NUANCE – July 2008

African countries committing academic suicide through poor sector policy and regulation

 By F.F. Tusubira

Universities belonging to 9 of the 10 member NRENs of UbuntuNet Alliance currently spend about USD1.25 million per month for only 770 Mbps shared among 163 institutions.  In Europe, North America or the Far East, this level of expenditure can purchase more than 35Gbps, or 50 times more bandwidth.

The Table gives a summary for each NREN based on total international bandwidth purchased through the NREN or by the individual member institutions. Furthermore, since companies delivering to institutions and NRENs via VSAT charge for both the uplink and the downlink, the bandwidth data is based on the sum of the two (ie, Mbps of half-duplex bandwidth).  The equivalent total half-duplex bandwidth is also used for TENET (South Africa), the only member NREN that accesses international bandwidth via marine cable. To enable direct comparison, the data does not include the costs and overheads charged by operational NRENs (KENET of Kenya, TENET, and SUIN of Sudan) for local delivery. The USD 530,000 paid by TENET, for example, is not the total cost to the institutions, but only the charge for the SAT-3 bandwidth and Internet transit, excluding the substantial operating cost of the backbone and local access connections to the sites.

It can be seen from the Table that almost 70% of the total member NREN bandwidth is taken up by universities served by TENET, South Africa, underscoring the grim reality in most of the rest of the NRENs: African universities in the region have on average access to only 5Mbps of bandwidth at a total monthly cost ranging from of $5,000 (TENET, South Africa) to $22,000 (eb@le, Democratic Republic of Congo).

The averages however distort the picture.  Among the countries that procure bandwidth via VSAT, Uganda has the lowest price at just under USD1,900 per Mbps-month.  Detailed data reveals that Makerere University takes over 60% of the bandwidth purchased by the 9 member institutions of RENU, with the other institutions getting much less bandwidth and at prices much higher than the RENU average. Similarly, the top 7 of 23 user institutions connected to fibre through TENET take half of the bandwidth.  It should be noted that while TENET procures 90% of its bandwidth from the SAT-3 marine cable at the lowest prices available in the region, the other 10% is provided by commercial providers to sites that do not have access to the TENET cable capacity, and these sites (about 30) pay prices that are higher than the regional median.

Country Name of NREN Number of Member Institutions Total Bandwidth (Mbps) Monthly Cost (USD) Average Cost per Mbps-month (USD) Annual Cost (USD)
1 South Africa TENET 43 520 530,000 1,019 6,360,000
2 Zambia ZAMREN 2 8.63 32,741 3,794 392,892
3 Rwanda RwEdNet 9 18 54,000 3,000 648,000
4 Kenya KENET 39 100 300,000 3,000 3,600,000
5 Uganda RENU 9 37.9 74,950 1,978 899,400
6 Sudan SUIN 30 50 125,000 2,500 1,500,000
7 Mozambique MoRENet Data not available
8 Tanzania TERNET 21 26,19 82,129 3,136 98,554,800
9 DR Congo Eb@le 10 4.2 18,795 4,475 225,540
10 Malawi MAREN 6 20,000 3,333 240,000
163 770.92 1,237,615 1,605 14,851,380

The undisputed fact is that even the lowest price available via fibre in South is still very high compared to prices in other parts of the world:  bandwidth costs constitute a major drain on the limited resources of the majority of African universities.  We assert that this is due to poor sector policy and regulation:  Total and near monopolies, or very limited competition, still exist in most of the membership countries, resulting in prices to users that are far above the cost of delivery.   This is like national academic suicide, disabling the growth of education and research networking and its established impact on national development. This suicide extends to other national sectors that would be enabled by competitive provision of access services.

The variability of VSAT based bandwidth costs clearly brings out the impact of poor policy and regulation: it is the single method of delivery whose cost is almost location independent, and yet there is a factor of three in site specific delivery prices.  The countries that have fully opened up, like Uganda, have the lowest prices, while those where there is still a monopoly have the highest prices.  UbuntuNet and its member NRENs will continue engaging policy makers and regulators through evidence-based analysis so that users can eventually benefit from cost-based prices driven by open competitive environments.  We look to the availability of competing marine and terrestrial optical fibre everywhere as the vehicle for cost-based pricing.  We have set a target of delivering bandwidth to research and education networks at a price of $200 per Mbps-month (and decreasing with time) within two years.

