Friday, 9 December 2011

Understanding the geography and structure of the internet in East Africa

So this is my first proper post in a long time and it is not really about Sudan, so I suppose at some point, I should change the name of my blog.

I am working on a project at the Oxford Internet Institute, along with partners in Nairobi and Butare, looking at how the arrival of four underwater fibre optic cables will change the economic picture of Kenya and Rwanda in the sectors of tea, tourism and BPO (Business Process Outsourcing).

Coming from a social science background, one of the first steps has been figuring out how the internet actually works. This may seem a silly step for someone sitting in an OII seat, but a couple weeks ago I had only a hazy idea in my mind: somehow we were all connected via wires and wireless signals and we used these wires and "beams" to send messages and data across the globe. My colleague Shira added 'When it doesn't work, you turn it off and then back on again. That's how the internet works.'

After a couple weeks of frantic reading, wondering and pestering of colleagues, I can say that this hazy picture is more or less correct. In the simplest terms I can find, I will try explain how the internet works so that I can move past this first step onto greener, more sociological pastures.

More specifically, I will explain how the internet works in East Africa...

First of all (and they should really tell you this on your first day at OII): the internet is not AN inter-net (I have since discovered that the Internet’s capital letter is a bit of a grammatical minefield). The internet is a network of networks. In Arabic, its no 'shabka' but a 'shabakat'. In other words, the internet is plural. Your computer is connected to one network that is connected to many other networks.

And perhaps, more precisely, the internet is a network of intermediated networks. I shall grind my 'it's not globalization because it’s not global' axe here- the internet is not a shared global space, but rather an international space that operates differently in different places. When you connect in one place, your messages are relayed through an infrastructure in a particular geographical and technical space and that intermediation will change your personal experience of 'the internet'.

To put it into the East African context, in the summer of 2009, three underwater fibre optic cables began to 'turn on' faster internet for Kenya and its neighbours. This is a map of all the underwater cables that connect Africa. The three East African cables (SeaCom, Eassy and TEAMs. The fourth LION-2 is still being tested) run along the Eastern coast:

If we think of the internet as the total sum of messages and data, then we can say that East Africa suddenly had access to greater 'bandwidth' (the measurement of data). Before the cables, all messages that came in and out of Kenya had to pass through satellite connections. The reliance on satellites meant that speeds were slow, prices high and bandwidth low. A blogger based in Rwanda provided a nice visual illustration, explaining how the reliance on satellites slowed down his connection:

While internal Rwandan speeds weren't too shabby, international messages had to travel high up into the sky and then back down again in order to reach their destination.

Prior to 2004, Rwanda also lacked an Internet Exchange Point, meaning that even internal messages between Rwandan ISP accounts would have to make that sky high journey. Now Rwanda has RINEX but not all ISPs are connected to it, so many messages must still travel abroad even when they are destined for the house next door. Mark tells me that some Kenyan messages still travel to LINX in London despite Kenya having its own KIXP. In such circumstances, if you want to do something that requires higher bandwidth, you must pay dearly when there are no cables in place.

The arrival of the cables has therefore brought the possibility of much lower costs and higher speeds. However, not all Kenyans or Rwandans were immediately 'switched on'. Rather the cables brought the bandwidth to the port of Mombassa, but its journey inland had yet to come.

(A nice SeaCom video about the laying of the cables can be found here)

Broadly speaking, data can travel wirelessly or it can travel through wires.Wired internet connections might include telephone wires, power lines, fibre optic cables or any other kind of cables, either below ground or underground. Existing telephone wires are made of copper which DSL uses to transmit messages. I have even been told that you can even use powerlines for internet connections. And of course, you can also use an ordinary dial up modem (the kind that makes those satisfying sounds that we all used to know so well. Here, the difference is between dial-up analog and DSL digital). Fibre optic cables are just an improvement on this 'fixed line' technology. Joss, the colleague who sits opposite me said, 'as a basic rule, use cables when possible because they are much faster. When you can't use cables anymore, you use wireless.'

