African varsities enjoy cheap internet bandwidth

Monday February 28 2011

By MICHAEL OUMA

A global education partnership is working to help selected pioneer African universities make significant savings on their internet bandwidth costs.

Through the Bandwidth Consortium (BWC) initiative developed by the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA), selected institutions of higher learning have saved about $19.7 million in the first three years since its launch.

A report titled “Accomplishments of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2000-2010” aimed to act as a review of a decade of collaborative foundation investment, says that the savings “equals 3.5 times the PHEA investments of $5.5 million for subsidised bandwidth and the administrative and technical support of the BWC unit.”

“The lower cost afforded through the Bandwidth Consortium allowed universities to increase their purchase from an aggregated 12 Mbps of bandwidth, thereby ensuring that Africans were not left behind by their overseas peers,” notes the report.

Launched in 2000, the PHEA was formed by four foundations - Carnegie Corporation, John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Andrew W Mellon Foundation and later joined by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The Kresge Foundation.

It works to coordinate its members’ support for higher education in Africa.

The foundations pledged $100 million in 2000 to cover the following five years. By end of 2005, the four PHEA founder members had made grants totalling $191 million for various higher education projects on the continent.

“To address the issue of bandwidth costs, Carnegie Corporation worked various ICT consortia in various countries – including the Kenya Education Network (Kenet)– and other ISPs from the continent to see how to cheaply purchase bandwidth,” said Vartan Gregorian, Carnegie Corporation president

The BWC project also worked via UbuntuNet Alliance, a partnership established to capitalise on the emergence of optical fibre and other terrestrial infrastructure opportunities and thus become the Research and Education Network backbone of Eastern and Southern Africa tertiary education and research institutions.

“The BWC works in a consortium comprising 35 universities in Africa to help them purchase internet bandwidth cheaply to enhance learning and is in recognition of the fact that Africa has the highest volume of unutilized bandwidth,” noted Gregorian.

The PHEA was formed in response to trends of democratisation, public policy reform and the increasing participation of civil society organisations in various African countries.

Apart from the bandwidth support, notes the report, the PHEA support has helped 12 universities and research institutions to develop the capacity to manage their IT networks in collaboration with the Africa Network Operators’ Group (AfNOG).

Through PHEA support, seven universities are currently implementing action plans to use educational technology to improve teaching and learning through PHEA’s Educational Technology Initiative.

Projects in this area include deployment of learning management systems; development of digital content for health sciences, engineering and other disciplines; and creation of multi-media “tele-classrooms.”

Others are exploring use of mobile phones and radios for distance learning, digitizing of dissertations and past exams as well as development of students’ e-portfolios.

The body focuses its support in nine African countries – Kenya, Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Mdagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana – which have a combined population of about 460 million.

Overall, South Africa has been the highest recipient of PHEA grants at $124 million (28 per cent); followed by Nigeria with $61 million (14 per cent) with Uganda coming in third with $43 million (10 per cent).

Tanzania has received $19 million (4 per cent); while Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Madagascar and Mozambique have each received grants worth more than 2 per cent of the total amount.

The partnership’s efforts will help improve Africa’s tertiary enrolment ratio of 3 per cent and has so far improved conditions for about 4.1 million African students enrolled at 39 universities and colleges in the continent.