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UDT Series on Data Communication Technologies and Standards for Libraries
Packet Radio: Applications for Libraries in Developing Countries (1993)
1. INTRODUCTIONIndustrialized nations have undergone an explosion in the use of information technology that has provided scientists, researchers, and private citizens with unprecedented access to information. Anyone with a computer and a link to a network can access an astonishing array of information resources located throughout the world. Libraries, in particular, have benefited from these developments. Former barriers between libraries, and between libraries and their users, have dissolved creating a "library without walls". Through these advances, users enjoy increased access to library resources and services and libraries benefit from enhanced resource sharing.
Such widespread access to information has been made possible by the existence of a well-developed telecommunications infrastructures— the telephone systems, packet-switched data networks, and high-speed backbone networks—that supports computer connectivity. This framework has been enhanced further by the development of large computer networks, such as the Internet, that link local, regional, national and international networks into large world-wide systems.
While the development of these networks has progressed rapidly in industrialized nations, progress has lagged far behind in developing nations. A major obstacle to networking in these countries is the lack of the telecommunications infrastructure to support the connection of computers systems. Long distances, severe terrain, and the lack of land-based communication systems have isolated libraries and inhibited the flow of information and resource sharing. Isolation has been called "the most universally present problem in any discussion of information in the developing world" (Harris, 1990:595). The absence of reliable telephone systems denies most librarians in the developing world the opportunity for even simple dial-up access to remote databases. As a result, the potential for increased information access and enhanced resource sharing that networks offer libraries and their users is severely limited in these developing areas.
A technology called packet radio has the potential to provide some connectivity solutions in developing nations where land-based communications are unreliable or absent. Packet radio applies packet communications to a radio channel rather than wire-based media, enabling wireless data communications. This technology can be used to create local area networks that link terminals, microcomputers, and large mainframes, as well as provide gateways to other network systems and databases. Thus, packet radio provides an opportunity to extend the benefits of networking and computer connectivity to developing nations thereby increasing access to library services and enhancing resource sharing.
The term, developing countries, refers to a group of roughly 130 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that have yet to achieve the social, economic, educational and technical standards common in areas such as Western and Eastern Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan—known as the industrialized world. Examined broadly, developing countries can be characterized by rapid population growth, poverty, illiteracy, rising urbanization and industrialization, low life expectancy, and inadequate resources to meet basic needs such as food, health care, housing, and education (CIDA, 1990; Gassol de Horowitz, 1988).
Yet, despite such commonalties, it is difficult to generalize about developing countries. The countries that fall into this broad category are far-flung and extremely diverse, with different ethnic and historical backgrounds, disparate social and political realities, and varying levels of economic and technological development. Developing countries themselves can be broken into two groups: 1) newly industrialized countries— relatively richer nations such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Brazil; and 2) least developed countries—poorer nations that have a per capita gross national product of less than $500, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa (CIDA, 1990).
Developing country libraries
There is great diversity, too, in the level of sophistication of libraries and information centers, the information infrastructures, in developing countries. Such infrastructures are comprised of the "libraries, librarians, library instruction, books, periodicals, bookstores, book vendors, databases, computers, telephone lines, publishing houses, authors and other elements" essential to the generation and dissemination of information (Harris, 1990:580). Here, too, there is a rough dichotomy between richer and poorer developing countries. Countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico have the most sophisticated information systems, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia have little or no such infrastructure (Harris, 1990). Thus, it is also impossible to generalize about library and information systems across the varied patchwork of developing countries.
There are many types of packet radio that can be used to transmit data and create computer networks: 1) line-of-site (LOS) terrestrial packet radio where stations must "see" each other; 2) high frequency terrestrial packet radio where stations can be over the horizon; 3) packet radio using geostationary satellites; 4) packet radio using low earth orbit (LEO) store and forward satellites; and 5) packet radio using LEO constellations (e.g., the Iridium project). This study is concerned primarily with the first two forms of terrestrial packet radio, though satellite applications are mentioned.
Focus of the study
Given the great diversity between developing countries, and the information infrastructures within them, it is extremely difficult, if not unwise, to attempt to apply a single solution such as packet radio to their problems. Developing country libraries, and developing countries in general, suffer from a host of problems and it is obviously impossible to address even a very small proportion of them. Further, it is clear that information technology is not a panacea to problems in developed countries.
The focus of this study is therefore a very narrow one, limited to a single problem that is common to many library and information centres in developing countries: the problem of isolation and the lack of well-developed telecommunications infrastructure to overcome that isolation. Terrestrial packet radio, because of its usefulness in overcoming both geographical isolation and gaps in communication, is offered as a potential solution.
This study is not intended to be a technical guide or blueprint for actually building a packet radio network to support specific library applications—that would more appropriately be the topic of a needs assessment of a particular problem in a particular country. Rather, this study offers background in packet radio technology and provides examples of the manner it can be used to support library services in developing countries.
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