Last week, I was privileged to attend a workshop on Voice over Internet Procol (VoIP)/SIP. I really did not think that I would be part of this workshop simply because I have just come back from South Africa.Besides that, the cash flow problems haunting the University of Malawi could not allow them to pay the MK98,000 worskshop fees on such a short notice. As things looked impossible in the physical realm, God’s plans in the spiritual realm really caught me unawares.

In the run up to the workshop, the ICT Association of Malawi (ICTAM) requested the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA), the local organizers, for sponsorship in order to ensure that the workshop is in the public’s interest.MACRA responded by sponsoring 5 places through ICTAM. These places were filled in by the Department of Information Systems and Technology Management Services (DISTMS), ICTAM, University of Malawi (UNIMA), Ministry of Science and Technology and the Malawi Research and Education Network(MAREN).

At this point, I did not even bother about finding out the two people that were going to represent UNIMA and MAREN, the two institutions to which I am affiliated, because I felt that there is a long a list of possible people. It was just impossible for them to pick up a “stranger” like me. I was, however, surprised when I was told that I was going to represent MAREN. I received this news on the eve of the workshop. That is how God does his business!!!

Now let us talk about the workshop itself. This workshop was held at Ryalls Hotel, Blantyre, Malawi from 11th – 15th June, 2007. Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) liaised with the African Advanced Level Telecommunications Institute (AFRALTI) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in order to organize this workshop. The facilitator was Mr Eric Pison, a Network Architect at International Institute of Telecommunications (IIT), Montreal,Canada.

There were more than forty participants.The workshop was comprised of two related courses on VoIP technologies. The first course, Introduction to Voice over IP Technology, was spread over the first 3 days. The last two days covered Session Initiation Protocol.The courses were spiced up with lively practical exercises which helped us to attain a hands-on experience and an in-depth understanding of the VoIP infrastructure. These exercises were conducted on the networking equipment which was flown in from IIT.The equipment included routers, switches, analogue phones, laptops and Cisco IP phones. All the VoIP software which was used in these exercises is provided for free on the Internet.

My Observations
This workshop has created an in-depth awareness of the VoIP and SIP technologies.Prior to this workshop, most of us were not very conversant with these technologies. The instructor’s ability to illustrate the concepts was very good. He was very willing to answer questions from participants. The practical exercises and the theories were well coordinated.

On the other hand, it must be pointed out that although the workshop was a great success, the future of VoIP technologies in Malawi is still unclear. In her opening address, the Minister of Information and Civic Education informed us that cabinet did not approve the initial VoIP policy because it did not specify the benefits of the technology for the rural masses. She challenged us to reshape the VoIP policy so that it addresses the concerns of cabinet. In light of this, most of us were of the impression that on the final day of the workshop, we would discuss the VoIP policy and the future of this technology in the country. But contrary to the general expectation, the workshop wound up without addressing these issues. Therefore, it is necessary for MACRA to convene a mini workshop in order to sort out these issues otherwise the knowledge attained from the workshop will be of limited impact.