Breaking the Final Connectivity Barriers for Higher Education Institutions in Africa: The Next Steps and A Call to Action

During the late 90s, a growing wave of action started among African universities and research institutions, focusing on the need for global connectivity to provide access to especially journal databases and other online resources.

Alongside this was the general continental move towards liberalization of the telecommunications sector to introduce more competition and reach more people. The only option for regional and global connectivity at the time for most of Africa was via satellite, and that at very prohibitive costs, translating to a current €25,000 per Mbps/month. This ignited the push for collaboration to increase negotiating power and to benefit from economies of scale. A Bandwidth Consortium (BWC) funded by the US-based Foundations’ Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA) was among the first initiatives to aggregate the purchase of connectivity for higher education.

National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) and Regional Research and Education Networks (RRENs)
started taking root in Africa. The International Development Research Centre and the Network Startup Resource Centre (NSRC) played key roles in the initial funding, training, and popularisation of the Research and Education Network (REN) concept in the continent. Since then, a lot has been achieved, especially within the countries that were pioneers or early adapters to REN activity. The EU has provided tremendous funding support in the process, as did Dante and TERENA, now formally merged as GÉANT5, through implementation, sharing experience, and training. NRENs from Europe, Internet26, and Red CLARA7 also came into the picture as learning resources.

Developments in Eastern and Southern Africa are a strong testimony to the value and impact of NRENs and RRENs, with large consumer universities now accessing national, regional, and global connectivity via fiber at less than $20 per Mbps per month, and at the same time rapidly increasing institutional internal and external connectivity.
Alongside this, a lot of progress has also been made in the area of networking skills, creating a strong pool of engineers with frontline competence. NRENs in several of these countries stepped up and, working collaboratively with the private sector, extended connectivity reach outside campuses to enable continuity of learning and access to online resources during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

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