Why shouldn’t we look Joel’s gift horse in the mouth?

Attend any educational technology conference today and you will find loads of sessions dedicated to cool new technologies and online educational content intended to engage learners and teachers, to help us improve the quality of teaching and learning, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single session about the growth or maintenance of the communication infrastructure that makes it all work.

Don’t get me wrong. I are excited about the promise of new web technologies and the impact they can have on education. However, without the basic infrastructure and internet required to service these technologies, this promise will never be realized. Especially in Namibia.

Namibia is ranked among the weakest Information Communication Technology Development (ICT4D) performers in the world (105th out of 142 countries) by the latest Global Information Technology Report, plagued as it is by ‘expensive and poor quality ICT infrastructure with weak conditions for technology-rich activities to flourish’. 

Let’s examine some of these weaknesses in my knee-jerk response to the Telecom-sponsored ICT Summit held at the Safari Hotel & Conference Centre in Windhoek in October 2012. This summit was expected to provide an opportunity for ICT users, policy-makers and industry players to determine how best Namibia’s ICT potential – through social inclusion – can be harnessed to achieve real sustainable development for business, society and the environment as Namibia moves towards Vision 2030. The event saw over 930 participants in a back-slapping fest by the cartel-membership lucratively in control of Namibia’s ICT destiny.  Just like all the previous events.  Yawn.

Reality check

On 15 May 2012 Minister Joel Kapanda proudly announced that the opening of the new undersea WACS cable will allow for the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to provide free internet access to all schools in Namibia1.  

A truly fantastic decision, given the bottlenecks yet to overcome! Particularly, the fact that some 600+ rural schools in the country are still without electricity. And the fact that with the present very costly (and very limited!) commercial spectrum of internet technologies on offer to schools in Namibia through the Ministry of Education, any realistic means of free internet access to some 1700 (mostly rural) schools in Namibia has remained mostly wishful thinking! 

Why is this so?

We continue to see the vast majority of our population suffer the absence of electricity and communication infrastructure at 40 – 50% of schools nation-wide, and we see technology service providers locking decision-making government officials into proprietary systems which have been determined to be too commercially costly to deploy at the scales we would like them to – to meet even fundamental Millennium Development Goals in ‘good time’. 

Indeed, I can’t think of a single country in Africa which has managed to overcome mind-numbing and outdated cost calculations leveraged by commercial ICT salesmen to “put computers in the classroom”, with the possible exception of Rwanda. 

Hence the delays in development, which no amount of innovation will alter until we adopt platform neutral ICT acquisition policy, open minds to rapidly evolving form factors, and sufficient Universal Service funds to underwrite free, uncapped broadband internet access at all schools, nationwide.

But what about ETSIP?

In 2006, MoE’s Education and Training Sector Improvement Programme (ETSIP) had earmarked N$ 344.7 million for ICT in education (ICT4E). Enter Tech/Na!, the Ministry of Education’s (MoE) ambitious 2006 master plan for ICT4E in Namibia. What has happened since 2006 and millions of poorly reported dollar-spend later?

While MoE’s National Educational Technology Service Support Centre (NETSS) was established to undertake ICT4E deployments, it has largely been unable to operate as a “one-stop shop” for country-wide technical support and repairs as was envisaged2

Ms Kumbi Short, special ICT advisor to the Minister of Education, speaking at the National Conference on Education in 2011, and again at an ICT4E policy meeting hosted by UNESCO early in 2012, declared that a lack of confidence and competence of teaching staff, issues with how to introduce ICT as an examinable subject, a lack of provision of Internet connectivity, an understaffed NETSS centre unable to provide effective technical support, or access for learners and teachers to infrastructure and resources, amongst others, were the key issues holding back progress in the Tech/Na implementation plan.  According to Ms Short, one challenge experienced in schools was the closure of ICT training rooms when it turned out that teachers did not know how to operate the software or server effectively.

MoE deputy director Johan van Wyk, in charge of NETSS, was reported in the media last year saying that it would cost N$1 billion to equip all Namibian schools with computers3[this translates into some N$ 600,000 per school, see box]

Come to think of it, it may also take several decades to do so, given the present rate of deployment by NETSS and its commercial partners in Namibia.