In much of the UK and the US, landlines are pretty well established and so our internet infrastructure has been dominated by cables (most of my friends have a contract with BT, Orange or Virgin involving a modem in their homes. Despite the fact that we spend hours and hours on the phone setting up these connections and often wallowing in confusion for days, we remain loyal to the idea of cables). In other parts of the world, it is much less common for people to have a fixed line telephone and much more common for people to have a mobile telephone. In this situation, wireless internet solutions have taken off.Wireless internet connections might include radio microwaves, local 'wi-fi', GSM/CDMA (these are just competing standards for 3G internet and mobile phone spectrum), WiMax or most recently of all, LTE. Basically, 1G were radio waves, 2G were basic mobile phone communications, 3G allows higher bandwidth mobile phone/internet and 4G has yet to come (although WiMax and LTE claim to already be there). These kinds of technologies are more suited to geographic areas that lack fibre or copper wiring so they are good for Africa, and they are also used in our homes, to connect a laptop to a router.Cost issues are important. Laying down cables is an expensive process with most of the costs (68% for fibre optic) coming upfront. In contrast, wireless technologies can be scaled up, meaning that the upfront costs are lower, but there are higher marginal costs over time. As Joss said, when possible, cables are preferable but financing such projects can be tricky. For this reason, some 90% of Kenyan internet users access the internet through their phone.

Even when the fibre optics are in place, consumers still have to pay for them and of course, those on lower incomes face sizable financial barriers. Richer consumers may very well get a cable connection through a fixed line or pay for fast WiMax, but poorer consumers may rely on their mobile phones. Big infrastructure matters but small infrastructure matters too.

Also, while cables connect whole homes or offices, many mobile based technologies connect individual users, so the distribution of users within a household may be different for this model of internet connectivity.

Furthermore, one's geographical position also plays a role in determining accessibility.

Our project is concerned with Kenya and Rwanda. To give an indication as to how the internet has been brought 'inland', I shall present a few maps.


This map show's Rwanda's national fibre optic grid. This back bone connects different parts of the country to the international cables.

The red dots are connecting nodes or PoPs (Point of Presence). The challenge is to transport bandwidth from these nodes outwards into people's homes and offices.

Kigali City (Rwanda's capital) has deployed a 'WiMax' system in order to provide highspeed internet throughout the capital. A graphical representation is provided below:

RDB, 2010: 16.

This infrastructure has been designed to deliver wireless internet to different parts of Kigali city through a mixture of fibre optic cables (connecting it nationally and internationally) and radio towers (connecting it locally). One WiMax station can cover a very large area, usually a radius of about 50km (or about 30 miles). In addition, one tower can connect with another tower through microwave, so that they can be scaled up relatively easily. Here is a geographical representation of the same network:
RDB, 2010: 15.

So if we again return to the map of Rwanda as a whole and we zoom in one each PoP, we may imagine similar systems taking form in each area. Companies may choose to deploy WiMax or GSM or any other kind of internet connection in each area. In other words, each area will have its own internet infrastructure that reflects the needs (and economic demands) of the area. Below this level, consumers face their own costs and benefits.


My Kenyan map is actually three maps in one. I have overlaid Kenya's terrestrial fibre optic cables with the Safaricom GSM network and current WiMax deployments.

Kenya is a much bigger country and its populations is more dispersed so it's no surprise that its infrastructure tends to be more geographically concentrated (incidentally due to its diminutive size, Mauritius was the first country in the world to deploy Wi-Max throughout its entire country).

While the underwater cables connect Kenya, the country to faster speeds and higher bandwidth, not all parts of Kenya are connected. The pink lines show the current Kenya Data Networks fibre optic cable, the orange shows Safaricom's GSM coverage and the red and blue pegs show where WiMax technology has currently been deployed. Internet penetration is generally restricted to the capital city, Nairobi, its surrounding areas, the road that connects it to the port city of Mombassa and a few other 'hot spots'. In other areas, the government has endeavoured to spread the internet through e-villages and other developmental initiatives. Nevertheless, the internet is a technology that builds on the technologies of the past (telegram, telephone, rail, road) and it has, by no means killed distance. It creates new patterns of proximity and distance and new kinds of intermediations.

Before concluding, I want to add one final point. I have so far shown how the internet is spatially prescribed, but its 'spatiality' is not just restricted to geographic space. Rather, within the technical infrastructure of the internet, space is also expressed through the rules that the internet uses to sort messages and protect users.

Broadly speaking, the internet works through IP (Internet Protocol). Because the internet is a network of networks, it is also a collaborative and interdependent place, where things are both open and vulnerable. To ‘protect’ one’s computer or one’s network from spam or otherwise deviant attacks, users will use ‘firewalls’.

A firewall inspects all incoming traffic and relates it to a series of rules developed by the administrator to protect or censor the user. A firewall can be embedded into a personal computer, an ISP server, a DNS server, or in any other node along the network.

