The New Times (Kigali)

4 December 2012

Rwanda: Bandwidth and Broadband for ?idiots?

column

Before you take offence with me or the title of this article allow me to explain using a previous experience with a similar title. Back in the 90's before computers became a tool used by everyone including priests and farmers to organise their daily work among many other uses, I bought a gift for a my friend James in the form of a book entitled "Computer and Internet Basics for Idiots".

Last month Rwanda attained the enviable status of having the fastest internet speed in Africa. This is made possible by high capacity bandwidth. As a layman in this field, what does this mean to you?

When I presented the gift James did not even bother to hide his feelings like a true native. His reaction was quite cold and he went on to state loudly, for the benefit of his wife who was present, the title of the book putting emphasis on the word "Idiots". To save you details, the wife played a very important role in calming the situation that followed. About two months later, during a discussion about the Internet with friends over a drink, my friends and I were quite surprised with the ICT knowledge that James showed. He scoffed at the other guys for being ICT illiterate and offered to help them improve their ICT knowledge by lending them a book that would change them. Yes, you guessed right. The book was called "'Computer and Internet Basics for Idiots".

During my recent research to establish the level of ICT penetration and usage in one of the eastern Africa countries I was amazed by how little people, even the educated ones, knew about broadband - a service that all of us use every day. Last month Rwanda attained the enviable status of having the fastest internet speed in Africa. This is made possible by high capacity bandwidth. As a layman in this field, what does this mean to you? This article is an attempt to explain bandwidth and broadband in a way that "idiots" can understand.

Bandwidth

ICT came to being when computer technology merged with telephony. This also made it possible to transmit data from one computer to another or from one part of the world to another. The amount of data (information) that is transmitted in a second is known as bandwidth. The smallest unit of data is a byte (sometimes called a bit). Bandwidth is therefore measured in Bytes Per Second (bps). A larger unit of bandwidth corresponding to a thousand bps is the kilo bit per second (kbps). An even larger unit corresponding to a million bps is the mega bit per second (mbps).

Let simplify the definition by considering its application. When you want to use Internet there are several ways you can access it - on your home or office computer, on your Smartphone, or in an Internet café. You have all heard people complaining about how slow the Internet is on a particular computer or phone. The speed is mainly dependent on the amount of bandwidth of your computer connection - the more bandwidth for your connection the faster the Internet. A connection of 256 kbps will be slower than a connection of 512 kbps. Similarly, a connection of 1.0 mbps will be slower than that of 2.0 mbps. Just remember that more bandwidth means more money. The amount of bandwidth you can have is limited by what the Internet Service Provider can provide.

Broadband

Now that we have a better understanding of bandwidth, let us look at broadband. Until a few years ago, access to Internet was through dial-up using telephone lines. It was extremely slow and expensive. While one could send and receive emails and download small documents, it would take up to 30 minutes to download a medium size document and much longer for an image. Sometimes it would necessitate leaving the computer on for more than 12 hours to download a large file. This meant your phone was inaccessible for calls. The highest bandwidth available around this time was 128 kbps.

As expected demand for more bandwidth to download larger files and faster resulted in technologies with higher bandwidth. The technology that gave us bandwidth higher than 256 kbps is what is known as broadband. Currently the telecom companies are providing broadband technologies categorized as 2G (2nd Generation) and 3G (3rd Generation). A few companies around the world are now introducing 4G technology. These mobile broadband technologies are used mainly in mobile gadgets like smartphones, modems in laptop computers and tablets. In simple terms the higher the generation number the higher the data rate. This, among other technologies, is what gives us access to what is often referred to as high-speed Internet. The principal reason for the fiber optic backbone the government has installed is to provide high capacity broadband. Why is broadband so important?

Importance of Broadband Technology

The development of the Internet has triggered profound socio-economic and political changes, and has transformed the services industry in which over 80 per cent of the population in developed countries now works. It is an established fact that a 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration would yield almost 1.5 per cent increase in GDP growth on average for low/middle-income countries. Consider the following.

Why do we pay a lot of money (a good Smartphone costs over $500 around here) to own a Smartphone when there are much cheaper good phones? I have been impressed by the number of tablets in use by most of the senior government officials. It is an indication of the right attitude and mindset for a development conscious people. Unless you are a gadgets addict, we own smartphones and tablets because of the functions they provide.

A Smartphone enables us to download and view videos, download and listen to music, communicate via Skype, consult the weather in any part of the world, check out the stock exchange, take photos of events such as weddings, meetings, sports and even conflict situations as was the case during the Arab Spring and in Syria today. These photos can be transmitted by email instantly to any part of the world. Many of the pictures we see on Aljazeera, CNN, and BBC are pictures taken by ordinary people with their smartphones and tablets and transmitted instantly. With your Smartphone you can enjoy "Facebooking" with your friends and tweet with the rest of the world. With your tablet you are able to download and read great books at a fraction of the actual cost. Thousands of students acquire degrees by taking online courses. With online and mobile banking who needs to go to the bank as long as you own a Smartphone? Even here in Rwanda many people now pay their bills including electricity using their phones. All these things are possible because your Smartphone and tablet have broadband. If you ever experience frustrations with your YouTube it is because you have low bandwidth. Now you are beginning to understand why a Smartphone is the future tool for personal everything.

Information is perhaps the most important commodity in any business and the best tool to make it available is the Internet (broadband). Today almost every company has a website where it displays its products and services. Most people search the Internet for product price and quality before ordering. You can call this e-commerce.

Broadband is indispensable for social and economic development of a country. It has many uses in education, health, agriculture, transport and communication, governance and all other sectors. A few examples will illustrate the point.

Many developing countries have a School Network program (SchoolNet) which provides primary and secondary educational institutions with access to general ICT, email, Internet and allows a school to receive streamed Internet and broadcast TV-based educational content creating a foundation for e-learning. The success of such a program depends on having access to broadband.

Telemedicine - the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of ICT, is becoming a common affair. At some of our hospitals surgery has been successfully conducted via video-conferencing - thanks to broadband technology.

In agriculture farmers are being encouraged and empowered to use ICT to improve commodity output and to access current prices for both local and international markets. To do this farmers are using innovative technologies such as computer-based information systems, Smartphone-based applications (GPRS), SMS-based messaging systems etc - thanks to broadband.

The government has a robust e-Government programme to provide services to the citizens through ICTs such Internet, mobile telephony, streaming TV broadcasts etc. Rwanda's immigration services have won impressive awards because of employing ICTs. While on this one we must all applaud the government for being the first (again) in the world to grant all Africans visa on arrival. I can only hope that this will trigger a revival of a truly Pan-African consciousness.

A Peep into the Future

Broadband applications pervade all areas of our daily life to such an extent that its future is so certain that no country can ignore it. It can be compared to the advent of electricity and phone. We are moving towards a world with a multiplicity of devices with laptops shrinking in dimension and smartphones gaining in functionality. According to research mobile broadband subscriptions are growing by 60 per cent annually and could reach around 5 billion in 5 years. Soon the digital divide will no longer describe disparities in access, but instead denote disparities in speed and functionality. Considering the role of broadband in the development of any economy and the empowerment it provides to individuals, every effort should be made to make it accessible and affordable.

The author is an IT expert, researcher and business leader based in Rwanda

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