Tuesday, December 16, 2008
As Malawi joins the rest of Africa in commemorating the 2008 ICT week, this should also be time for reflection on the state of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the country. This article attempts to chronicle the history of the Internet in Malawi as well as current challenges to Internet accessibility in Malawi.
The early 1990’s saw the birth of email services in Malawi. This was in the Physics Department of Chancellor College of the University of Malawi through the UNIMA E-Net project under the leadership of Dr Paulos Nyirenda. The UNIMA E-Net project was providing email services using FidoNet technology because that time around the Internet was not yet introduced in Malawi.
FidoNet is an electronic mail network with over 15,000 mail nodes world wide. FidoNet is independent of currently the most popular global network of computers known as the Internet. Over FidoNet, users can send private email messages to each other as well as share files. Although FidoNet computers can also get connected to the Internet, the popularity of the Internet has greatly diminished worldwide usage of other public computer networks like FidoNet. Malawi indeed also joined the bandwagon in adopting the Internet in 1997.
The UNIMA E-Net project provided email and internet services not only to the Chancellor College campus but also to surrounding areas in Zomba. Services within Chancellor College campus were mainly provided through a Local Area Network (LAN). Surrounding areas accessed UNIMA E-Net services through dial-ups over phone lines. Having worked at the UNIMA E-Net project in the later years of its inception, I can still remember how it was becoming difficult to satisfy demand for Internet services at Chancellor College and indeed to other surrounding areas of Zomba.
The first private Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the country, Malawi Net, was formed in 1997. In 1999, Malawi SDNP, a semi-government owned and UNDP funded ISP, was formed. However, the new millennium saw the formation of new private ISPs in Malawi like Africa-Online and later on Globe Internet Company. The fixed phone provider, Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL), has also recently joined the bandwagon of Internet Service Providers in the country.
Malawi SDNP has played a significant role in the development and accessibility of the Internet in Malawi. For example, internet access in University of Malawi colleges was introduced through the Malawi SDNP. Malawi SDNP was responsible for providing Internet services to the Malawi Polytechnic, Kamuzu College of Nursing, Bunda College of Agriculture and also Mzuzu University. This is addition to providing internet services to private organizations and individuals in the country.
Other private ISPs have also contributed greatly to Internet accessibility in the country by providing services like wireless Internet. A proliferation of wi-fi hotspots in urban areas of the country bears testimony to this development. It is also now possible to access wireless broadband Internet in some residential areas in some urban areas of the country. In addition, it is also now possible to access Internet services through mobile phones.
Despite the gains that have been made in the provision of Internet services in Malawi by different stakeholders in the last decade, there are many challenges that need to be addressed. One of the major challenges is the prohibitive cost for one to access internet services in Malawi. However, it is important to note that high costs to Internet access in Malawi are just symptomatic of the many challenges Internet Service Providers in the country face.
One of the major challenges facing internet service providers in Malawi is the lack of a local Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in our country. An IXP is physical infrastructure that allows different Internet Service Providers to exchange Internet traffic between their autonomous systems by means of mutual peering agreements. IXPs are typically used by ISPs to reduce dependency on their respective upstream providers hence improving cost savings, data transfer efficiency and fault-tolerance. For example, here in Malawi, an email message sent from a Malawi Net address to a Malawi SDNP address can not be sent directly to Malawi SDNP yet both of these ISPs are right here in Malawi. Instead the email message will have to go to an upstream service provider for Malawi Net and then the message has to be routed to the upstream service provider for Malawi SDNP which will in turn route the message to Malawi SDNP servers in Blantyre. It is important to note that both of these upstream service providers are usually outside Africa. This means that data which was supposed to be exchanged locally within Malawi in Africa has to pass through Europe or North America where these Internet upstream providers are based. This is unnecessary wastage of upstream bandwidth since our ISPs in Malawi may unnecessarily use upstream bandwidth for traffic which can typically be routed directly amongst them.
Another challenge in accessing Internet services in the country is the high cost of using the .mw domain. Currently Malawi SDNP administers the .mw domain on behalf of the Malawi government. For any patriotic Malawian, it is very necessary to have our own email addresses and websites to be using the .mw domain. However, this is not the case. We normally see .com and .net domains being in use by many Malawian companies and individuals. This is because these foreign domain names are cheaper to acquire than our own .mw domain. As an example, a good number of Malawians now have blogs on the world-wide web (WWW) but very few are using the .mw domain on their blog addresses. In addition to this, how many Malawians can afford to have .mw email addresses? Because it is expensive to have our email addresses with our own .mw domain, we now see that many Malawians use yahoo.com, gmail.com and other foreign email addresses. This has a financial implication in that accessing mail using these email addresses will lead one to use upstream bandwidth since email servers for these email addresses are outside Africa. This scenario is not only specific to Malawi but to many African countries because of lack of internet infrastructure.
Another major challenge is to bring ICT services, the Internet in particular, to rural areas of Malawi. Currently ICT services in the country are concentrated in urban areas. For example, it is easy to find Internet cafes in most urban areas. This is not the case in most rural areas. Obviously lack of necessary infrastructure like electricity and telephony services are contributing to this state of affairs. However, the Minister of Information, Mrs Patricia Kaliati, deserves special mention for her vigorous advocacy in encouraging ICT service providers to take their services to rural areas. Since 80% of Malawians live in rural areas, it is very necessary that this population also benefit from ICTs for their socio-economic development.
Finally, the development of an optic fiber network in the country will obviously lead to improved telecommunication services in the country. With the development of the submarine optic fiber Internet backbone along the eastern African coast of the Indian Ocean, many African countries stand to benefit from this NEPAD initiative. I look forward to the day when our optic fiber network in Malawi will get connected to this submarine Internet backbone because it is only when this happens that we will say bye to expensive VSAT links.
*** The author, Bennett Kankuzi, is a computer scientist/software engineer based in Blantyre, Malawi ****