without external funding. Most of these centres
are supported by foreign donors, though the national programmes for telecentres
in South Africa and Egypt can be included in this category.
The Nakaseke Multipurpose Community Telecentres (MCT) in Uganda opened in March
1999. It aims to introduce and test new technologies and applications, and
demonstrate the impact of such technologies on development of rural and remote
areas. A baseline survey was conducted to establish the nature of information
needs of the community and the services. Funding came from international donors
(60%), and national government (40%).
The telecentre has eight computers, two printers, a scanner, a photocopier,
VCR/TV, video camera and projector. However, frequent power cuts are a problem.
As well as phone, fax and internet use, there is a paper and digital library,
computer training, and an interesting indigenous knowledge programme where
centre staff are building a resource of local health and crop experience.
The centre is just about covering operating costs (subsidised by the community)
but there is no expectation that the centre could generate enough income to
replace equipment in a few years (depreciation) let alone repay the major capital
investment. This centre required great external support (financial and organisational)
and so is unlikely to be a model that can become widespread.
The first of the major funded Multipurpose Community Telecentres in Africa
was established in Timbuktu in Mali in May 1998. Sotelma, the national telecom
was the main local implementer, with other main partners being the ITU, ORTF
(TV Mali), UNESCO and IDRC. The majority of the funding of around US$200,000
has come from the external donors. The pilot telecentre is equipped with 11
computers. It offers copying, telephone, fax, and internet services. A major
emphasis of the telecentre is to provide training to artisans to set up their
web page to sell their handicrafts. The telecentre has proved to be particularly
useful to the tour agents organising visits to Timbuktu. The services are subsidised
and offered at fees decided by its steering committee.
In Mozambique, two pilot telecentres were established in 1999 in Manhiça
and Namaacha (both in Maputo province), funded by the IDRC. They each have
four computers, an internet hub and modem, two printers, backup equipment,
a public phone, a fax/phone, an external cardphone, a photocopier, overhead
projector, whiteboard, TV with video, radio and binder. Current operating costs
are just being met by operating income, except for the phone bill. Initial
conclusions are that longterm economic sustainability depends on the existence
of a critical mass of users and the adoption of computerrelated services (over-reliance
on phone and photocopy services for income means vulnerability to inevitable
future competition and that the major telecentre investment is not justified);
technical support, backup and continuous staff training are essential, especially
for encouraging the developmental and information services; good communications
channels with local authorities and community leaders, and maximum transparency
and information regarding the project, are important to success.
In South Africa, 62 telecentres have been established by the Universal Service
Agency. These cost around R200,000 each (US$30,000) and most have four computers,
four phone lines, a printer, a copier and TV. Most are in rural areas. Only
a few are economically sustainable, mostly through running computer training
courses. There have been many technical, financial and managerial problems.
Peter Benjamin’s conclusions from the study
help define the current limitations of the use of telecentres in low-income
• Centres are managed better where the owners
have a stake in them. In some projects, donated equipment is lying around unused.
The entrepreneurial instinct is a strong force in making a centre effective.
• There is a great demand for telephony. ICT
use can be built, but it takes time, training and local adaptation.
business models are more likely to be successful than complicated ones. The
idea of a multi-purpose telecentre is ambitious. Without extensive training
and support, many of the wider aims of telecentres are difficult to reach.
• Computers by themselves are not an information
service. Few centres use IT systems to provide information for local use.
A study carried out by Samuel Kyabwe and Richard
Kibombo on two villages in Uganda with telecentres showed that internet use
among villagers was below 5% compared to 30% for telephone usage and 100% for
Rural Internet Access
in Dominican Republic
Rural Internet Access is a project
of CRESP-EcoPartners at Cornell University and CAREL, the Rural
Alternatives Center in El Limon, Dominican Republic. They have
operated a wireless rural internet project in El Limon (population
350) for five years, and installed wireless access infrastructure
in five additional villages. Internet access for the rural developing
world is widely perceived as a way to reduce isolation, provide
educational and economic opportunities, and ultimately improve
the quality of life. Unfortunately, high capital and operating
costs have limited rural access to a handful of heavily subsidised
and supported demonstration projects. This innovative integrated
strategy, based on existing technologies and rural social structures,
addresses a variety of barriers and could ultimately create a breakthrough
in getting large numbers of rural communities on the internet.
The creation of a strategic demonstration and test bed in four
villages in the Dominican Republic is now under way.
Key Elements in this Rural Access Strategy:
- Start from existing clusters of 5-10 villages
-Use wireless networking to share one broadbandinternet connection
-Maximize the connection’s efficiency with a clusterserver
-Design an appropriate village computer
-Use open-source software and generic hardware
-Pay for the internet connection by selling voicetelephone calls
Source: Rural Intrernet Access Project, http://home.earthlink.net/~jgk5/
Wireless Internet Opportunity for Developing Nations
On 26th June 2003, the Wireless Internet Institute joined forces
with the United Nations Information and Communi-cation Technologies
Task Force to host “The Wireless Internet Opportunity for
Developing Nations” at UN Headquarters in New York City.
From the Manifesto of the Conference:
“The prospects of Wireless
Internet are by all admissions very promising, offering vast
development opportunities worldwide both from a mobility and fixed infrastructure
standpoint. Wireless Internet technologies present very attractive
opportunities for developing countries to leapfrog several generations
of telecommunications infrastructure. Their deployment can become
a critical factor in shrinking the digital divide by providing
broadband Internet access to whole new segments of underserved
populations throughout the world at a fraction of the cost of
Balancing Act’s News Update 27 (http://www.balancingact-africa.com)