SchoolNet Namibia

I’m in Berlin, speaking at Wizards of OS tomorrow, and hanging out with some of my Open Society Institute friends. So far, the conference is a little ideological for my tastes, unreformed capitalist that I am, but the company is pretty good.

I had the great pleasure of having dinner last night with Joris Komen of SchoolNet Namibia, one of my favorite projects on the African continent. Joris and crew have been bringing low-cost harware, Unix software and training into schools throughout Namibia – at present, they’ve worked with close to 250 schools throughout the country.

The major achievement of SchoolNet, from my perspective, is the substantial concessions they’ve gotten from the Namibian government. They’ve gotten the state telco to provision service to schools at extremely low cost, which allows them – with some grant funding – to give funding to schools at no cost. And they’ve gotten access to the 2.6Ghz frequency, which they’re using to provide wireless access to rural schools across the nation, a crucial strategy in a nation as huge and sparsely populated as Namibia.

Joris observed that educational uses are a great lever for telecommunications reform in African countries. Most arguments about telco reform in Africa end up in battles between incumbent telco providers trying to protect a near-monopoly on service versus new players who attack that monopoly with new tech. Joris suggests changing the debate, by forcing dominant telcos either to prove that they can provide universal service to schools… or get out of the way and allow new technologies and new companies to do it. A very cool strategy, and a good proof of concept in the successes SchoolNet have achieved so far.

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