African Universities Need Affordable and Reliable Broadband

October 12, 2010
Michael Clarke

With the click of a mouse, students at Canadian universities find information quickly and download what they need at high speeds. They could not imagine doing research without using the Internet to supplement material from their university library.

But it’s a different story in most parts of Africa, where limited library collections make access to the Internet even more critical for research, yet that access is harder to come by. Most universities in Africa pay about 100 times as much for the internet as do those in Canada. The bandwidth available to the average African university roughly equals that of a single Canadian home. 

Canada’s International Development Research Centre is working to help solve this problem. For four decades, IDRC has been at the forefront of Canadian efforts to increase scientific and technological capabilities in the developing world.

The work is multi-faceted. One aspect has involved helping countries, including Chile, Mozambique, and Vietnam, develop national policies to boost the science and technology prowess that fuels economic growth, reduces poverty, and improves citizens’ lives in myriad ways.

But effective science and technology strategies rely on effective and affordable information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure — so that universities, for example, can participate fully in the global research and innovation process.

Progress does not occur in a vacuum, and research teams and networks need to be connected. And for African universities to continue to move forward, they need affordable and reliable broadband.

Happily, organizations such as the UbuntuNet Alliance and the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa are finding ways to deliver such access.

One way they do so is through economies of scale, purchasing bandwidth in bulk and reselling it at a discount to research and educational institutions across the continent.

IDRC, which has supported both those initiatives, also works with research organizations and governments to address barriers to the spread of ICTs, such as telecom monopolies that keep prices high.

In Indonesia, for example, consumers benefited after an IDRCsupported study by LIRNEasia, a regional research organization, contributed to a dramatic drop in the cost of phone and Internet service. Multi-country comparative research helped convince Indonesia’s telecom regulator to take steps that made the market more competitive and brought prices down.

But access to technology is not enough. People also need free and open access to the information flowing through the world’s fastchanging technological landscape.

Openness is central to IDRC’s support for advances in the ICT field, whether in business, education, health services, or government. For example, the Network of E-Government Leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean, jointly supported by IDRC and the Organization of American States, encourages greater accountability by allowing citizens to communicate with politicians and officials electronically. Another initiative in that region is using ICTs to modernize public procurement and open up the competitions to small and medium-sized businesses.

In the health field, exciting work is being done by computer science graduates in Rwanda, who are helping to develop an electronic medical record system. Their work is part of a large-scale collaboration among researchers in five countries, who are using open-source software that complies with international open standards to create a medical information system that will mean better and more cost effective healthcare for citizens.

The project has already helped to influence global thinking on open access. Network researchers recently attended a meeting of the World Health Organization, where they were able to influence the world’s key standards-setting bodies to place the standards in the open domain so that developing countries can access them at no cost.

A stable ICT platform, robust telecom policies, and open access are essential pillars of effective science and technology policy. Canada is helping the developing world on all fronts.

Michael Clarke is director of the Information and Communication Technologies for Development and Health and Health Systems programs at IDRC.