Exclusive: UbuntuNet Alliance CEO discusses UbuntuNet-Connect 2016, future of Africa’s research and education networking

The month of November is a special one for UbuntuNet Alliance as this is the time the Regional Research and Education Network (RREN) for Southern and Eastern Africa holds its annual networking conference, the UbuntuNet-Connect. This year, ICT practitioners, researchers, representatives from ministries of higher education and members of the global NREN community converged in Entebbe, Uganda on 3-4 November 2016 where the Research and Education Network for Uganda (RENU) hosted UbuntuNet-Connect 2016, the 9th edition of the conference series that started in 2008. NUANCE caught up with Dr. Pascal Hoba, CEO of UbuntuNet Alliance who took stock of the conference as well provided insight on the current and projected status of research and education networking in the region. Excerpts:

NUANCE: UbuntuNet Alliance has been organising the UbuntuNet-Connect for 9 years now. What has been the importance of this gathering to the research and education networking community within the region and globally?

Dr. Hoba: The UbuntuNet-Connect has been a very important platform not only for the UbuntuNet Alliance but also for our NREN members and our partners. This has been a unique platform that shows that there is a need for all stakeholders to work together in reducing the cost of connectivity within the region but also to collaborate and network. Also, UbuntuNet-Connect has helped raise the awareness and profile of the Alliance and its NREN members, especially those that have been hosting this conference. The conference has also given ICT practitioners, policy makers, researchers and regulators a strong platform to showcase their work, share ideas and their expertise. I believe that UbuntuNet-Connect is a platform that needs to be nurtured because simply put, this is the voice of the Alliance to the global research and education community.

NUANCE: UbuntuNet-Connect 2016 was held under the theme, “Optimising the Impact of NRENs on Africa’s Research.” Why was this theme chosen for this year?

Dr. Hoba: The situation with our NREN members is polarised. While connectivity is still an issue with some of our Member NRENs, we have managed to achieve tremendous progress in terms of connectivity with some of our members. For members that are enjoying this robust connectivity, we would like them to open the door to those NRENs that are not connected by showing them what can be done with the connectivity they are using. They should demonstrate that the connectivity is for innovation. In other words, this theme calls on NRENs to aid on the research that is happening in their country using the connectivity the NRENs have. The NREN should bring on board all researchers to show that through connectivity they can share data, knowledge and induce innovation for their country.

NUANCE: You mentioned about NRENs that are yet to get connected to the UbuntuNet Network, most of these NRENs continue to pay high prices for connectivity from commercial providers. How is the Alliance ensuring that all NRENs are taken on borad and that NRENs are protected from high costs of connectivity being charged by ISPs?

Dr. Hoba: The Alliance has done a lot to reduce the cost of connectivity for NRENs. The reduction in the cost of connectivity for our NRENs is unbelievable. For some NRENs, we have managed to reduce the price they were paying to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) by more than 200 percent. Now, because of our mere presence in the region and on the market, some ISPs are also trying to reduce their prices because they are aware of the affordable prices that the Alliance is offering to its NRENs. But for the Alliance, the aim is to keep reducing the price while increasing the capacity for the NREN. In September this year, the Alliance further reduced its prices making us even more competitive. All this is to make sure that our NRENs are able to get high speed connectivity at an extremely affordable price. In countries where the costs are still too high, we are trying to come up with tailored packages for them to make sure that all our members benefit. Again with AfricaConnect2 the Alliance will connect more NRENs making it able to be financially stable thereby able to influence the market even further with our financial strength.

NUANCE: How is UbuntuNet Alliance ensuring that it remains competitive in the face of commercial ISPs who as you have said are trying to attract NRENs and universities with their own deals?

Dr. Hoba: UbuntuNet Alliance acknowledges that there are local providers who are trying to entice NRENs and universities to take services with them and not the Regional REN, but the Alliance would like to make NRENs realise that it is more beneficial to be on a regional research and education network. Apart from offering cheaper price for connectivity, which UbuntuNet Alliance is also providing, the local providers are not interested in enhancing collaboration and networking as well as building the capacity of the NREN, these are important objectives of the Alliance. We want our Member NRENs to be able to work with each other and for them to be able to collaborate with the research and education community from the rest of the world. The Alliance is involved in a number of projects such as the H2020 projects of MAGIC, Sci-GaIA and TANDEM that are offering plenty opportunities for interaction and collaboration for NRENs as well as aim to provide important services like eduroam and eduGAIN. These are services that an NREN cannot get when dealing with commercial internet providers. If an NREN becomes too interested in getting just cheaper bandwidth from a commercial provider and ignoring the importance of collaboration and networking as well as offering unique services that are exclusive to the NREN community, the NREN risks becoming irrelevant to its community because it turns into a mere ISP like the other commercial providers.

NUANCE: How do you rate the performance of NRENs in the region in terms of networking and collaboration?

Dr. Hoba: Collaboration and networking is the main essence of the Alliance. I believe our NRENs can do more in this arena. We need our NRENs to work together with UbuntuNet Alliance but we would like to see more collaboration amongst the NRENs themselves. This is why at the UbuntuNet-Connect 2016, we organised our conference together with our colleagues from the African Patnership for Chronic Disease Research (APCDR) who were also holding their conference in Entebbe on similar dates as our conference. We had a joint closing session where we demonstrated the spirit and need for collaboration. Beyond the region, we want our universities and NRENs to network and collaborate with their counterparts from other regions and to introduce synergies that are good for the NRENs, their societies and indeed their countries.

NUANCE: There are a number of countries with the UbuntuNet Alliance member region that are yet to have an NREN. What is the Alliance’s role in making sure that all countries within the membership region have operational NRENs?

Dr. Hoba: One of the central focuses of the Alliance now is to expand the membership base by getting more NRENs connected to our network and also to assist countries that have no NRENs or whose NRENS are just emerging to get to a level of full operational NREN. In terms of connectivity we are bringing on board SomaliREN, MAREN, and RwEdNet under the European Commission co-funded AfricaConnect2 project. Outside this project we also have emerging NRENs from Comoros Island, Mauritius, Eritrea, South Sudan and Lesotho which the Alliance is keen to assist for them to become fully operational NRENs.

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