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Upcountry HF E-mail Network - Summary

Upcountry HF E-mail Network As an Early Component of a Developing Country's Information Infrastructure

by Daniel Stern, Project Director, Uganda Connect, Mission Mobile Education


A new and important technological discovery, which combines Internet technology with radio modems, allows the transmission of data communications by electronic mail (e-mail) for upcountry areas without any telecommunications infrastructure, and holds promise for the desperately needed rural access to basic communications so vital to reconstruction and development on the African continent and elsewhere.

A network comprised of strategically placed high frequency (HF) radio stations for long distance (thousands of kilometres), connected to local VHF stations within line-of-sight (40-50 km), offers a relatively inexpensive and portable solution which may be deployed easily and quickly, and run with a minimum of technical training. Uganda Connect urge that such radio-data networks be established nationally, and be made available immediately to the widest number of sectors.

Telecommunications is a key element in any country's strategy for reconstruction and development. Therefore, much as I believe in free enterprise, the private sector and deregulation, the implementation of this truly enabling technology, radio e-mail having now been proven to be an effective means for upcountry communications, should no longer be left to market forces. Instead, the technology will require very careful regulation that will enhance and facilitate its more widespread proliferation, lest by its neglect it be expropriated by commercial interests, to the detriment of the nation. May the telling of our story help to correct any misapprehensions. I'll try to keep it simple.

As to the benefits of low earth orbit satellite (LEOS), I don't say that many of us will not one day enjoy them. But HF is free-to-air, whereas even the most optimistic projections for promised LEO connection charges for developing countries of between a dollar and three dollars a minute are beyond the reach of all but large companies and expatriate NGOs.

And it is unlikely that the sudden availability of high bandwidth data communications in rural areas, promised by LEOS consortia, however inexpensive the service, will of itself create upcountry connectivity. But for a developing country to be able to quickly get up to speed and to fully benefit from future advances in any telecommunications technologies, the basics of a data communications infrastructure will have to have already been put into place: a critical mass of PCs already on the ground; their usefulness for rural projects demonstrated; trainers trained, basic infrastructures as electricity developed. In other words, time to get a move on !

Uganda Connect's small pilot programme, using recycled PCs, even lowly 386s, instead of newer 486 or Pentiums; selecting, for their 'Train the Trainer' programme, marginalised peoples, rather than local elites; and operating an HF/VHF radio data communications network as an alternative to LEO satellite, for rural connectivity, is a step in the right direction, and may in the end prove to offer a more viable, less costly and reproducible model for the continent than smarter looking schemes.



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