[CAPE TOWN] A plan to link up African researchers via a high-speed computer intranet finally has substantial backing, following a cash commitment from the European Union (EU).
The EU has put forward €14.75 million (around US$21 million) to help build the high-capacity regional intranet, for academic and research institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The four-year AfricaConnect project will connect national and research education networks (NRENs) in Africa and link them to Europe's multi-gigabit research and education network, GÉANT.
"What this means is much easier and much faster access to online learning and research resources nationally, regionally and internationally for African researchers and students," said Francis Tusubira, chief executive of the UbuntuNet Alliance, an association of eastern and southern African NRENs.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the world's last regional community to develop a research and education intranet. Such a network uses a separate infrastructure from the commercial Internet and is usually a forerunner to improved Internet connectivity for everyone in a region. It is not for public use and is only available to researchers and students through their institutions.
The AfricaConnect initiative will be coordinated by Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe (DANTE), a non-profit umbrella body owned by European NRENs. DANTE will work with the UbuntuNet Alliance and with West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) to cover other regions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
AfricaConnect will be developed in two phases, said Cathrin Stöver, international relations manager at DANTE. The first, lasting one year, will be for procuring equipment and planning; the second will take three years, focusing on getting the system up and running.
"DANTE's involvement is to share our knowledge and experience in the development stage, after which it will be up to the regional community to manage the system," Stöver said.
Such research and education networks enable scientists to move massive quantities of data over the Internet, said Colin Wright, from the Meraka Institute at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
"In South Africa, for instance, the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory uses an intranet very effectively to move huge quantities of data."
Wright said the biggest cost for the new Sub-Saharan intranet would probably be laying cables to connect remote destinations.
About 80 per cent of the funds will be provided by the European Commission's EuropeAid development and cooperation directorate, with the remainder contributed by African partners in the project.
Partners include the Association of African Universities, existing NRENs in Africa (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) and several European NRENs (Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom).
The contract was signed last month (11 May) in Botswana.