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<nettime> First S Asia Internet Workshop For Rural Infrastructure, Con
Frederick Noronha on Wed, 28 Apr 1999 02:41:52 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> First S Asia Internet Workshop For Rural Infrastructure, Content Initiatives


First South Asia Internet Workshop Recommends Rural Infrastructure, 
Content Initiatives

by Madanmohan Rao (madanr {AT} planetasia.com)

Can South Asia catch up in the Internet race?

Participants of a historic South Asian Internet workshop which 
concluded recently in Dhaka certainly think so.

There will soon be close to one and a half billion people in the 
Indian subcontinent, and the global Internet user population is 
already close to 150 million. But the South Asian diffusion and 
adoption of the Internet continues to fall far short of the region's 
potential.  

The key outcome of the four-day workshop - drawing participants from 
Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal - has been a set of concrete 
policy recommendations as well as five project proposals for 
increasing Internet diffusion in the region and reducing inter-
country and intra-country imbalances.  

Papers from each country focused on national variations as well as 
regional similarities in rural access, Internet service provider 
(ISP) policy, telecom tariffs, datacom infrastructure, computer 
literacy, and local relevance of online content.  

"According to a recent World Bank study, the average waiting period 
for a telephone line is 10-12 years in Nepal and Bangladesh, 1.9 
years in India, and 1.1 years in Pakistan," said professor Jamilur 
Reza Choudhury, a political advisor who is generally credited with 
enacting legislation favourable to the IT sector in Bangladesh.  

In the region, India is strong in Internet capacity (skillsets, 
training, IT workforce), but the Indian Internet continues to be a 
largely urban, English-oriented phenomenon. Bangladesh, on the other 
hand, has institutional strength in quickly rolling out projects for 
the rural sector (eg. Grameen Village Phones) - though it does not 
yet have a formal Internet policy.  

Pakistan, to its credit, does not enforce multiple metering for 
dialup calls to ISPs (local phone call charges are not added to the 
ISP's per-minute charges). Pakistan was also the first South Asian 
country to open up its ISP market to the private sector (in 1995), 
and now has close to 40 ISPs in operation accounting for about 
250,000 users.  

There are 18 ISPs in Bangladesh and three in Nepal; each country has 
about 40,000 Internet users. India has a dozen ISPs, and close to 
800,000 Internet users.  

Part of the challenge is in creating regulatory environments which 
nurture a proliferation of private ISPs, while also ensuring that 
government monopoly telecom players do not squeeze out the private 
ISP sector.  

"It is tragic and ironic that more than 50 years after independence 
from the British, most South Asian countries are still enslaved by 
colonial-era legislation like the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885," said 
Arun Mehta, an Internet engineer and activist from New Delhi.  

While British Telecommunications (BT) has shaken off such pre-digital 
legislation and launched aggressive initiatives in areas ranging from 
Internet telephony to global Internet backbones, South Asian telecom 
monopolies are like dinosaurs in the Internet age, said Mehta.  

In the interests of fair competition, the workshop recommended that a 
distinction be made between wholesale and retail Internet access 
services, and that government telcos with a monopoly in one area of 
access services (eg. phone lines, international gateways) should not 
use this to wipe out or threaten players in another sector (eg. 
dialup Internet access).  

Such concerns are being voiced by ISP associations in South Asian 
countries like India and Bangladesh.  

The workshop also called for greater cooperation in South Asia 
between railway and power grid authorities of each country for inter-
linking national Internet backbones and increasing regional 
bandwidth. A conference focusing on this initiative is being planned. 
 

Bandwidth to the international Internet is about 80 Mbps in India, 
10.5 Mbps in Pakistan, 512 Kbps in Bangladesh, and 320 Kbps in Nepal. 
 
In terms of content, the number of Web sites focusing on each country 
is estimated to be around 10,000 in the case of India, 2,000 for 
Pakistan, 1,000 for Nepal, and 100 for Bangladesh.  

In addition to such quantitative measures of content, qualitative 
measures like information utility for domestic and international 
audiences are also important. Workshop participants stressed the need 
to create more locally relevant content, including in local 
languages.  

Local infrastructure initiatives must therefore go hand in hand with 
drives to create locally generated content, based on local community 
needs and activities. This will require a strong partnership between 
government, private, educational and NGO sectors, with a special 
boost to local entrepreneurs.  

"Governments need to play a stronger supportive role in enabling new 
technologies to help alleviate problems relating to poverty, gender, 
environment and the like. While the Internet brings people of diverse 
backgrounds together, it has not yet bridged the gap between rich and 
poor," said Egbert Pelinck, Director General of ICIMOD (International 
Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) in Kathmandu.  

The Internet workshop was sponsored by ICIMOD, and hosted in Dhaka by 
the Local Government Engineering Department (www.lged.org).  

Expanding the focus beyond urban markets, participants showed that 
the Internet has tremendous potential, like other information and 
communication technologies, for rural communities as well.  

"With appropriate synergies in rural communities, we have shown how 
environmentally-aware education among primary school students can be 
coupled with the use of computers and the Internet in villages," said 
Imran Rasheed, director of the Learn Foundation in Sylhet.  

A memorandum of understanding for a project involving communication 
between rural schools via the Internet is being signed by South Asian 
organisations including NGOs PRIP, Drik, LEARN Foundation, South Asia 
Multi Media, Global Amitech, and the ISP PraDeshta.  

It will draw network professionals and students from across South 
Asia, to develop and deploy low-lost Internet based mass 
communication devices. The project will be scaled up as appropriate 
across the region, and a set of best practices will be evolved.  

Other projects proposed at the workshop include a blueprint for 
community tele-centres, an initiative for telemedicine, and an agenda 
for regional e-commerce.  

The explosive growth of the Internet has been unprecedented in 
countries around the world. With appropriate policies, 
infrastructure, capacity, and local creativity, this same revolution 
may well become a reality in the countries of South Asia as well.  (***)

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