15 August 2012

Southern Africa: High-Speed Internet Links Regional Universities

Photo: Samsung Tomorrow
Students in class.

Lilongwe — The first high-speed Internet link between national research networks in Sub-Saharan Africa was launched last month (17 July) when Zambia was linked up to South Africa by a cable passing through Zimbabwe.

It will allow Zambian scientists to join Géant, a European high speed internet network dedicated to researchers, through the SEACOM submarine cable node in South Africa, opening the door to them to participate in advanced regional and global research collaborations.

The link connects higher education institutions within the Zambia Research and Education Network to those in South Africa's Tertiary Education Network (TENET), using internet infrastructure supplied by the UbuntuNet Alliance - a Malawi-based association of research and education networks covering southern and eastern Africa.

The link will in particular enable Zambia's researchers to participate in global e-learning schemes, and help them share large datasets with colleagues around the world.

"Medical researchers will be early beneficiaries, as high definition images can now be shared and investigated collaboratively," Margaret Ngwira, UbuntuNet Alliance's special projects coordinator, told SciDev.Net.

"Research and education data can now be shared nationally, regionally and globally on a high quality secure network," she said, adding that this brings the "Zambian research and education community into the global community, permitting their participation in cutting edge research".

Moffat Nyirenda, a professor at the University of Malawi's College of Medicine, hopes the initiative will allow regional universities to move away from using satellite-based connections, which experience long transmission delays.

"As researchers, we produce large amounts of data, and to be able to communicate within groups you need a secure and reliable means of communication," Nyirenda said. "This new link will help to develop regional teams of researchers."

Ngwira said the link is the first building block in a regional southern African network.

She added that the EU-funded AfricaConnect project - a four-year programme that aims to establish a high-capacity Internet network for research and education in southern and eastern Africa - is expected to be rolled out later in the year.

This should allow most other countries in the region to link up through a high speed network, Ngwira said.

Duncan Martin, TENET's chief executive officer, expects bandwidth costs for research and educational networks to continue to fall sharply, lowering the access costs that universities will need pay to access the link.

"Unit costs will continue to drop, except in those countries where the traditional telecommunications operator continues to have a monopoly," Martin said.

The Zambian link was funded by a €2.25 million (US$2.8 million) grant from the Netherlands Initiative for Capacity development in Higher Education, and a €350,000 (US$432,294) grant from the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority.

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