The high costs are compounded by still limited knowledge and capacity in many institutions in negotiating, monitoring, and enforcing service levels as well as the challenge of bandwidth management and optimization.  These are identified priority areas being addressed through joint action by the Association of African Universities, UbuntuNet, and INASP.

Session on African Research and Education Networking at Internet2 Meeting

By Duncan Martin

Three African REN activists – Dr Boubakar Barry, Dr F F (Tusu) Tusubira and Dr Duncan Martin – will co-present a Session on Research and Education Networking in Sub-Saharan Africa at the Fall 2008 Internet2 Member Meeting to be held from 13 – 17 October 2008 in New Orleans.

Dr Barry is Head of the REN Unit of the Association of African Universities. Dr Tusubira is the Acting CEO and a Director of the UbuntuNet Alliance.  Dr Martin is the CEO of TENET, the South African NREN, and is also a Director of the UbuntuNet Alliance.

The session will survey REN progress in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last three years. Ten National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) now exit as legally incorporated entities in Sub-Saharan countries. Active projects to form NRENs are underway in at least a dozen other countries of the region. At the regional level, in 2006 the NRENs of eastern and southern Africa formed the UbuntuNet Alliance for Research and Education Networking to promote interconnections with each other and with RENs world-wide. UbuntuNet now operates a routing hub in London, where it interconnects with Géant. The Kenyan and South African NRENs connect to UbuntuNet, and hence to Géant and other RENs globally. Other NRENs will soon do likewise. A regional REN has been mooted for Central and West Africa. There are real prospects for much cheaper submarine cable capacity connecting Sub-Saharan African landings to other continents. However, affordable access to optical fibre capacity within and between countries remains problematical for most NRENs. REN developments in Sub-Saharan Africa are supported by many African and foreign organisations, including donors such as IDRC, IEEAF, MellonFoundation, OSI and PHEA; African agencies such as the Association of African Universities, AfriNIC and AfNOG; and by national governments and telecommunications operators.

For details of the Fall 2008 Internet2 Members Meeting please visit

TERNET to host UbuntuNet Strategic Plan Review

The Tanzania Education and Research Network, TERNET, is set to host the UbuntuNet member NRENs and the Board for a review of the UbuntuNet Strategic Plan.  TERNET is the newest member of UbuntuNet, and offered to host this event so as to hold a back-to-back one day workshop during which they will have opportunity to outline their plans and challenges, and to share the experiences of the more established NRENs as they try to link all Tanzanian universities into one research and education network.

The current UbuntuNet Strategic Plan was formulated during 2005.  The members’ meeting in Lusaka earlier this year noted that the Alliance has now expanded far beyond the initial founding members and, in some cases, has new leadership even among those.  The environment has also evolved since 2005.  In order to recreate ownership, the representative forum in Dar es Salaam will review and update the strategic plan.  This review will also address the noted absence of organizational level focus within the current Strategic Plan.

The one day workshop for TERNET will be held on 10th September 2008, followed by the strategic planning workshop, at which each of the member NRENS will be represented, on the 11th and 12th.  Funding for the two events has been kindly provided by through the fund for Fostering Research and Education Networking in Africa (FRENIA) provide by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and managed by TENET.

KENET to host design and capacity building workshops for the UbuntuNet Eastern Cluster

KENET will host an Eastern Cluster design workshop (between 6th – 8th October) that has the key objectives of building capacity, agreeing on common architectural approaches in order to ensure zero latency when the networks are inter-connected, and supporting all NRENS in their country and campus specific designs in order to make them ready for the planned broadband environment.  Follow up workshops for different groups of NRENs in the Eastern Cluster will be held at the University of Washington, where the there will be access to a wider range of expertise working in a broadband production environment.

The outputs will be country specific designs for all Eastern Cluster countries.  More important is the outcome level: An increased level of technical expertise and independence in the NRENs, and campuses that are better prepared to take advantage of newly enabled applications (and middleware) in a truly broadband environment.

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