I have great hopes for this discussion as the topic is as relevant today
as ever and perhaps more so, given the recent backsliding in rural
infrastructure as a direct result of truncated privatization processes.

Here in Panama we have an interesting situation. I undertook a mission
on behalf of the UNDP country office to the remote Darién region to
learn why the public telephones (usually only one per village of 2000 or
more inhabitants) don´t work. To my surprise, I found that the basic
infrastructure is not only in pretty good shape but relatively
sophisticated as well (would support up to 9.6 kbps data). The problem
is in the last 100 meters between the rural radio tower/antenna and the
telephone booth where situations with relatively simple solutions cause
80-90% of the problems (like people getting their coins and other
objects jammed in the coin slots, short circuits in the interconnecting
cable because of attempts to rob service, infrequent visits by
supervisory personnel to remove full coinboxes). We are now working with
the multinational corporation that operates the system and various
development programs in the region to come up with a win-win project
design that would include community education in system care, basic
technical training, and local management.

Meanwhile, the government has levied a stiff fine on this multinational
for similar problems throughout the country. The company maintains that
rural telephones are unprofitable and cannot be easily maintained, even
though they constitute a lifeline for thousands of people. This is, of
course, only a specific example of a more generic situation, but it was
the inspiration behind the attached draft policy position. I would
invite comments on it as well as ideas from the community on which
organizations/donors might be interested in developing a regional or
even a global program to comprehensively address rural connectivity and
access issues.

(More information on PFNet mentioned in the position note is available

Gary Garriott
ICT for Development Advisor
Panama SURF - UNDP
PO Box 6314, Zone 5
Panama City, Panama
Tel. 507 265 8168/8153
Fax  507 265 8445 


Rural ICT Infrastructure is the Forgotten Frontier 

The Position 

In the rush to jump on the ICT bandwagon, the attention of all donors
and implementing agencies tends toward increasingly sophisticated and
networked health, education and governance applications in urban areas
where the latest hardware, reliable connectivity and available bandwidth
are taken for granted. Forgotten are the hundreds of millions of people
living in poverty and extreme poverty in rural and isolated regions
where fundamental physical infrastructure including the provision of
electrical energy is nonexistent. Except for one-off pilot projects that
tend to be special cases of donor interest and resources (and recognized
for their obvious public relations value), rural-based infrastructure is
seen as passé and uninteresting. UNDP and other agencies that invest in
poverty-reduction strategies should look more closely at implementing
strategic rural access and connectivity programmes.

The Context 

Most bilateral and multilateral aid agencies have limited their
activities on behalf of rural ICT infrastructure to assisting host
governments in writing universal service and access policies to be
implemented by the private sector winners of telecommunications
privatization processes. And yet the common experience worldwide is that
once a private franchise or concession has been awarded, the promises
made to extend service to rural areas are gradually forgotten as the
difficulties of installing and maintaining unprofitable rural
infrastructure mount.  A significant back-sliding in rural ICT
infrastructure is thus occurring as privatization proceeds.

The Need 

Reliable access to information may be just as critical in isolated rural
areas as in urban centers. The basic need to communicate with family,
friends and associates is fundamental, but so is the acquisition of
crucial health, agricultural and market information, not to mention
ready access to education and training resources. However, rural needs
are more easily satisfied with basic infrastructure supporting email and
file transfer rather than more sophisticated web-based technology and
applications. Very few policy-makers are aware that a range of
relatively inexpensive intermediate or appropriate technology solutions
exist to support lower end uses, such as email. Legitimate information
needs can be immediately met with simpler technologies while demand and
an information culture are built up to justify the same infrastructure
being enjoyed by urban areas with greater population density and
disposable income.

The Evidence 

The proliferation of UNDP-supported PFNet email stations using packet
radio technology in the Solomon Islands as a way to enhance the
effective decentralization of government services and to support the
de-militarization and re-integration of former combatants into community
service and entrepreneurial activity is producing impressive results.
PFNet is becoming the basis for all subsequent efforts in good
governance and implementation of poverty-reduction schemes in the rural
Solomons. The early 2003 study Meeting the Millenium Poverty Reduction
Targets in Latin America by the Instituto de Pesquisa Economica Aplicada
(IPEA) and partners UNDP and the Economic Commission for Latin America
and the Caribbean (ECLAC) as well as individual country studies strongly
suggests that reducing inequality by a little can have a greater impact
on combating extreme poverty than economic growth alone. Providing a
strategic rural ICT infrastructure can thus promote a positive butterfly
effect in which relatively inexpensive and simple technological
interventions can have much greater impacts on social cohesion,
integration and sustainable development.

This DOT-COM Discussion is funded by the dot-ORG USAID Cooperative
Agreement, and hosted by GKD. provides
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