African universities will buy 60 Gb of bandwidth and set up a continental network

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Almost unnoticed African universities have come together to sort out their bandwidth problems in the new era of fibre. In April 2010, European NREN Dante will start to implement with eastern Africa’s UbuntuNet Alliance, a continental network to link up African universities with plentiful bandwidth to their colleagues across the globe. On 1 November West and Central Africa will set up its own network organisation to join the process. African universities currently spend an estimated US$1.4 million and are destined to become important players in network development.

15 million euros from the European Commission will go via European National Research Network (NREN) Dante to buy connectivity for African universities with a start date for implementation of April 2010. A 25% contribution will either come from the African Union or national Governments. According to UbuntuNet Alliance’s Tusu Tusubira:”Dante will buy the cross-border connectivity and UbuntuNet may get to operate it. UbuntuNet wants to be part of the implementation and to develop the opportunity.”

In advance of this happening, National Research Networks (NRENs) have been buying their own capacity in considerable quantity at low prices that acknowledge universities are a different type of customer. According to Tusubira:”NRENs are getting offers of 20-25% off commercial prices and the providers can see the benefits.” TERNET in Tanzania is being offered an STM4 at a good price and the Rwandan Government has bought an STM4 for 1 year from Seacom, an STM1 of which will go to RwEdNet. Tusubira estimates that the US$1.4 million currently spent by the universities will eventually buy 60 Gbps duplex and this up from around 800 mbps semi-duplex.

South African NREN TENET got the ball rolling by buying an STM64 from Seacom, which is just short of 10 Gbps. Price? US$20 million up-front plus a 3% operation and maintenance charge for a protected circuit. As an independent cable provider Seacom understood the importance of the university market as an “anchor tenant” early whereas some of the other telco-initiated cable providers were keener on universities buying individually at higher prices. As Dunacan Martin, CEO of TENET tells it:”Seacom has been very supportive.”

By the end of year, the South African research and education backbone SANRen will connected and the full bandwidth can be delivered to the member universities. Currently universities are receiving less than 0.5 Gbps. But Martin made the point that at the end of this September TENET gave up using SAT3:”The price dropped by 90% for layer 2 to London.”

As interestingly, TENET is buying and lighting a dark fibre route of 160 kms from the landing station to Durban provided by Dark Fibre Africa. The latter gets together three customers to pay for building a dark fibre route. Again the cost savings are immense, according to Martin:”Including the equipment to light the route it will cost us R13 million and that is a small fraction of what an incumbent was going to charge us for a 10 Gb circuit. Also with dark fibre, the capacity can be upgraded.”

However all is not plain sailing as the capacity will have to cross borders to supply universities in neighbouring countries. The problem as Martin has discovered is as follows:”Cross border connectivity prices are controlled by unpublished agreements between incumbent operators on either side of the border. One of the negotiating partners, Telkom, said it would drop its prices to accommodate us but the other country’s telco would not agree”.

But for other customers, telcos in this situation hold prices high on both ends. In these circumstances, it is hard to see why power utilities, who have cross border fibre capacity in Southern Africa, are not licensed to provide a competitive cross-border offer. However, UbuntuNet Alliance’s CEO Tusu Tusubira is anticipating fewer problems with this cross-berder issue in the more liberalised East African region.

At present, national NRENs are buying capacity for themselves and there is an issue as to whether UbuntuNet Alliance will buy capacity and do the regional link-ups or whether national NRENs will do it for themselves. But as CEO Tusubira observed:”There is now trust between different groups and they are coming forward with their problems. We’re working as a real network.”

On the West and Central side of the continent, the Co-ordinator of Research and Education Networking of the Association of African Universities, Boubakar Barry has been the moving force behind getting an UbuntuNet Alliance-like structure together that will be launched on 1 November.

Barry emphasises the unique nature of universities as customers:”Providers should not consider the Higher Education and Research institutions as normal customers. They are critical for the development of Africa. It’s now very important for them to be able to part of the game with this type of infrastructure for global academic collaborations.”

Universities need to be licensed to transmit traffic both nationally and internationally:”The same rules cannot apply to Higher Education and Research Institutions that apply to other operators. It’s a public good. If you train and educate people, it benefits the private sector as they need highly trained engineers. Networked universities will provide them.”

Barry makes the point that the Higher Education and Research Institutions have themselves to understand their own importance and budget for this work on an annual basis:”Funding can’t simply be provided to address a particular problem. It has to be budgeted for annually. If it breaks down, the money has to be there to fix it otherwise we won’t benefit from all this bandwidth.”