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UDT Series on Data Communication Technologies and Standards for Libraries

Packet Radio: Applications for Libraries in Developing Countries (1993)


Industrialized 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.

Packet radio

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.

1.1 Scope and terminology

International development, the state of libraries and information centres in developing countries, and wireless communications are very broad and complex topics. In order to set the scope of the paper, it is necessary to define terms, set parameters, and state assumptions.

Developing countries

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.

Packet radio

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.

1.2 Goals of the study

The purpose of this study is to provide librarians with an non-technical overview of packet radio technology, and describe the use of this technology for data communication. In particular, it assesses the suitability of terrestrial packet radio to provide support for library services in developing countries that typically lack a telecommunications infrastructure.

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.

1.3 Organization

  1. Introduction

  2. Problems in developing country libraries. To understand the need for computer networking for developing country libraries, it is useful to examine the role of information in developing countries and the barriers to its flow. To this end, the present chapter provides background material, first outlining the need for information in developing countries, its users and sources, and then listing the general problems that afflict developing country libraries.

  3. Overview of packet radio technology. This chapter provides an overview of wireless data communications technologies, with particular focus on packet radio. Example packet radio networks are presented as models that may be of use for library applications in developing countries.

  4. Packet radio in developing country libraries. Chapter 4 discusses, in greater depth, the potential of packet radio to alleviate the problems libraries in developing countries encounter as a result of a lack of a well-developed telecommunications infrastructure. It assesses packet radio's suitability for library applications, and its appropriateness as a technology for use in developing countries. The needs assessment, a requirement for the successful implementation of any packet radio project, is also described. The core of the chapter presents potential library applications of packet radio, focusing on broad classes of problems—information retrieval, cooperative cataloguing, document supply and professional development—from which libraries in developing countries suffer as a result of isolation. The ways in which packet radio technology can provide solutions to these broad problem classes are then described.

  5. Packet radio projects. While very few projects have been implemented that specifically use packet radio technology for library applications in developing countries, a wide array of packet radio networks have been developed for other purposes. In the industrialized world, packet radio networks have been created for experimentation with protocols and hardware, by amateur packet radio enthusiasts, and for investigating its utility in library applications. In developing countries, packet radio networks have been set up to support many different types of development activities, such as to disseminate health information. Chapter 5 briefly describes some of these projects.

  6. Conclusion. The focus of this study is a very narrow one, limited to the problem of geographical isolation of developing country libraries compounded by the lack of a telecommunications infrastructure. While packet radio can potentially provide many benefits to developing country libraries, examining this problem in a vacuum without consideration of the myriad of other problems that afflict developing country libraries, however, is clearly artificial. There are many other obstacle and issues that can affect the successful implementation and sustainability of any library application based on packet radio links. Nonetheless, packet radio is a promising technology because of its utility in creating digital networks in the absence of reliable telecommunications.


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