VOLUME. 9, ISSUE 10: February 2017

In this issue 
Calendar of events

The Internet should be a highway road accessible to everyone- Jim Forster

African governments and IT players on the continent should aim at building and opening up e-Infrastructure and internet services so that they are affordable and easily accessible to users.

Jim Forster, a former 20 year employee of the world’s leading IT and Networking company Cisco Systems and now Chairman of NetworkTheWorld, made the suggestion in an exclusive with NUANCE when he visited the UbuntuNet Alliance Secretariat in Lilongwe in February, 2017   as part of his organisation’s long term vision to harness internet connectivity, accessibility and affordability in remote areas of Africa and Asia.

“Users of the Internet in Africa continue to pay higher costs for bandwidth as compared to their counterparts in Europe or America. Although gradual improvements in lowering down these costs are being seen, we would like to see users paying as low as $2 pmbs per month for mobile broadband,” he said.

Forster said one of the reasons contributing to the high cost of broadband is the reluctance of Infrastructure owners such as mobile phone service operators and government to open up their infrastructure to different players, a development he predicted would make the cost of providing broadband cheaper hence bringing down the cost.

He said another way of leveraging bandwidth cost is by encouraging providers like mobile phone service providers to have fixed line and fiber connectivity adding governments need to introduce enabling policies that will make the internet affordable to providers and users.

Commenting on the status of African universities in relation to broadband access, the NTW Chairperson challenged Research and Education Networks to offer their member institutions cutting edge added value services that can transform the continent’s research and networking capabilities making them more competitive.

“The UbuntuNet Alliance model is an excellent model where universities and research institutions do not need to get their connectivity from mobile phone operators. However the most important thing is for the NRENs to offer their members universities excellent services that are not being offered by the other providers. The universities will have no choice but pay for these services,” he said.

Currently, Forster is working on different projects aimed at getting the Internet to low income places in Africa and Asia and some of the organisations he is working with Include Air Jaldi in India and Mawingu Services in Kenya.

SAFIRE becomes first African eduGAIN member

The South African Identity Federation (SAFIRE) has become the first African Federation to be admitted as a fully participating member of eduGAIN, the international interfederation service interconnecting research and education identity federations managed by GEANT, the European Research and Education Network.

eduGAIN enables the secure exchange of information related to Identity, authentication and authorization between participating federations.  

And in February 2017, the eduGAIN steering group voted  to admit SAFIRE, as its 41st member  effectively allowing South Africa’s academics and researchers to log into a thousand participating services worldwide using their home organisation’s username and password.

Breaking the news on its website, the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TERNET) expressed delight over the development saying SAFIRE’s joining of eduGAIN will play a big role in enhancing collaboration between South Africa and international research.   

“Federated identity services play an increasingly critical role in facilitating access to big science projects, and so South Africa’s participation in this space is an important milestone towards allowing South African scientists to collaborate in international research. Locally, SAFIRE will make it easier for universities and research organisations to collaborate in a wide variety of fields, from teaching and learning through to interdisciplinary research. As it grows, SAFIRE should help the research and education sector realise economies of scale and savings in systems integration costs,” reads a statement in part.

The statement added that the joining of eduGAIN will also provide participants with more granular mechanisms to control access to expensive electronic resources, such as those provided by university libraries.

Meanwhile the eduGAIN team also announced it has admitted the Indian Federation (INFED) as a member but said the federation is yet to be admitted as a full participating member. The team said all issues concerning the participation of the federation will be resolved soon.

EduGAIN started as a research initiative in the GN2 (2004-2009) project and become a full operational service in 2011. Currently the service has a membership of 43 federations comprising of 3851 entities with 2361 IdPs, 1494 SPs and 4 AAS.
The service has 5 separate voting members and 10 candidate members. Four federations from African countries namely Algeria, Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda are listed as candidate members.

More information on the service is available at online.

The importance of academic peering Q&A with Prof. Deirdre Carabine – Virtual University of Uganda

Professor Deirdre Carabine is the co-founder of VUU, the Virtual University of Uganda. A philosopher by training she is passionate about embracing ICT to enhance the higher education experience. At the UbuntuNet-Connect conference last November she presented a paper on How ICTs and Collaboration with NRENs are changing the Face of Higher Education. Here is her testimony, from the academic perspective.

Tell us more about the virtual university of uganda?

The Virtual University of Uganda is the 1st online-only university in Sub-Saharan Africa. We have just celebrated our fifth birthday and awarded our first graduates. We currently deliver 4 diploma and master programmes (Public Health, ICT for Development, International Development and Business Administration). VUU allows students who live in rural areas and who cannot travel to pursue higher education studies. We have students from Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Burundi, and many other African countries, and even some students form Europe.

