Bandwidth can bring African universities up to speed

February 02, 2011
Steve Song
Viewpoint

There are two striking facts about African universities and bandwidth. The first is that the average university in Africa has the same aggregate bandwidth as a single home user in North America or Europe. The second is that the average African university pays more than 50 times for this bandwidth than its counterparts in Europe or North America do for much more capacity. (Bandwidth is a measure of how fast data flows through a communications line; the more bandwidth you have, the faster a Web page will load.)

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Communication and access to information are the lifeblood of universities. Increasingly, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are the channels through which this lifeblood flows. Extend the analogy, and one could say that African universities are suffering from a severe constriction of the arteries.

Opening these arteries could help tertiary institutions in Africa connect on an equal footing with their counterparts around the world, provide an environment that keeps African scholars home and attracts those from the North, and fulfill their role as nurturers of the intellectual capital needed to address Africa’s development challenges.

Bandwidth as enabler

Access to decent bandwidth would make several things possible for African researchers and educators. 

It would provide the opportunity to use ICTs to exchange ideas and to work with their peers elsewhere in the world. Collaboration is at the heart of research, and much of this collaboration today is being mediated through information and communication technologies, whether it’s online peer review processes or videoconferencing of critical medical procedures. Hamstrung from full participation in the global online research community, African scholars face huge obstacles in keeping up with the latest developments in their fields, let alone making original contributions. 

More bandwidth would also give African academics access to a wealth of scholarly publications online. There are several excellent initiatives to make these publications available to African universities ─ HINARI in the health sector and AGORA in the agricultural sector, for example ─ but they’re hindered by the bandwidth issue.

HINARI, or the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative, provides national universities and other nonprofit institutions in the South with free or low-cost online access to the major journals in biomedical and related social sciences. More than 2 000 journals are available. HINARI is part of the Health InterNetwork, led by the World Health Organization. The Health InterNetwork uses the Internet to give public health workers, researchers, and policymakers access to high-quality, relevant, and timely health information; the ultimate aim is to strengthen public health services.

It’s not hard to see how access to the world’s top biomedical journals could be important in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, for example. But effective use of HINARI requires reliable, reasonably fast Internet access, a luxury which is not currently within the reach most African universities.

Why so much for so little?

Why are African universities paying so much for bandwidth? The reasons are technological, commercial, and political.

The ideal bandwidth for universities is fibre optic cable; it’s fast, relatively cheap, and has vast data transfer capacity. (Fibre optic cable uses thin glass fibres to transmit large amounts of data in the form of pulses of light.) But fibre optic cable has very limited penetration in Africa; vast tracts of the continent’s coast have no access, and there is limited access inland. Even universities that lie along the submarine fibre optic cable running up the west coast of Africa (SAT-3/WASC/SAFE) typically can't afford the access cost. Although only 15% of this fibre optic cable is in use, the cartel that runs it is concerned about recouping its investment and the price of access is high.

The alternative is satellite bandwidth, which is inferior in quality and more expensive. The good news is that there’s substantial satellite coverage over Africa, so going after more satellite bandwidth makes the most sense right now. The problem is that prices tend to be controlled by either monopolies or cartels in various countries, or expensive government licensing fees.

The need for telecom policy reform remains one of the critical barriers to access to ICTs in Africa.

The power of collective action

Key to moving forward on the bandwidth issue is collective action on the part of African universities.

Few countries in Africa have the critical mass of universities required to form a national research and education network (NREN) to negotiate for better prices, as has happened in other parts of the world. In Ecuador, for example, national universities have banded together to secure a greater than 50% drop in the price of Internet access for universities.

There are some exceptions in Africa ─ South Africa, Egypt, Morocco - and about a dozen other NRENs in Africa are emerging, but it’s a slow process.

By tapping into economies of scale, a consortium of African universities could significantly reduce the cost of bandwidth for its member institutions. The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, working through the African Virtual University is one early and promising initiative in this area.

There also needs to be recognition that African universities deserve special consideration when it comes to Internet access. Currently, there’s no regulatory dispensation in most African countries for universities seeking bandwidth; universities purchase their bandwidth in the same environment that companies do. Negotiating a better deal for African universities ─ recognizing that they are the intellectual lifeblood of the continent ─ will be a critical role for any collective action that emerges.

An attainable goal   

Getting more bandwidth to African universities is an attainable goal, but it requires much work to build a critical mass of support from a variety of actors: donors, technical experts, university vice-chancellors, and African governments. Efforts are underway, with African universities starting to organize and donors investing in research and education networking in Africa.

Bandwidth is not a panacea. Higher education is a complex issue ─ a thriving university needs several crucial elements, among them qualified and inspiring teachers and a strong infrastructure. But adequate bandwidth seems to be the key to the success of several existing development initiatives ─ HINARI and AGORA, for example.

And it’s not hard to see the opportunities more bandwidth could make possible. To drive the growth of African universities, the focus has been on providing scholarships for Africans to study elsewhere, which further adds to Africa’s “brain drain.” A solid information and communication infrastructure ─ that includes bandwidth comparable to that of Northern universities ─ could enhance the capacity of African universities to draw and retain its scholars. It could also make African universities attractive places for Northern researchers and educators as well, reversing the flow of intellectual capital out of African universities and deepening the exchange of knowledge between North and South.

It will be difficult to measure the impact of more bandwidth - the impact of more closely connecting African researchers with each other and the global research community. But there are some predictable and positive impacts, and more bandwidth is within reach. Securing better bandwidth access will help Africa claim its voice in global research and education networks.
 

Promoting African Research and Education Networking (PAREN)

Promoting African Research and Education Networking (PAREN), an initiative of Connectivity Africa (CA), is attempting to stimulate the formation of a collective organization that would represent African universities on the bandwidth issue. Managed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Connectivity Africa is a Government of Canada program to improve access to information and communication technologies in Africa.

Through support from CA, a research paper profiling African initiatives in research and education networking at the annual general meeting of the Association of African Universities (AAU) in January 2005. The paper stimulated much discussion and the AAU formed a working group to look at how it might address this issue. CA has also funded a second research report, which focuses on donor investment in African research and education networkingwhich was presented at the Open Access Conference in May 2005. IDRC cofunded this conference with Swedish Sida, one of the major international funders of university networking in Africa. A portion of that meeting focused on university networking; CA brought people from all over Africa to the meeting to discuss how to move forward.

 
CA will also be involved in an Internet2 meeting in the United States in September, 2005, and an event at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November, 2005.

Steve Song is the manager of IDRC's Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D) programs in Africa