Africa’s universities took a step nearer joining their developed world colleagues when a group of them decided that they would bid for international fibre capacity in the EASSy fibre project and that they would seek to encourage the setting up of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs). This is the first time users have come together at this level in a bid to lower the price of their connectivity.The vision of delivering very high speed – gigabits per second (Gb/s) connectivity instead of the current kilobits per second (kb/s)between African Universities and Research Institutions is driving the Alliance forward at a rapid pace.
In February 2005, at the Association of African Universities Conference in Cape Town, two important events occurred: one was the identification of connectivity constraints as a major hindrance to rapid development of member universities. The second was the birth of SARUA, the Southern African Regional Universities Association, which is an association of Vice-Chancellors of all universities in the SADC region. The counterpart organisation for the east African region is IUCEA – the Inter-University Council of East Africa.
Historically, for various reasons, bandwidth to African Universities costs many times what Universities elsewhere expect to pay. As Professor Bjorn Pehrson of KTH, Sweden, says, “The Universities of Africa are now making an entirely reasonable appeal, namely to have same connectivity with global research networks and the Internet as is enjoyed by Universities in every other continent.”
By seeking to become an EASSy consortium member, the UbuntuNet Alliance is setting out to provide affordable intra-regional and international connectivity to enable its member NRENs to give universities and research institutions the ability to exchange content and collaborate on research and education activities both within the region and with world-wide partners. Access to EASSy will allow Alliance members to get access to the European NREN, Geant and to the Internet. The Alliance has the backing of several donors and it is seeking EU assistance for feasibility work on the setting up of the NRENs. The development of the Alliance has been facilitated by Canada’s IDRC and KTH.
The UbuntuNet Alliance will shortly be incorporated as a private, non-profit foundation whose Members are representatives nominated by established national NRENs) of countries in the eastern and southern regions of Africa.
African universities have along been the poor relation in their own countries, although they have often played a key role in producing the leaders and expertise needed. Cheap access to the internet and to learning materials available from other NRENs will not transform them overnight but it has a significant role to play in enhancing their future potential.
According to Americo Muchanga, Director of the Computer Centre, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane:"The connectivity obtained will allow us to exchange research between different countries and connect us to networks in other countries including: Geant (pan-European); Internet2 (North America); Tein2 (Asia); Ciara (Latin America) and EU Med (Europe, Middle East and 4 countries in North Africa). It will allow our member universities access to digital libraries containing research and publications as well as being able to offer distance learning materials effectively."
The founding members of the UbuntuNet Alliance are: Kenya (KENET), Malawi (MALICO/MAREN), Mozambique (Eduadro Mondlane University, Rwanda (National University of Rwanda) and South Africa (TENET). Discussions are under way with the following countries who may also join: DRC, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.