What is academic peering?

In my view, academic peering is human networking. In a world where we see the growth of the Internet of People and Lifi, the lonely academic in his/her ivory tower is a thing of the past. Networking, or academic peering is as inevitable as using a computer even though many academics still resist it. My central idea is that we ought to embrace it because academic peering can have numerous benefits: it can save human power hours and cut costs, it can enhance content quality, it can expand audiences and bring the very best content to more students, and it can enhance the development of critical minds that are creative and can think outside the traditional box.

When do ICT and NRENs come into play?

While academic peering can start with individual academic staff or even a few institutions coming together, in thinking the big picture, peering is achievable nationally and regionally by using our NRENs to network us cheaply and efficiently.

However enabling research networks achieve their self-imposed goals cannot be done solely by the NREN. The importance of NRENs for academic research and teaching is indisputable. According to Prof. Francis Tusubira (2011), NRENs not only provide “dedicated high speed networks that enable access to online resources for students and researchers”, but also “support content-level collaboration in Research and Education.” “Support content-level collaboration”: this is precisely where we need to start our reflections as academic staff. Here we shift the burden of responsibility from the provider and enabler, the NREN, to the end users, the academics and the researchers, who are the content creators.

How can we empower academics to harness icTs and collaborate with NreNs to achieve their goals?

NRENs are the “enablers” in the sense that they are the backbone supporting our teaching and research efforts. In the past, of course, when books and learning resources were stored in libraries, NRENs had no role. With the diversification and democratization of knowledge and learning materials, a country's teaching and research institutions now need their NRENs to do what they are formed to do, that is: to be “specialised internet service providers dedicated to supporting the needs of the Research and Education communities within a country.”

And if NRENs are to be enablers of research, this means that significant changes have to be implemented at the grassroots university level.

The good news is that we, the teaching staff, are being forced to change because student expectations and learning practices have changed. The serious-minded student will often explore a topic widely on Google and obtain good up-to-date resources. All scholars need to engage with that and begin exploring for themselves.

How can ICTs and collaboration with the NREN increase teachers’ value to their students?

The world's foremost intellects in the university world have numerous videoed lectures uploaded to the internet; we can easily use these to stimulate and broaden our students' learning experiences. We can listen to Amartya Sen on peacebuilding, Richard Branson on entrepreneurship, Stephen Hawking on the future of robotics, Amina Mama on feminism … all these are much more interesting than listening to one lecturer for three hours every week for a full semester. It simply takes a little creativity.

But let me widen the net (so to speak): what about co-teaching? I teach in situ while my colleague's class can see the lecture while at a different location and then the next week we swap places. One course, two teachers, interested students, and more importantly, increased inter-university student interaction. This is the individual academic peering that I believe is made possible through our NRENs.

Gone are the days when the department budget had to look for sufficient funds for guest lecturers from other universities: today, this is easily achieved with all parties in their own location using the video-conferencing facilities provided by our NRENs.

What about staff worrying about earning less because of the rationalization made possible by ICTs?

ICTs and collaboration with NRENs provide new opportunities, for interactive feedback between classes to share, invited guests, and after videoconferencing with professors and students from the other side of the world and more. While all this takes time to prepare, the content and experience end up being more enriching for all. It is the duty of the universities to value thesenew skills and ways of teaching. As Isaid earlier ICTs also allow universities to save money on infrastructure expenditures but this is possible only if we can change the academic mindset and balance our budgets in a different way.

There is a need for ICT savvy academics in universities to influence their deans and IT departments to embrace collaboration with NRENs to showcase what is possible. Equally there is a need to increase the use of ICTs in teacher training to match future students’ expectations. Physical classrooms, lecturer's offices, and student residences are not necessarily an integral part of a university's infrastructure today; rather, investment in appropriate technology is the key priority in setting up the programmes of tomorrow. This is where academic institutions need to rely on their NREN and work to make it happen.

What does the future look like?

While it is very satisfying to be moving in the direction of advanced networks on the continent, we note that the game has two major players now: engineers and academics!

The enablers need imputers, content providers. In order for a NREN to be truly successful, the nuts and bolts parts, the backbone, must be enfleshed by local researchers and educators who realise the benefits of peering, of networking, or simply, of sharing knowledge.