______________________ BOX ____________________

Tech/Na!’s standard computer deployment model intended to equip all schools with a resource centre (a secure, well-ventilated furnished classroom) containing an (internet-connected) server, local wired network, 15 computers and a shared printer, as well as at least one laptop and a digital whiteboard for teacher use, and an independent computer and printer for administrative staff use. A simple calculation, using current street prices, imply that the overhead of this kind of deployment accounts for more than double the price of hardware!


cost calculator of a traditional computer 'lab' at a school - N$148,700

__________________________________________________

One has only to look at working examples of large-scale ICT deployments of hundreds of thousands of computers to thousands of schools in countries like Uruguay, Paraguay, Spain, even Rwanda, to understand the severity of our MoE’s failure to progress effectively.

Why we need ‘Access to Information‘ legislation!

While we can examine various ETSIP reviews since 2006 via its international stakeholder reporting mechanisms, Tech/Na! progress remains largely unreported in the public domain. The Tech/Na! website has not seen any noticeable change since 2007, nor has the ETSIP site. The NETSS website has remained under construction since 2006. There are certainly no reports on progress of ICT deployment to be found anywhere public; not even on the recently revamped MoE website. Even more surprising, MoE has not yet managed to post the presentations, outputs, recommendations and resolutions emanating from the all-important National Conference on Education of July 2011.

It remains to be seen when and how the Ministries of ICT, Education, Works, Mines and Energy decision-makers, along with Telecom and other ICT service providers of Namibia’s internet governance forum intend to carry Joel’s gift (obligation?) of free, uncapped, high-speed (broadband) internet to all schools in Namibia, duly instructed by the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) and the (draft) ‘Universal Access and Service Policy for Information and Communications Technologies ‘ which requires the Communications Act (No 8 of 2009) to be amended and aligned to the specific provisions for such universal access. And the funds which flow from a resultant Universal Service Fund.

A relevant learning environment

To provide learners and teachers with a learning environment considered essential to compete in the local, let alone global, economy, we need to ensure that our children have access to high-speed broadband internet at school, recognising rapidly evolving and increasingly affordable internet-connected technologies available to all. Even arguing for subsidised “bring-your-own” devices. Technologies like tablets, netbooks and smart-phones which can rapidly transform the majority of learners and teachers into well-informed global citizens, not limited to a select few in a small 15-computer classroom in schools which have more than 1000 learners! Simple as that. Or is it?

“Mobile technology has the fastest adoption rate of any technology in the world,” says Miguel Granier, founder of Invested Development. From almost none a decade ago, there are now half a billion mobile phones in Africa. In 2007 just one fibre cable only partly connected sub-Saharan Africa to the world, and most of the continent logged on via satellite. In the past two years, however, six more cables have arrived, linking the region to the U.S., Europe and Asia, and it is expected that by 2013 that number will be twelve! In the past four years Africa’s Internet capacity soared from 340 gigabits to 34,000 gigabits per second while the cost of the Internet to its service providers plunged from US$ 4,000 to less than US$ 100 per month for one megabit per second! As a result, Internet traffic in Africa is among the fastest growing in the world4.
Relevant bandwidth

Internet data transport rates (measured in bits per second), including those given in this article, are usually advertised in terms of the maximum or peak download rate. In practice, these maximum data transport rates are not always reliably available to the customer. Users have to share access over a common network infrastructure (like Telecom’s WIMAX masts). Since most users do not use their full connection capacity all of the time, a bandwidth management strategy known as contended serviceusually works well and users can achieve a full data rate at least for brief periods, some of the time. 

However, bandwidth-intensive internet services such as peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, and streaming video commonly used in the education sector (e.g., Khan Academy) can require high data rates for extended periods, and cause a service to become oversubscribed, resulting in congestion and poor performance. All users that experience congestion receive less bandwidth, but it can be frustrating, and a major problem for local ISPs. In some cases the amount of bandwidth actually available may fall below the threshold required to support a particular service like streaming video – effectively making the service unavailable. When traffic is particularly heavy, ISPs deliberately throttle back the bandwidth available to classes of users or for particular services. This is known as traffic shaping and careful use can ensure a better quality of service on extremely busy networks. However, abuse can lead to concerns about fairness, or even charges of censorship!

