Memory Lane: Revisiting Internet Access for African Higher Education

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Workers digging a trench for underground fiber optic cable in Madagascar
Workers digging a trench for underground fiber optic cable in Madagascar. Getty/AFP

Between 2000 and 2010, Carnegie Corporation, through the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA) and independent grantmaking, invested significant time and funds in stimulating improved access to, and use of, internet and electronic resources for African universities.  At the time of the Partnership’s inception, in 2000, excitement about the potential of the internet to strengthen and extend education on the continent was palpable.  As private funders, we were most enthusiastic about supporting content projects, assisting our university colleagues to make use of the amazing opportunities the internet provided.  

We were in for a rude awakening, however.  A workshop in Addis Ababa in 2002, co-hosted by the Partnership and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, gathered together more than forty representatives of African higher education institutions, international collaborators, funders, and UNECA staff members.  The African higher education representatives—academics, IT specialists, librarians—were adamant:  without improved access to bandwidth, all the fancy content projects would come to naught.  The decision was made there that the Partnership would have to engage with the internet access issue, pushing us way out of our comfort zones. 

Looking back, I think we did make a substantive contribution, from helping to push down the price of satellite bandwidth for a set of universities to providing some matching support for a major European-funded regional fiber-optic network serving higher education.  So I read with interest Vindu Goel’s New York Times post describing a number of corporate-sponsored bandwidth infrastructure projects currently underway in Africa.  Seeing quotes from an old colleague and valued partner from his days with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Steve Song, I decided to get in touch to find out more about progress in internet access since the Corporation left the field five years ago.  Below, he and his colleague Steve Huter, director of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), a former Corporation grantee, respond jointly to my four questions.

 

Recalling the early part of the new millennium, it was difficult to attract serious private sector involvement to enable internet access in African countries, particularly access for “social good” organizations that could not afford prevailing market rates. Now, it appears a thousand flowers are blooming. What has changed over the last decade? Besides those mentioned in the blog post, who are the major players these days?

In part we can credit the Internet itself and its growth into the de facto means for all types of communication as the driver for this change.  This has increased the value of the network to everyone connected to it. But for the African continent, the single biggest change in the last ten years has been the arrival, starting in 2009, of multiple undersea fiber optic cables to the shores of African countries bringing many terabits per second of communication capacity.  This in turn has sparked a wave of investment in terrestrial fiber capacity to take advantage of this opportunity.  The African access market has gone from having tightly controlled, expensive international gateways to having Open Access fiber networks with multiple competitors.  Perhaps the most interesting fiber company on the continent is Zimbabwe’s Liquid Telecom which has deployed nearly 20,000km of fiber cable throughout the Eastern and Southern African region.  This is shaking up the access industry where, previously, national providers could expect to dominate.  Equally interesting is Project Link in Kampala, Uganda where Google has invested in hundreds of kilometers of fiber network in the city and surrounding areas. Because their business interests are aligned with cheaper, more ubiquitous access, they have focused on creating an open, enabling broadband platform that operators large and small can utilize.

It is important to mention that fiber differs in significant ways from other access technologies, e.g., longer lifespan, greater capacity.  It is the most important broadband access investment a country can make. At the end of the day, there is nothing better than being on glass [fiber optics].

 

By the time the Corporation was exiting the Internet access arena, all thoughts were on fiber, as we saw the emergence of national and regional research and education networks and Europe’s AfricaConnect project. Now, I see references to drones and – flashback! – satellites. What’s happening with “last mile” access in hard to reach places?

We have seen the steady expansion of mobile networks across the continent to the extent that roughly a fifth of the population has access to 3G or better mobile services, but mobile network operators are challenged to offer affordable broadband in sparsely populated rural areas.  This is where new technologies like TV White Spaces play a role.  Mawingu, a rural network in Kenya is using TV White Spaces to offer more affordable ways of delivering last mile Internet access in rural areas.  Microsoft has been a supporter of this project since its inception. 

We have begun to see Silicon Valley bringing both investment and innovation to the last mile problem.  Google’s Project Loon is using balloons to deliver access, Facebook is developing drone technology along similar lines.  Even the satellite industry, which is the most notoriously expensive form of access on the continent, is feeling the effects of technology innovation.  New low-earth satellite initiatives from OneWeb and SpaceX may offer yet another last mile access platform.  Somewhat ironically though, the most powerful enablers of last mile access are the national and metropolitan fiber backbones themselves.  Previously, an access entrepreneur had to solve the entire chain of connectivity from international, national, local, and last mile.  Now that fiber networks reach primary and secondary cities across the continent, an access entrepreneur can spring up anywhere and use the most appropriate last mile technology for his or her situation.