Every physical connection to the internet has an ‘IP address’ that situates that connection in space (both virtually but more often than not, geographically as well). Typically the ‘rules’ that the firewall uses to check incoming messages, look at IP address and compare them to a list of ‘blacklisted’ IP addresses that have been deemed untrustworthy or malicious by other users.

When one region of the world experiences a high number of spam or fraudulent messages from another region, it will ‘blacklist’ the sender’s IP address. Unfortunately this ‘blacklisting’ does not only target the spammer or scammer, but the whole region. In other words, users of the
internet in one area may be penalised for sharing a connection with an ‘offending party’.

(from: Kirstein, 2010. The image and a deeper analysis of the Rwandan case can be found here)

Furthermore, an area may not only be penalised through rules, but also through reputation. The internet opens up the possibility for new representations of place. Many people have never been to Kenya or Rwanda, so their image of the place has been framed by news reports, Hollywood movies and the occasional reference to Obama’s father. Perhaps a Ngugi wa Thiong'o book may surface or a sad film about the Rwandan genocide. These images may not neccesarily instil confidence in a manager looking for call centre workers or for a tourist choosing a destination for his honeymoon.

The internet might allow for Kenyans and Rwandans to adapt these images, projecting new views, new ideas and new relationships. However that opportunity for re-representation is a shared endeavour and has the potential to both improve or damage Kenya or Rwanda’s image abroad. For example, West African ‘419’ email scammers have been described as ‘brand eroders’, as ‘undermining markets’ and as unleashing ‘social damage’ on wider society. The identification of Nigerian IP addresses as sources of such ‘crime’ has resulted in some services blocking all Nigerian traffic from using their sites and has damaged the credibility of ‘legitimate’ Nigerian and African entrepreneurship. West Africans have proposed various solutions to these censures, involving technological innovations (blocking traffic at ISPs) and through the ‘rebranding’ of Nigeria by civil servants and PR agents. Therefore, actors within common places struggle to represent their place in particular ways and to use their different kinds of representation to secure different kinds of extraversion.

For some, representations of instability are beneficial, while for others, stability and governance solicit streams of foreign wealth. This project will therefore treat connectivity both in terms of physical capacities, but also conceptual or social connectivity. How do the cables open up new opportunities for representation of place?

I have tried to keep this post as simple as I can, but I will build on it as I get to grips with the ‘business side’ of things (hopefully future posts will be a bit shorter!).

The main point has been to show how the internet is part of a geographical and technical world. While we tend to view the internet as a ‘global space’ in which all users share a common experience, place still matters and although I have tried to show that the internet DOES open up new possibilities for place representation, it also builds on past distances and dislocations.

p.s. And please correct me if I have gotten anything wrong!

Friday, 2 September 2011

My New Job!

Hello everyone!

I have been really bad at updating my blog over the summer, because I have been working hard to finish my thesis. It has paid off.

I have a new job at the Oxford Internet Institute starting in October. I will be working on a project looking at internet and economic development in Kenya and Rwanda. I am very excited about the project and promise to be a better blogger once this thesis is turned in!

One month left inshallah. Wish me luck!


Monday, 4 July 2011

A thought about the marginality of African studies…

My good friend Paul Fean has always told me that in academic life, one must find one’s ‘tribe,’ that elusive group of scholars that will make one feel happiest and most inspired. As in other things, happiness isn’t just a matter of increasing one’s own individual utility but of being part of a community. This is very much how I live out my academic life. I cannot work without a tribe around.

I have been to quite a few different kinds of conferences over the duration of my PhD. As someone on the boundary of the ‘African’ and ‘Arab’ world and whose research concerns the nature of the ‘African state’, the utility and use of ‘social networks’ and the nature of communication and information structures, I have tried to find my tribe in many places. I have been to ‘Middle Eastern studies’, Sudan Studies, ‘Anthropology of Money’, ICT for Development, Microfinance, Education, Anthropology and this month, I finally went to an ‘African Studies conference: ECAS 4.

This was the best. I was on two panels, one on 'tribalism' and globalization/liberalization and one on ethnographic approaches to African states.

This was also the first time I had been to a conference with my department and it was also the first time I saw so many young ‘Sudan Studies’ people in one place (‘Sudan Studies’ conferences generally tend to include more senior academics)- but it was also the panels and the other papers from across Africa. I really ‘felt at home’ in ECAS.

