In the Asia-Pacific region, the idea has grown into an effort to bring broadband to as many schools and communities as possible, especially in rural areas. Although some of the countries rank high in the ICT Development Index, published by ITU in September 2011, there are wide differences in ranking within the region. This article describes two different models for connecting schools and communities, which might be of interest to other countries.
Sri Lanka: Public-private-people’s partnership
The majority of rural and disadvantaged people still remain outside the information society, despite the target set by the World Summit on the Information Society to connect all villages, schools, hospitals and public centres by 2015. The high cost of infrastructure, complexities in service provision, and unknown demand for broadband services hamper a natural diffusion of broadband connectivity in rural and remote areas. To provide connectivity to underserved people, in particular in rural communities, requires focused efforts.
Youth Forum alumni from ITU Telecom events have gone on to launch initiatives in their home countries, so that their communities can join the digital age. In Sri Lanka, for example, alumnus Sedara Hettige Supun Maduranga has championed the cause of connecting schools and communities, leading to ITU’s project in Akuressa province. As a final year undergraduate at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, Mr Maduranga received an ITU Youth Forum Fellowship and represented Sri Lanka at ITU Telecom Asia 2008, held in Bangkok, Thailand.
The Akuressa project has succeeded not only in bringing broadband connectivity to rural schools in that province, but also in fostering partnerships in Sri Lanka as a catalyst for further projects in the region. The project has provided computers and broadband access to 25 rural schools, none of which previously had any ICT. This project demonstrates that the challenges of funding, implementation and sustainability can be overcome by creating a broad and sustainable public-private-people’s partnership.
ITU, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, and the local education authorities are all public sector partners of the Akuressa project. During the inauguration of the project on 3 May 2011, these partners made a commitment to monitor its progress and extend its scope into other regions. Two local telecommunication operators (providing Internet connections) and Intel Corporation (training teachers) also joined as private partners.
Most importantly, teachers, local nongovernmental organizations and community members also participated in the implementation of the project. This multi-stakeholder partnership not only widened the funding pool, but also allowed participants to contribute creative ideas that led to effective implementation.
Impact on schools and communities
The Akuressa project is not only about the hardware and software needed to connect schools, but also more broadly about human resources development. Providing computers and Internet connectivity to rural schools fosters ICT literacy among students and enhances the quality of teaching. Computers with broadband access can serve as an effective platform for digital educational content, and ICT can be used to reduce the administrative burden on teachers. The new ICT facilities will enable teachers to teach their students more efficiently and creatively.
Enhancing ICT awareness
The project is already attracting more investment in connecting schools within Sri Lanka. Its success has enhanced the awareness of the Ministry of Education on the use of ICT in schools.
Recently, the Education Minister quadrupled investment in connecting the project schools. And the school principals have also sought ways to increase their ICT facilities. For instance, one of the schools has already raised funds from local donors, making it possible to set up a computer laboratory.
Fostering future partnerships
ITU and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka are now jointly looking for partners and donor agencies to pool their resources to replicate the success of the Akuressa project on a larger scale in other provinces of Sri Lanka. The first evaluation of the project is planned for the end of 2011, and the lessons learned will be used as a basis for bigger projects in other parts of Sri Lanka. In particular, efforts will be made to connect schools and communities in the northern provinces of Sri Lanka, where people still remain unconnected both because of 30 years of conflict and because of the difficult terrain.
Vietnam: The service provider driven initiative
Although the first international connection in Vietnam started operating in December 1997, Internet user penetration was still very low in 2002, at less than 0.25 per cent. Internet access was dominated by dial-up, which provided very narrow bandwidth (mainly at 64 kbit/s), with high access tariffs. The Information Technology Department of the Ministry of Education and Training considered that it would take until 2030 to realize the dream of connecting all schools.
Getting all schools connected
In January 2008, telecommunication operator Viettel made a commitment to the Ministry of Education and Training to offer broadband connections free of charge for an unlimited time to all schools and educational institutions. The beneficiaries include kindergartens, primary, secondary and high schools, public education centres, training centres, district educational departments and offices, and vocational training centres. The commitment covers providing — free of charge — Internet connection equipment including asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) modems, and laying cables, as well as connecting — free of charge — all educational and training departments via fibre-optic leased lines with a speed of 4 Mbit/s.
Viettel also offered to reduce the price for the 256 kbit/s international connection, and decrease by 70 per cent the connection charges of the fibre-optic leased line to universities. Finally, Viettel offered Internet connections via its third generation (3G) mobile network with a speed of 1 Mbit/s totally free of charge (including connection equipment and monthly charges) for all schools in rural and remote areas.
By December 2010, Viettel had provided free Internet connections to 29 559 educational premises, including all schools. Among these educational premises, 72 per cent got broadband connections with a bandwidth of at least 1 Mbit/s. Viettel expects to invest an estimated USD 24 million in infrastructure building and connections during the three years of project implementation, with an additional annual operational expense of around USD 4 million.
Investing in the future
Early access to ICT is the fastest way to spread knowledge, especially when teachers and students are the primary beneficiaries. Also, connecting the unconnected will give low-income groups a helping hand by offering access to knowledge and information, which will eventually lead to jobs and incomes. This will, in turn, transform information “have-nots” into potential customers.
The Ministry of Education and Training has confirmed that Viettel’s project has reduced Internet tariffs by as much as 80 per cent in the past three years, creating valuable opportunities for households, and providing people throughout Vietnam with access to the Internet. The Ministry also attributes the boom in the use of ICT applications in Viet Nam’s educational network to the extensive expansion of infrastructure under Viettel’s project.
Viettel’s project is being implemented through fibre-optic infrastructure, which is expected to promote broadband development and cheap prices, offering the possibility of providing television. The project will benefit not only schools, but also the whole community.
Expanding the project by adding ICT applications
Getting all schools connected to the Internet marks the beginning of a new and larger project. Viettel and the Ministry of Education and Training signed another agreement in December 2010 to use the deployed infrastructure to enhance e‑education. Various ICT applications, such as e‑books, e‑schools and e‑learning, will be created for the schools of tomorrow.