What is a reasonable bandwidth benchmark for Namibian schools?

Most ICT4E specialists believe that the definition of ‘high-speed’ broadband for schools should be at least 10 Mbps, with many countries having already set goals of at least 100 Mbps, even 10 Gbps, in the foreseeable future. Regardless of the method used, a realistic school bandwidth benchmark should take into account occasional bursts of traffic, anticipated increases in simultaneous users and new applications that will require additional bandwidth in the near future. So, what is a reasonable bandwidth benchmark for Namibian schools hoping to support a technology-rich learning environment in the next 2-3 years?
  • An external Internet connection to an ISP of at least 10 Mbps per 1,000 learners/staff (or 10 Kbps per person); and
  • An internal wide area network at school of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 learners/staff (or 100 Kbps per person).
These are not impossible goals, while squeezing every last bit of capacity from deficient infrastructure and poor upstream ISP services has become a science. We can use gateways, caching, proxy servers and local mirrors, even large local storage devices for ‘store-and-forward’ content delivery solutions, to maximize Internet bandwidth and traffic shaping, load balancing and content prioritization to help ensure the integrity of the most important internet service requirements at school; all strategies to conserve limited bandwidth, and make the 10 Kbps per person a comfortable standard for our schools in the (very) short term.

So who should saddle up Joel’s gift horse?

It is now imperative that Namibia’s Ministry of Education encourages its public and private ICT partners to focus on the promulgation and rapid growth of a Universal Service Fund in Namibia. The price of flat-rate, uncapped high-speed internet using Telecom’s ADSL and WIMAX technologies will come down substantially in the next year or so, as linked to the WACS sea-cable landing in May this year. WACS has a design capacity of 5.12 Tbps, of which some 500 Gbps was made available at launch. Inclusive of its WACS bandwidth share with Botswana at launch, Namibia’s international bandwidth capacity is probably still well short of 5,5 Gbps, inclusive of Telecom’s existing SAT3 cable (via South Africa) and satellite bandwidth capacities at present. At present, one megabit per second costs at least N$ 474 per month for retail home use in Namibia. Based on projectedprice adjustments in the local telecommunications market, MoE’s immediate investment in free, uncapped, broadband internet for all ‘internet-ready’ schools in the next 2-3 years would not exceed N$ 5 million per annum in the foreseeable short-term. This is a relatively small drop in the ocean of MoE’s annual budget of N$ 8,3+ billion! Hopefully the Universal Service Fund will help MoE cover the costs of further aggressive infrastructure development at those schools which remain in the dark.

Minister Iyambo would be advised to also allow for a comprehensive external audit of Tech/Na!, from source to finish, in the face of mounting criticism of this programme‘s expenses and effectively unreported deliverables. We can safely assume that the Internet has become “a basic human right” – a commodity for economic growth.

Cynically, it remains incomprehensible that the delays in providing free, uncapped broadband internet access at Namibian schools flies in the face of a fundamental marketing strategy to engage prospective clients at the earliest age possible. Good grief, have our decision-makers never drunk Coca Cola?
References

1 Kazondovi, L. 2012. Free Internet for schools. Namibian Sun. Accessed at http://www.newera.com.na/articles/44398/Free-Internet-for-schools
2 Swarts, P, Bassie, R and Wachira, E 2009. Final Report. Review of Tech/Na! Implementation Progress. Global eSchools and Communities Initiative.
3 Kazondovi, L. 2011. School computers need billions. Namibian Sun. Accessed at http://www.namibiansun.com/node/13536

[An earlier version of this article was submitted to Insight Magazine in October 2012]


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Posted in #namibia, africa, bandwidth, benchmark, civil society, creative commons, Crowdmapping, EduNet Namibia, FOSSFA, greed, ICT4D, Ict4e, innovation, Joel Kapanda, library, mobile learning, schoolnet, social media

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