Ten years ago this week a small group of Arushans switched on a computer, turning on the email service that would grow into one of Arusha’s most reliable internet service providers – Arusha Node Marie.
Now and then
Today, to the surprise of many visitors to the town, people in Arusha are able to take a decent connection to the internet for granted. With internet cafes on almost every street corner getting access to your email is cheap and relatively straight forward. Ten years ago the situation was very different.
Before 1994 accessing email was only possible by making a telephone call to a server in Nairobi or Europe. The low quality of Tanzanian phone lines slowed email reception to a snail’s pace and that was if you could get access to a phone line! Costing as much as $300 a month, email was something only larger businesses could afford. Smaller businesses relied on faxing and telephone to communicate with foreign business partners and clients – also an expensive affair.
In February 1994, twelve individuals and businesses decided to set up an email node in Arusha to lower costs and open up the technology to the local market. They christened it Arusha Node Marie (ANM), after Marie Benson. Marie had acted as the repository of information for the group, and thus represented what the group hoped their service would provide to the greater community. She also helped ANM leapfrog the 5-10 year wait for a phone line by donating hers.
The ISP would be a membership organisation rather than a business, with a company, AFAM, contracted to look after the day to day running of the equipment.
Milestones and stumbling blocks
The first service available to members was just email. Using the FIDO network, ANM’s server would dial into a UK or Nairobi node. At speeds of 2.4 kbps it would take up to one hour to send and receive all the emails. Members could then dial in to the local server once or twice a day to send and receive their messages.
The connection was very shaky, with frequent disconnections due to noisy lines and the quirks of the TTCL telephone system. Erik Rowberg recalls:
Sometimes for more than 24 hours the phones were too poor and we kept getting disconnected. We would resort to carrying the mail server and modem to different offices to see if their phone lines were better.
To make this simpler a laptop was bought.
In 1996 Arusha Node Marie brought full access to the internet, including the web, to its members. Connection speeds were very slow – 19kbps (kilobytes per second) compared to today’s speeds well over 100kbps. Few people in Tanzania had seen what the internet made possible at that time. The wow factor was significant and the popularity of the service began to grow.
People behind the scenes
Arusha Node Marie has been pushed forward not only by developments in technology but by the people who have worked to build its abilities and reputation. Erik Rowberg was the sole employee at the beginning, attending to the fledgling server’s needs from day one.
Since those early days, ANM has grown to 40 staff and over 800 members. Previous members of staff have moved on to prominent roles at other dynamic technology companies in Tanzania and further afield.
Slowly the services ANM provide and the technology they employ to deliver them have grown from simple email on a single laptop to full internet services ranging from cached web access to database management on a cluster of eleven servers with battery power backup.
The mail server now handles upwards of 15,000 emails a day. 25% of these are rejected as junk mail, but the rest are legitimate emails fuelling the business and social lives of Arusha.
The proxy caching server handles up to 60 requests per second for web pages, and stores them so the next person doesn’t have to wait to view the same web page.
The connection to the outside world is made by a satellite connection. Data is received at 3Mbps (3,000 Kbps), and can be sent at 1Mbps. This is backed up by a second connection at a different location so email can still be received in the unlikely event of equipment failure at the AICC.
Ten years, and Arusha Node Marie have come a long way. This begs the question: What about the next ten years? I posed this to David Erickson, Operations Manager at AFAM:
In ten years time connections to the internet in Tanzania will be as fast as you can imagine, thanks to a fibre optic connection down the East coast of Africa by 2006. The Tanzanian infrastructure will be managed by companies and organisations sharing and linking their networks. All telephone calls will be made over the internet. Local businesses will really start to take advantage of things like remote process monitoring and enterprise resource planning. Arusha Node Marie will be at the forefront of providing these services and
pushing the envelope of what is possible in Tanzania.
Originally published in Arusha Times 310