As our local NREN, NRENU (2016) put it in their newsletter outlining their development, growth, and future plans: “The third level envisaged is where transformation mostly happens and we shall refer to it as the level of deeper sharing of resources. The resources to be shared include: highly skilled human resource (such as academic staff, researchers and other specialists); high value research facilities (such as expensive lab equipment, high performance computer (HPC) facilities, and massive research data); jointly utilised education content hosted by shared repositories.’’ Our NRENs have done a wonderful job in enabling university peering. The future will be a joint initiative.

World Bank publishes report on role and status of NRENs in Africa

The World Bank has officially published the report on Role and Status of NRENs in Africa compiled by its consultant Michael Foley. 

The report, published in the World Bank’s Open Knowledge repository, highlights the story of development of NRENs in Africa and the key roles the NRENs are playing in enabling innovation and advancing science and education on the continent.

It also aims at providing guidance to governments, institutions and development partners on how to approach the provision of advanced ICT services to the higher education and research community in Africa and how the World Bank can best support this.

According to the report, 18 countries on the continent have operational NRENs with NRENs from 36 countries yet to fully operationalise their NRENs. The report informs that of the 36 non NREN operational countries, 5 countries have no recorded information on the establishment of an NREN while the rest of the 31 countries have NRENs in various stages of development.

The report says there is so far no information of NREN development in Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Libya and Lesotho.

On the other end, the report has assessed the progressed of the 18 operational NRENs and has ranked them according to their varying levels of progress.

NRENs of Algeria, Egypt, Kenya and South Africa have been ranked as the most progressive with a highest score of 6 which denotes a full maturity stage of an NREN.

Commenting on the report, author Michael Foley said:  “Hopefully, this World Bank report can support the advocacy efforts of practitioners on the ground as they seek government and institutional backing in the establishment, or further growth, of their local and regional research and education networks, which are key to inclusion in global academic activity.” 

The report is available for download.

EthERNet set to introduce a new cloud service for member institutions 

The Ethiopian Education and Research Network (EthERNet), is set to become the country’s first government institution to provide a new cloud service to its members as it plan to launch an education cloud service that will be available for public universities in the country in the next two months.

The NREN, a member of UbuntuNet Alliance, announced on its website in February 2017 that it will soon launch Education as a Service (EaaS), a cloud service that allows students to chose and learn specific courses from programmes being offered by universities via their electronic devices. 

According to the website, the NREN will introduce the service after getting 1.2 billion Birr ($525,000) from the Ethiopian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MICT) for the rolling out of the exercise.

The EaaS will join a list of services on EthERNet’s portfolio. Other services currently being offered by the NREN include DNS, Web and Shared Hosting, Identity Management, Digital Repository and other technical support services.

According to EthERNet more new cloud services including Arc Geographic Information System, (GIS) and Graduate Verication System (GVS) will be tested soon in readiness for implementation.

EthERNet was founded in 2009 under the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education with the aim of supporting public higher education institutions. The NREN runs and maintains a 10g high speed fibre network connectivity for its member institutions.    

RedCLARA announces peering with Google

The Regional Research and Education Network (RREN) for Latin America, RedCLARA has achieved another great milestone after it announced that it is now peering with Google effective March 1, 2017.

The announcement made on the RRENs website means that connected NREN members and Entrepreneurial Associates can benefit from the service, bringing benefits to academics and researchers throughout the region.

RedCLARA’s Google peering consists of a 10Gbps data connection established in São Paulo through CLARA backbone, which allows members of academic networks to get faster access to Google content since they are no longer dependent on the commercial network. All the public services are included, such as the search engine, Gmail, Youtube and the business suite.

The agreement was devised in 2016 and became real at the end of February with the aforementioned interconnection. According to the Technical Manager of RedCLARA, Gustavo García, the use of the services will be transparent to the users of the academic networks, "that will not have to change their configurations".

"The result will be greater speed and capacity of access to services, optimization of the academic broadband use of institutions and the improvement of income, since it will avoid the use of congested commercial internet connection," he said.

The agreement with Google is the second of the type signed by RedCLARA, which already has a similar peering with Microsoft.

This article first appeared on the RedCLARA website. Read the original version.

Call for Articles

NUANCE is the monthly e-newsletter published by UbuntuNet Alliance. Key content  is news from, about, or of interest to National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in Africa. We request and invite you to submit an item before the 20th of each month capturing:
  • News and developments from your NREN and news items of interest to NRENs
  • Content networks: how researchers and academics are using the REN infrastructure to enhance effectiveness and efficiency their work and to promote national and international collaboration
  • Hot tips about something you have done successfully (organisational or technical)
  • A photo that tells a story
  • Looking into the future, especially with regards to fibre infrastructure

Submissions should be sent to info@ubuntunet.net