Mobolaji E. Aluko, PhD
Burtonsville, MD, USA
October 20, 2004
1. A Working Definition of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT)
Essentially, ICT are enabling technologies (both hardware and software) necessary for the delivery of voice/audio, data (high-speed and low-speed), video, fax and Internet services from Point A to Point B (or possibly to multiple points B, C, etc.) using wired and wireless media and associated equipments that are connected via Internet Protocol (IP) and non-IP networks, where the option exists that any or all of the communicating points may be fixed or mobile during the communication process. [See Figures 1 and 2 below] Once such a quaternary scheme of services, media, network and mobility is fully understood, then what is to be made available, to who (i.e. who is to access them and where are they geographically located? ) and for what (i.e. for business, for pleasure and/or for broader developmental goals) becomes easier to manage.
2. ICT for Development and its categories
To my mind, discussing ICT for development can be broken into three broad categories:
(i) Primary - having to do with availability, access and affordability;
(ii) Secondary - having to do with national development goals;
(iii) Tertiary - having to do with appropriate technology, technological obsolescence, and sustainability.
Naturally, they are all related, but it needs to be clarified how those relations exist in order to enhance our ability to focus and eventually to choose our priorities right.
3. Primary issues - availability, accessibility and affordability
You can only access what is available and then (and only then) can you really need to ask what the price of what you can access is. Thus availability, access and affordability are naturally the first steps to consider here.
With a mix of visionary government ICT policy (including initial seed funding and government subsidies) and profit-motivated private-sector competition, eventually, the issue of affordability becomes less important once broad availability and universal access are (almost) assured.
There are some final points to be made here. First, it is essential to note that ICT is not equivalent just to telephony or the use of computers, and that increasing telephone density and giving out computers (possibly recycled) does not amount to development per se. Secondly, to significantly enhance availability and access - and bring down cost - it is essential that a stable distributed power supply (rather than so much power generation being concentrated at a few geographically-dispersed points) be obtained in the country as a matter of urgency.
Thirdly, a fiber-optics backbone - with SAT3/SAFE network (See Figure 3) as the entry to the rest of the global information network - must be firmly established by public-private partnership in Nigeria also as a matter of urgency. While there is evidence that there are ongoing efforts in this fiber-optics direction - by NITEL (Incumbent National Operator INO), by Globacom (Second National Operator SNO) and even by NEPA (the incumbent electric power operator) See Figures 4 and 5 - it is essential that these efforts be better coordinated and not left entirely to the vagaries of purely economic considerations.
Finally, a good ICT policy must be one with an APPROPRIATE mix of wired (copper, fiber) and wireless (terrestrial, extraterrestrial) solutions, coupled with LOCAL CONTENT and CONCENTRATION (e.g. at national and regional Internet exchange points IXPs) of INFORMATION. A progressive policy would be one that would aid indigenous innovation, reduce latency problems (i.e. delays in sending/receiving information via satellite 44,460 miles roundtrip when the destination is just 1,000 miles away on the ground via wire ) and reduce capital flight (due to payments for use of satellites, foreign-based Points of Presence etc.)
4. Secondary Issues – national development goals
With the alphabetic soup of UN's MDGs (Millenium Development Goals), UNESCO's EFA (Education for All), Africa Union’s NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development), and Nigeria's NEEDS (National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy)- all goals geared eventually towards improving the human development index of our country - and in the face of finite resources (both financial and personnel), there is an URGENT need to prioritize among the various goals themselves with respect to the impact of ICT. With such priorities laid out, we should then look for:
(i) low hanging fruits of ICT, that is where little expenditure outlay can lead to the greatest good for the greatest number of people; and
(ii) mid-term to long-term goals.
Personally, it is always convenient to view ICT development in terms of what it does to promote
(a) institutional efficiency – i.e. enhancing public sector (that is government) and private sector delivery of service; and increasing private-sector profit;
(b) human development of the individual citizen – improving access to food, shelter, clothing, water, health, education, employment, etc., of man, woman and child; young and old, literate and illiterate, urban and rural, etc.
The challenge then is to convince decision makers and the citizenry at large that ICT in general improves ordinary lives if properly deployed, and that it is not just an esoteric notion embarked upon to titillate "city dwellers" who merely wish to mimic Western apparatuses and systems rather than provide more basic necessities of life.
If I had my druthers, my own priorities for focused ICT deployed in the public sector - along with fully addressing the electric power problem - would be in the areas of Government Services, Education, Agriculture and Health.
5. Tertiary Issues – appropriate technology and sustainability
As a late comer into the ICT global arena, in a field in which breath-taking advances are still being made on a daily basis, we in the developing world (of which Nigeria is firmly a part) always have to worry about the weighting and choices that we make of the various components in the whole array of deployed and/or deployable technologies. "Appropriate" technology should never mean inferior or backward technology, but rather technology that will successfully take most of us fastest from the present to the future. Present financial cost may be important, but in a fast-moving technology, total life-cycle, support and social costs are also important.
Another aspect has to do with capacity development - manning the technology. All levels of our educational system - primary, secondary and tertiary - must be engaged in one way or the other in ICT training, education and usage. On-the-job, for-the-job and training-the-trainers re-training of those who have passed beyond these formal educational systems must be embarked upon.
The final aspect of sustainability has to do with "local manufacturing": ICT technology costs money and affects affordability. Besides, seeking foreign exchange for importation of copper, fiber, VSATs (Very Small Aperture Terminals), switches, hubs, modems, phone handsets, TVs, etc. AND - this is important, software - are the order of the day. Hence thought should always be placed from the very beginning in ensuring that any aspect of ICT that is geared towards mass deployment must have a plan for early local assembly (at the very minimum) and local grounds-up manufacturing (at the very best) of the deployed technologies, with specifications for local content in material (hardware and software) and personnel.
With particular regard to software, a healthy mix of local commercial software as well as adoption of non-proprietary Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) are absolutely essential.
It is almost trite to re-emphasize the importance of ICT to modern national development, and its criticality to developing countries if they must leap-frog along their development vector. The real challenge is to strategically deploy ICT in a manner that simultaneously improves ordinary citizens’ lives.
This paper has been updated since its original “remote” presentation as an E-contribution to an ICT Advocacy Forum/Workshop in Abuja (on October 16, 2004). It also draws on some material that I presented on interconnectivity issues at the 3rd Annual International Nigerian Telecommunications London Summit [“Realizing Opportunities in Nigerian Telecommunications”] September 20-21, 2004 .
Figure 1: Services of ICT
Figure 2: Binary Divisions of Services, Media, Protocols and Mobility
Figure 3: The SAT3/SAFE Fiber-Optics Project