 

The NSRC began working with Google back when the Corporation was still providing a small amount of support to get donated equipment and technical manuals to African universities. How has that partnership developed, and how do you see Google’s initiatives compared to others described in the blog post?

Google and NSRC share a view that the tools of the Internet can be utilized to address some of our biggest global challenges, including delivering affordable education and healthcare, sourcing clean water, increasing energy efficiency, enhancing scientific capabilities, and making government more effective and responsive to the needs of its citizens. Google and the NSRC first started working together in 2006 to address Internet access and human resource development in Africa by improving infrastructure, training more African network engineers so local hands cultivate local expertise, and by helping African colleagues deliver relevant platforms and services, which is good for the whole Internet ecosystem. Google’s substantial financial support and contributions of more than 30 tons of donated hardware for deployment in African universities, National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) and Internet Exchange Points led to additional investments of providing network engineering assistance and a train-the-trainers program with the UbuntuNet Alliance community. This has resulted in thousands of network personnel in hundreds of institutions in dozens of countries accelerating local infrastructure development and network engineering skills to grow their portions of the Internet.

Regarding other initiatives mentioned in the blog post, NSRC personnel have been engaged in some of the TV White Space (dynamic spectrum) trials with all of the organizations cited - Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Facebook now donates decommissioned network switches and routers from their datacenters to NSRC for redeployment in campus networks and Internet Exchange Points in Africa and other regions, which Google and Cisco have done for years. NSRC is engaged with both the Microsoft Research Group, which leads their dynamic spectrum trials, and with the Microsoft Global Network Services team regarding interconnection strategies and development of additional Internet Exchange Points in Africa and elsewhere.

IBM is briefly mentioned in the blog post, and should be commended for one of their newest initiatives in Africa, which is a three-year, $60 million investment to develop more technical talent in Africa. IBM will team with the Kenyan NREN KENET to deliver training courses to both faculty and students at the 50 Kenyan universities that are members of KENET. The model mirrors NSRC’s methodology of intensive, five-day hands-on courses to learn practical, applied skills. The larger plan is to expand the African Technical Academy and IBM’s Africa University Program to an additional 20 countries in Africa.

 

What do you hope, and expect, to see over the next decade regarding internet access for African higher education and research institutions? What kind of support – local and international, public and private, commercial and philanthropic – will be needed to bring your hopes and expectations to fruition?

There has been tremendous progress in the development of Internet infrastructure for African higher education and research institutions. With the capital investments happening for national networks in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique and others, which form the regional research and education network for the UbuntuNet Alliance, and the nascent West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN), this is an optimal time to leverage the ongoing investments in Africa, thereby improving access, infrastructure and Internet penetration into new areas with pan-African benefits. There is a clear need to scale rapidly so the current crop of investments succeeds.

The philanthropic environment has changed a lot.  While early investors in academic networking like the IDRC and PHEA have moved out of the field, the European Commission has stepped in with its AfricaConnect project which is providing critical investment and incentives for the development of NRENs through the UbuntuNet Alliance.  The European Commission has recently committed to expanding this work to include West and Central Africa via WACREN through a follow-up initiative called AfricaConnect2.

But more investment is needed.  African universities often lack adequate campus network infrastructure or the technical management capacity to take advantage of greater connectivity offered for their user communities. Designing and building quality university network infrastructure is vital for getting faculty and students in Africa well-connected to the Internet.  More awareness, engagement and leadership are needed among African governments to prioritize the development and utilization of NREN infrastructure.  In particular, NRENs stand to benefit directly from the development of national and municipal fiber projects.  For example, the Ugandan NREN has benefited substantially from the existence of Google’s Project Link, which has provided a critical backbone for the university community in Uganda to build an affordable national university access network and significantly lowered their operational costs.

Finally, a major challenge facing all Internet access initiatives is the lack of stable, reliable power, without which, affordable, sustainable access is not achievable. While there has been some investment in this area, robust power infrastructure remains a major challenge that will require large-scale investment over the next couple of decades.   Internet and power infrastructure investments should go hand in hand.

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