[DURBAN] Funding for the first phase of an initiative to connect African research centres and link them to an existing European network has been approved by the European Commission.
The approval follows a report that identified sufficient IT infrastructure in Africa to support the AfricaConnect Initiative, which aims to improve research collaborations and access to information.
The report, released last month (March 22), is based on a one-year Feasibility Study for African–European Research and Education Network Interconnection (FEAST), funded by the European Commission and carried out by the Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.
Most national research and education networks (NRENs) in Africa are now near, or will soon be near, one of several recently-landed undersea fibre optic cables, the report said. This may enable them to join GÉANT, an existing pan-European research and education network.
Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a technology research company in South Africa, said that the new undersea cables bring unprecedented opportunity as well as challenges to the continent's research community.
"At an academic level there is tremendous interest in collaboration and cooperation, and the progress made in South Africa … in connecting up universities while bypassing the one-time monopoly provider has been an object lesson in what is possible," said Goldstuck.
The first to benefit from the new collaborations are likely to be NRENs already connected to the emerging regional network — UbuntuNet, based in Malawi. To reinforce this network and encourage collaboration on a larger scale, UbuntuNet should join AfricaConnect Initiative, as partners or subcontractors, together with European NRENs, the report said.
But Martin Belcher, director of programmes at the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, Sweden, warned that "getting cables ashore is one thing, increased connectivity to an individual in a research project something else".
The terrestrial connections necessary to take advantage of the new undersea cables are still "way behind" in many African countries and this could reduce the availability of bandwidth for research and collaboration, agreed Spiwe Chireka, an information and communication technologies analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a global business research and consulting firm. She expects that coastal regions will benefit from the new cables sooner than inland regions.
The FEAST report also found that high bandwidth costs and under-developed or poorly enforced telecommunication regulations are also likely to delay implementation of the project.
It might take another three to four years before bandwidth prices in the region come down, said Chireka.
Belcher said the biggest challenges facing the project now are human capacity issues and policy frameworks within individual universities and research institutes in East and Southern Africa.
Link to final FEAST report [738kB]