Research and education internet networks on rise in Africa*

Nine African countries have successfully established a sustainable National Research and Education Network promoting internet access to global educational resources and facilitating interaction at national and regional levels among universities and research institutions – boosting research productivity over the last decade.

Access to state-of-the-art broadband networks at affordable prices has made this possible.

But more than a dedicated network for interconnecting institutions is needed for the rest of the continent to catch up with other regions, says the Association of African Universities or AAU in a report, Riding the National Research and Education Networking Train in Africa, published this month.

Trained personnel to manage network infrastructure, sustained funding, policy and regulatory support from governments, coordination among tertiary institutions and broadband availability would boost success.

Connection, education and research

National Research and Education Networks or NRENs design, build or lease, operate and maintain physical telecommunication networks that interconnect education and research communities locally and internationally.

They provide national-scale networks that link universities and research centres to each other, separately from commercial internet networks.

NRENs enable customised connectivity for research teams collaborating internationally, and promote distance learning, video conferencing and access to services such as domain names, network security, web hosting, telephony and e-mail for education and research communities.

The networks allow academic and research traffic between universities and access to scientific applications and data, and can stimulate regional scientific collaboration.

State of connections in Africa

The AAU report says that one in six African countries have achieved significant progress in interconnecting universities and research institutions. Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia are the top nine.

Uganda and Zambia have benefited from regulatory environments and local and international investments.

South Africa has the region’s most advanced NREN – the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa – which has been providing technical and managerial support to other NRENs in East and Southern Africa.

The presence of a strong research and education network in Kenya is inspiring other East African countries, particularly Rwanda and Tanzania.

The Senegalese Research and Education Network is running the network operation centre for WACREN – West and Central African Research and Education Network – and is serving as a capacity building platform for the rest of French-speaking Africa.

Ranked second in development are 10 countries – Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Togo. They have begun building physical networks for research and education institutions.

The third group comprises 16 countries that have initiated activities that will lead to NREN formation, but lag in terms of building robust physical networks between institutions – Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger, Swaziland, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

A fourth group with no NREN activities comprises Angola, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles and South Sudan.

Formula for success

Direct interconnections between African countries represents major progress. Previously all intra-regional traffic had to travel through routers in London and Amsterdam – incurring delays and additional costs.

The establishment of the UbuntuNet Alliance regional network in 2005 reduced the connection time between Kenya and South Africa six fold from 360 milliseconds in 2011 to 60 milliseconds in 2015.

“This allowed for improved collaboration between researchers in the two countries. Scientists, researchers and students in Africa can now work effectively with each other, are able to share data quickly and collaborate more efficiently,” the report says.

But Africa is still behind other regions in developing research and education networks.

Challenges arise from routing traffic through the networks, lack of a management and governance framework, promoting the use of advanced network resources, securing funding for start-up operations, building the technical capabilities of network engineers, and launching essential services.

The initial capital cost of building the research and education backbone is also very high, so the availability of resources from government and donor agencies is critical at the early stages of NREN formation.

Successful networks have grown through having a dedicated physical network for connecting universities and research institutions, coordination mechanisms for member participation, engineers trained to manage and maintain the networking infrastructure, government funding, and telecom regulators responding to hindering regulatory and policy matters.

The most successful NRENs – in Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia – have benefited greatly from direct government funding and financial support from regulators and donors.

The European Commission supported the development of regional networks and interconnects NRENs to each other and to European Research Network GÉANT through the Africa Connect and EUMEDCONNECT projects. The AAU contributed to the development of the UbuntuNet Alliance and WACREN, helping to build their capacities.

According to the AAU report, NRENs need to be governed by flexible management and organisational frameworks that allow equitable opportunities for different types of institutions, large and small. Support from decision-makers and regulators is important for their success, especially for access to affordable bandwidth.

Improved infrastructure

The African communication infrastructure that serves the research and education networking community has been improving over the last decade and almost all coastal countries except Eritrea and Guinea-Bissau have established landing stations.

Landlocked countries have at least one link to the undersea cable through neighbouring countries.

Much of the fibre is concentrated in the Southern and Eastern parts of Africa and around Nigeria in the West. In central Africa, fibre connections are lean while connections between North Africa and the rest of the regions are very limited.

“A low density national fibre backbone network increases the costs of connectivity due to reliance on expensive cross-border routes, and limits the quality of internet access and services available to academic and research institutions,” the report says.

Broadband prices in Africa may have come down recently but they are still high compared to those in Asia and Latin America.

Boosting research productivity

As the push for NRENs continues, evidence to show the extent to which they have boosted research activity is yet to be gathered.

“We need to look at how NRENs in Europe, the United States and Latin America have been able to support increased research productivity,” Nodumo Dhlamini, director of ICT services and knowledge management at the AAU, told University World News.

“In Africa I know that this is what we are aiming at. But I don’t know if we are able to allude an increase in research productivity to the existence of NRENs.”

Dr Lishan Adam, an independent ICT consultant and researcher, agrees: “Most universities are still in the early stages of bringing affordable connectivity to students and faculty. Only a few countries like South Africa and Tunisia have managed to move towards facilitating research collaboration, to some extent,” he told University World News.

According to Adam, it is important to note that access to the internet by itself can improve research productivity – because the internet facilitates access to new information. High bandwidth connection can ease access to large amounts of scientific data and other resources like instruments on which cutting-edge research is based.

“If one can solve the problem of a graduate student struggling to download a journal article or application for prototyping or mind mapping, then some progress towards research productivity has already been made,” he said. But Adam is yet to come across a study that looks into academic networking and research productivity – even in advanced countries.

There is evidence that as universities and research institutions are interconnected and graduate from providing basic internet access towards facilitating research collaboration, the density of research increases, expanding academic and research linkages that will result in enhanced research productivity, as currently experienced in Latin America and individual countries.

“We are simply hoping that African countries will follow in the footsteps of these countries over the next five years, but we can begin measuring the link between networks and research productivity,” Adam said.

Problems arise across Africa as commercial internet service providers try to attract NRENs and universities with cheaper connectivity.

“This problem is real,” said Adam. In Uganda and Zambia, for instance, commercial providers came up with a cheaper package, making it hard for the national NRENs to compete. They survived thanks to leadership and their ability to present the NREN as a closed user group selling more than bandwidth.

Beyond connectivity, NRENs carry research traffic and facilitate research collaboration. They serve as a voice for the academic and research community and as a platform for capacity building in the design and operation of high speed networks.

The intensity of the problem various from one country to the other, and there are factors such as power and politics involved, said Adam. Therefore, there is a need to champion NRENs and for the AAU to grow awareness of their benefits among decision-makers, regulators and providers.
*This article first appeared on University World News. Read the original version.

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