To offer an example. When I attended WOCMES (World Congress on Middle Eastern Studies) last summer, I found almost no panels on corruption, statehood, unemployment, entrepreneurship/liberalization or even, politics. Whereas at ECAS (European Congress on African Studies), there were plenty of panels on corruption, statehood, entrepreneurship/employment- and lots and lots of papers on politics. How can two parts of the world produce such different research interests?

In some ways, I think this is partly due to sources of funding. While Africanists often complain that Africa is marginalized by academia and by the big disciplines like History, Sociology and to a lesser extent, Anthropology, I feel that this ‘marginality’ might actually be a source of strength for the discipline.

My biggest gripe with ‘Middle Eastern studies’ conferences has been the lack of political discussions (this will hopefully change now that the Tunisian and Egyptian youth have disturbed the obsession with religion, Israel and ‘culture’ as the dominant topics of the region). My biggest gripe with Development and especially, ICT/Microfinance conferences has been the fact that everyone really really wants mobile phones and microfinance to transform Africa. ICT4D also suffers from a bias that ICT is ‘measurable’ and therefore allows economists a renewed opportunity to look at economic growth in a numerical way. Other parts of the economy that are less ‘measurable’, are thereby not equally attractive to economists. There is therefore a strong sense of hopefulness behind much of this work that shields it from deeper discussions of political economy. You get the sense that the researchers need to show that their research is ‘helpful’ in order to secure further support and funding from mighty international organizations and governments.

Both of these ‘gripes’ are due to research funding. This has been made plainly clear over the past year. Show me the money Saudi Sheikhs and Libyan autocrats!

‘African studies’ as a discipline might be marginalized and it may not benefit from the patronage of rich state families but this marginality also provides a critical space within which scholars can study what they like.

I hope that Middle Eastern studies will change or perhaps the North African specialists would be wise to migrate and come join in more African studies arenas. We are ready to welcome you! We have been studying corruption, statehood and the effects of liberalization on politics for some time.

OK, now I must get back to finishing that draft!

Friday, 4 February 2011

David Harris on Sierra Leone and Liberia: Relevance to Sudan?

I am dying to write a post on Egypt but first I wait for Mubarak to leave…yaaaalllla!

In the meantime, I wanted to share a few notes and comments about David Harris’ seminar last Wednesday on ‘Unfolding Consequences of Liberalism in Sierra Leone and Liberia: Liberal Justice and state-building at work” at the Centre of African Studies centre here in Edinburgh. Many of his points relate to developments in Sudan, so I thought I would briefly share.

His paper can be broken into two parts. The first was about formats of justice when dealing with post-conflict societies. He discussed the Sierra Leone Special Court (SLSC) in 2003. It has indicted 13 people, of whom: 3 have died, 1 has gone missing, 8 have been convicted and 1 is currently on trial (Charles Taylor). He believed that Sierra Leone was a special case, as the RUF had militarily collapsed and so the SLSC was able to operate in a political vacuum. He contrasted this situation with Liberia in 2003. Here, the rebels were still active and so it was impossible to hold trials. Those involved in war crimes were required for political bargaining. As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (another CPA!), a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was established along with a two-year transitional government. As part of the agreement, no official operating in the transitional government could then run for government. Due to these stipulations, Harris believed that the election was an amazingly open civilian election.

Then Harris moved on to talk about trials more generally. He believed that 2000 was a kind of watershed. Before this time, there was a general acceptance of the necessity of political bargaining but after 2000, there was a shift towards criminal trials. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2006. Harris pointed out that, so far, every person indicted by the ICC has been an African (despite the evidence of war crimes in the Middle East by both Western and regional governments). Harris mentioned the political effects that these trials have had on the countries affected, in particular how the ICC has threatened peace prospects in Uganda and Sudan. In the case of Sudan, this point has been well documented in Mamdani’s controversial work, Survivors and Saviours and has been discussed and debated on Alex de Waal’s excellent blog, Making Sense of Sudan, especially in discussions about the Save Darfur movement and the ICC.

More generally, Harris discussed how there have been three shifts:

From bargaining to criminalisation
From the targeting of structures to individuals
The Delegitimization of violence.

