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Connecting the Least Connected: Internet Assistance to Developing Countries

by Ed Stephenson
08/01/2000

Building the Internet in the Congo might seem farfetched. The former Zaire has been torn by civil war since the overthrow in 1997 of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who stole the country's wealth during his 30-year rule. Now, the economy of the new Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to one report, is "barely functional." Roads and basic services suffer from neglect, and the outdated phone system alone requires millions of dollars to upgrade.

Yet, amid the turmoil, the University of Kinshasa has launched a basic email service so that the local scientific community can contact colleagues around the world. It took a couple of years, with delays caused by civil strife and lengthy power outages, but the fledgling university network now delivers email for about 500 people using UUCP over TCP/IP via a server at the University of Oregon. Limited, but it's a start.

"The guys running it are learning totally on the fly," explains Steve Huter of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), a nonprofit organization based at the University of Oregon Computing Center in Eugene. "Because there was no affordable system operating in the country for Congolese academics, we helped them get a basic email infrastructure going. Driven by Antoine Bagula and Didier Rukeratabaro, the system is now operational and is being used by several Congolese groups collaborating internationally on water research, applied mathematics, and networking technologies. When they are ready to migrate to more official Internet connectivity, we can point them to some of the different providers so they can make their own choices about what to do."

NSRC Provides Pro-Bono Internet Assistance to Developing Countries

Ask Huter about the state of Internet connectivity anywhere in the developing world--"the least connected and poorest areas"--and he will give you a detailed answer, often from firsthand experience. Along with Randy Bush, who is something of a legend in the computing world, Huter and his colleagues at NSRC supply pro-bono technical advice and engineering assistance to Internet networks throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the South Pacific.

Huter serves as a Research Associate on the Eugene campus, but his main occupation is running NSRC's day-to-day operations, which he greets with infectious enthusiasm. And no wonder. The NSRC team offers hands-on training to computer science engineers in developing countries, and then backs that effort with Internet technology workshops and by distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars of donated technical books and equipment every year. All with a modest grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and additional contributions from nearly two dozen public and private organizations.

Life of its Own

The group's primary focus is to help connect universities, research institutes, and non-profit NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Those institutions not only have a desperate need to share data quickly and cheaply (since mail in most developing countries is generally poor and long distance calls are usually expensive) they are also the ones with the fewest resources. When NSRC assists local researchers so they can collaborate instantly with others on, say, AIDS research, the Internet connection may be the first in the country.

But NSRC does not arrive with an agenda on how to help the network grow. There are countless examples of large international institutions (the UN, USAID, and the World Bank among them) sending people into countries to foster Internet connections. Intentions are good, but if they arrive with grand plans for large-scale networks administered from Washington D.C., or Paris, the schemes often fail.

"A number of efforts in Africa in the early '90s never really took off," Huter remarks. "To build sustainable networks, you've got to have local hands cultivating local expertise. They understand how to work in their country and culture in a way outsiders never can."

NSRC operates strictly by request, responding when networkers approach them with specific needs. In 1992-93, the group trained an engineer at Makerere University in Uganda to set up a phone-relay email service on a single 286 PC. By the time this fledgling network migrated to full Internet connectivity via a satellite link in 1996, it had 500 users. Today there are several local ISPs and more than 15,000 users. Not a lot by U.S. standards, perhaps, but for a developing country with an inadequate telecommunications infrastructure--especially outside the cities--the growth is healthy.

Once a network is in place, Huter says, "it takes on a life of its own." Demand among other organizations grows, and, as it did in Ghana and Togo in West Africa, the Internet becomes accessible to businesses and individuals. And local engineers continue to gain experience. Uganda's East Africa Help Desk, run by Charles Musisi, an engineering graduate from Makerere University, is now establishing networks for schools and health organizations nationwide.

One Brick at a Time

The genius and sweat behind NSRC in the beginning was all Randy Bush. A computer veteran of 30 years, whose career goes back to the original ARPANET, Bush began providing free technical assistance in the '80s, when he connected research institutes in South Africa and neighboring countries. Once his reputation and workload grew, Bush approached the National Science Foundation in 1992 for a grant to connect his host machines, which were receiving and distributing email via phone from several small networks, to the Internet. The NSF immediately saw the value of what Bush was doing in developing areas.

"The Internet didn't just happen. It was built one brick at a time, one country at a time," comments Dr. Steven Goldstein, the person at the NSF most responsible for spearheading Internet connections in industrialized nations. "All these little things were going on, but every little thing led to something else. You plant little seeds, and the seeds grow into flowers that make other seeds. And the guy doing most of the planting was probably Randy."

The workload of what became the NSRC was too much for Bush to handle alone. For a while, he teamed with John Klensin, another Internet "old-timer," and soon others came on board. In 1993, Steve Huter was seeking an email connection for an organization to a scientist in Peru, when he discovered Bush had connected that country to a host machine in Portland. "We clicked really well," Huter recalls, "and we've been collaborating ever since."

Since the NSRC established its home at the University of Oregon, the group's efforts have been augmented considerably by the staff from the university's Computing Center. Bush still takes part in NSRC activities, despite his full-time job as vice president of IP networking at Verio. Yet, Dr. Goldstein says, "Huter is the glue that holds it all together."

Human Network

While NSRC's staff remains lean, the team continues to expand, with a network of colleagues around the world. After engineers receive NSRC training, they often provide help for others: Students become teachers. Togo is a good example. After NSRC provided training and technical assistance to launch Togo's first Internet connection in 1996-97, subsequent help also came from neighboring Ghana's engineers, who had asked NSRC for help in 1995 to establish their country's first Internet connection. And now, two of Togo's engineers, Alain Aina and Adiel Akplogan, are helping build flourishing national networks in Guinea, Liberia, Kenya, and other countries in the region.

"I find it to be a beautiful approach," Huter says. "We have a strong base of volunteer support that really leverages our organization considerably. It's a nice human network, what we like to call NSRC Friends and Family."

Workshops are where the family really comes together, where much of the training takes place in intense, hands-on sessions. Since 1993, NSRC has helped organize the "Network Training Workshop" for developing countries at the Internet Society's annual INET conference, and has helped with similar events held by NATO and the Soros Foundation Network in Russia, Armenia, and the Ukraine. Earlier this year, the group helped put together a workshop at the first annual meeting of AFNOG, the African Network Operators Group. Participants often design workshop content, and those with experience help teach courses.

NSRC makes sure that equipment, instructors, and reference materials are in place. To do so, the group relies on a second, equally important network: U.S. universities and companies like Verio and Cisco Systems that donate literally tons of equipment, software, and technical books. In the past year, Huter says, NSRC shipped $100,000 of new and refurbished networking equipment to developing countries.

The free books, Huter asserts, are crucial for network growth. With donations from O'Reilly & Associates and other publishers, developing countries all over the world have established technical libraries. Uganda's East Africa Help Desk has established a well-used lending library for local secondary schools and other countries in the region. "Once the training is over and you're on your own to maintain these servers, the books are invaluable," Huter says.

Complete Database

Through the years, NSRC has kept track of the "first pings" and subsequent expansion of networks in developing countries with a comprehensive archive on the group's website. The database chronicles the tremendous influence NSRC has had in the past decade, but the database's purpose is more practical.

"We're interested in helping people know about ISPs that exist in a given country, so that if they need Internet access when they're there, they will become customers," Huter explains. "After all, that's how networks grow."

You can contact the NSRC at nsrc@nsrc.org .

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