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UDT Series on Data Communication Technologies and Standards for Libraries

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

6. CONCLUSION

The problem that is the focus of this study is the geographical isolation of developing country libraries compounded by a lack of a telecommunications infrastructure to overcome that isolation. Such isolation has serious implications for developing country libraries, specifically, an inability to use electronic networking to support resource sharing and to provide users with timely access to information resources.

International development agencies have recognized the importance of electronic networking for the social and economic well-being of countries in the developing world. The African Academy of Sciences and the American Association of the Advancement of Science, for example, concluded at its Workshop on Science and Technology Communication Networks in Africa that "undependable telephones, an unreliable postal system, vast distances, and expensive airfares all serve to isolate African scholars and hinder communications within Africa and overseas" and that the "advent of computer-based electronic networking has provided an enabling mechanism towards a solution to this predicament." (AAAS, 1992:1). IDRC, too, has recently developed a proposal to create "the supportive infrastructure necessary for sustainable, regional, computer-based network in Africa. to facilitate information movement... [and] ...promote socioeconomic transformation" (IDRC, 1993:1).

Issues and obstacles in the use of packet radio

While packet radio has the potential to provide many benefits to developing country libraries, examining the problem of geographic isolation and poor telecommunications in a vacuum—without consideration of the myriad of other problems that afflict developing countries and their libraries—is clearly artificial. Many of the problems outlined earlier in the paper can adversely affect the implementation and sustainability of any library application based on packet radio links. Workers in this area should be aware of a number of issues and obstacles to the implementation of packet radio networks in developing countries, the most salient of which include:

    lack of standards for packet radio protocols. There are many different protocols for the implementation of specific packet radio networks, beginning with the original ALOHA network of the University of Hawaii in the early 1970's. There are, however, few, if any, standards in place for packet radio interconnection. For example, at the physical layer, it is impossible to specify a single frequency which all transceiver will support; it is not even possible to specify a set of such frequencies. The choice of frequency depends on a complex consideration of both physical and political geography; choice of encoding methods and modulation techniques depends to a considerable extent on the frequencies available; data transfer rates are a function of frequency and encoding technique. The primary implication of this lack of standards is the likelihood of poor interoperability between different manufacturers' products.

    lack of off-the-shelf solutions. One of the barriers to the easy installation of a packet radio networks is the lack of off-the-shelf hardware and software. While separate components of a fully operational packet radio network can be purchased—radio modems incorporating access control protocols, packet assembler/disassemblers, operating systems with TCP/IP implementations, application layer software—there is no guarantee that all of these components will interoperate successfully. The responsibility for testing and integration lies with the implementor and not with the vendor(s) of the various components. Implementation of a packet radio network for library applications is therefore likely to be a complex and lengthy process, requiring staff with various areas of expertise.

    costs and financial constraints. A complete packet radio installation can be costly. Unfortunately, in the developing world, "the most chronic problem which libraries face... ...is shortage of funds" (Alemna, 1991:34). If there is no money to buy books, then a sophisticated packet radio workstation—despite their decreasing costs—may be difficult to justify. There are the one time start up costs of computer and packet radio equipment, as well as on-going costs such as paper and ribbons for printers, database licences, network charges, and databases charges.

    One solution is to obtain assistance, in the form of equipment or funds, from donor agencies (Oeffinger, 1987). However, donations are not problem free: the recipient often has no say in what equipment is donated; the equipment may not be geared to local needs; limited budgets limit funds for enhancements; and minimum configurations are often given, leaving the library with an unplanned for liability (Were, 1990). Finally, it is often difficult to obtain long-term commitments from development agencies (Akhtar, 1990b)

    frequency allocations. A very serious problem encountered when setting up a packet network anywhere in the world is obtaining permission to use a portion of the frequency spectrum. In the U.S., the laws and policies governing the frequency spectrum have been described as "confused and outdated" (Lynch and Brownrigg, 1987:253) with very little of the frequency spectrum available for use (Brodsky, 1990). In the developing world, while the air waves may be less congested, obtaining permission to use a frequency from the local government can be a lengthy and frustrating process. Hicklin (1991), for example, found that the VHF spectrum in Nigeria to be "pristine". However, he goes on to state that "the biggest problem with this spectrum may be the acquisition of and approval for operating frequencies" (Hicklin, 1991:7). Hicklin found after several discussions with local officials that "it is evident that acquiring approval for operating any sort of communications equipment in Nigeria may not be an easy task" (1991:5). Such political impediments may make any technical obstacle appear to be easy by comparison.

    import and export restrictions. Another obstacle to the use of packet radio technology in the developing world are restrictions on the cross-border flow of the technology itself. Many industrialized countries view information technologies as a valuable national resource; the export of information and information technology are often restricted for both economic and national security reasons. The same is true of the importation of such materials; the governments of less developed nations frequently view Western technology as threats to national sovereignty, or at least to the sovereignty of those in power (see Miko, 1990). Thus, it can be difficult to obtain and import computer and packet radio technology for use in a developing country. Horwitt, for example, reports that "Brazil continues to protect local industry by prohibiting the use of communications and computer equipment 'not made here'" (1990:6).

    need for training. There is a general lack of training to support the use of information technology in developing countries. Davies (1985), for example, suggests that lower educational standards results in fewer trained technicians and operators. Among librarians, specifically, there is a high rate of computer illiteracy (Were, 1990). Compounding problems include lack of agencies to train in the use of equipment and software, language of documentation and software is often English, a shortage for funds to send staff overseas for training, and "the brain drain" of well-trained staff to industrialized countries (Weyers, 1990).

    Because lack of appropriate training can adversely affect the efficacious use of any information technology, including packet radio, training of staff is an essential component of any packet radio project. Balson states that "training, both initial and ongoing, is probably the single most important investment" (1987a:8). Training strategies include "sensitization workshops, hands-on experience, encouragement by peers and supervisors, and the demonstration of effectiveness of the technologies" (Balson, 1987a:8). While training is most appropriate in the local context, there are some international agencies that provide technical training in donor countries at low cost. For example, United States Telecommunications Training Institute offer courses on packet radio and telecommunications technologies (see USTTI, 1992).

Benefits of packet radio

The issues and obstacles outlined above are not trivial. Several packet radio projects in developing countries have failed due to the interference of one or more of these problems (see, for example, Gray, 1992; Rodrigues and Macharia, 1992). Nonetheless, packet radio is a promising technology because of its utility in creating digital networks in the absence of reliable telecommunications. Thus, where basic telecommunications are inadequate, packet radio can support many library applications. These applications include:

  • information retrieval of locally created databases, locally mounted A&I databases, and networked CD-ROMs from remote locations.

  • providing remote extensions to international computer networks such as the Internet.

  • providing remote extensions development networks, such as CGnet.

  • supporting pre-established decentralized activities such as cooperative cataloguing initiatives.

  • creating or accessing union catalogues and union lists of serials.

  • gateways to networks and databases centred in industrialized nations, (e.g., the Internet).

  • ILL messaging among libraries within in a region.

  • electronic document delivery, thus avoiding inefficient ground transportation.

  • professional communication among librarians in a region, thereby building cooperative links.


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