Interestingly, on the last point, Harris wondered if this was something the international community really wanted to take on. He reminded us that the ANC in South Africa used violence as part of their struggle against the Apartheid regime. He asked: Is violence always unjustified? In some ways, events in Southern Sudan also question this trend, as SPLM used violence in order to break away from the North. It would be difficult to convince the Southern Sudanese that this violence was unjustified given the history between the North and South. Although many have pointed to the authoritarian and often violent nature of the SPLM leadership as a potential barrier to sustainable state-building in the new South Sudan.

There is a PhD student at the University of Khartoum who is doing research on the TRC in South Africa and its applicability to the Sudanese case. I look forward to her research, as I believe it is very important, but I also urge her to look at other cases besides South Africa. As Harris rightly points out that each case is different, depending on the status of the political and military parties involved. South Africa is largely seen as a success, but what about Sierra Leone and Liberia?

Harris questioned the idea that Liberal Justice has ever been successful when imposed from outside and asked whether other formats of justice are more appropriate. How do people see war crimes trial? Are people ambivalent about it? Do they want to open old wounds? Can TRCs deliver reconciliation even if they do not offer truth?

The second part of his seminar focused on state-building in Sierra Leone since 2003. Operating under a Post-Washington Consensus (that is, re-building the state in a neo-liberal framework) DfID, under the New Labour government, has been very active in the process, making a ten year promise to collaborate with the Sierra Leonean government. Harris presented his research on the perceived successes and failures from the point of view of the stakeholders involved. There were a number of interesting points, which reflect many similarities with the situation in Sudan.

First of all, Harris described a wide divergence of opinions, with the most optimistic being highly supportive of decentralisation and public sector reform, to those who were highly critical, citing the presence of donors as a major source of corruption. The main weakness highlighted by Harris’ respondents was the incapacity of public sector staff. When he asked respondents how long they expected donors to stay in Sierra Leone, the answers were “10 years”, “20 years”, “a generation” and “forever”.

When describing successes, he made a very interesting point. Specific successes were due to key individuals who were able to drive through reform. He listed the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance as ‘success stories’ and in each case, there was a core group of people- maybe 5- who were able to mobilize the rest of their departments. These individuals were either Sierra Leoneans from the Diaspora or internationals seconded to the government. The president himself was described as a ‘lighthouse’- when he shines his light on a problem area, things improve but when his light moves on, there is only hope that reform will stay (beautiful imagery). One donor staff member described his role as ‘managing the lighthouse’.

This was very similar to the impression I formed in Sudan. Whenever there was reform or success, it was always due to key individuals, highly ambitious and highly competent, working very hard to make change. It is important to note that these were not all ex-pat Sudanese or foreigners- often they were Sudanese who were simply very determined. In most cases, however, it seems that these individuals would also have access to political capital- they were in some way, connected to the regime, if not directly, then through an intermediary.

Harris mentioned the ‘Drivers of Change’ research, funded by DfID in Liberia and other countries in 2003. This research has now been replicated across the world, including Sudan. One of its recommendations was to identify key individuals or groups- women, youth or other ‘drivers’- who should be targeted by external agents to make change. The only problem with this approach is that it is not always sustainable. When one individual leaves (or is removed), then progress falters. I can cite numerous examples of this phenomenon in Sudan. In particular, diaspora workers can often suffer from ‘burn-out’. Relocating oneself to a country struggling to develop is a lot to ask from young professionals who have grown accustomed operating in commercially or highly institutionalized environments overseas- especially when they have spent their entire education abroad as well.

In this way, I feel that, rather than focusing on diaspora workers, drivers of change must also include Sudanese from Sudan or Sierra Leoneans from Sierra Leone, who have more at stake in the success of reforms. They are there to stay! One member of the audience asked Harris about the relationship between the diaspora workers and the local staff- whether there was resentment about salaries or differences of opinion- this was a question Harris didn’t really have a good answer. I feel that this is a very important question and one that needs more research. From my own research on work environments in Sudan, there is often a lot of conflict between local and expat workers, and ESPECIALLY between expat Sudanese and local Sudanese. Some local Sudanese in international organisations like the UN or international businesses complained of a bias against them, because of their inability to communicate fluently in English. British and American educated Sudanese were often given more opportunities to speak in meetings and had more access to international staff. While these people are often key in moving reform, local drivers should not be overlooked. Lighthouses are all very well, but donors must also look into the darkness for partners and ‘drivers for change’.

Lastly, David Harris replied to my post and wanted to say that his my book will be coming out shortly with IB Tauris, called Civil War and Democracy in West Africa: Conflict Resolution, Elections and Justice in Sierra Leone and Liberia.