Towards the end of the year, all South African universities and public research institutions are going to have ability to access internet broadband, at a speed comparable to that of more developed nations.
South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training has revealed that R886-million (US$117-million) is going to be invested in linking local universities and public research organisations, by way of a broadband connection with a minimum speed of 10 gigabits per second.
The development signals a whole new era in research and cooperation for South Africa. It places the country on a par with the rest of the developed world for the very first time.
South Africa’s message to overseas scientists is apparent. “Scientists will have the opportunity to come to the country, with the knowledge that they are able to access the exact same quality ICT services as they are used to in their home countries,” says Christiaan Kuun, project manager for the South African National Research Network (SANReN)
The SANReN forms a part of the government’s goal to grow scientific infrastructure and develop a new national research and education network (NREN) in South Africa.
The SANReN project, which happens to be an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology, started in 2007 to develop an enabling information technology environment for students and researchers at tertiary institutions.
SANReN for rural areas
As reported by the Meraka Institute at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), tertiary institutions in rural areas are the latest to reap some benefits from the SANReN roll-out.
The Meraka Institute manages implementation and oversight of the project. The institute concentrates on advancement and research in information technology.
Included in phase two of the project, infrastructure development is going to be expanded to smaller, rural universities and satellite campuses throughout the country.
The University of Venda and its satellite campuses in the North West province, Limpopo, and the Eastern Cape amongst others, are going to connect later in the year to SANReN the very first time.
This will insure that it is possible to access the internet at a minimum speed of one gigabit per second.
Phase one, which was completed late last year, made it feasible for 105 tertiary and research councils, included in this 23 educational institutions and eight science councils, to connect to SANReN.
The South African Large Telescope (Salt) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) internet connections were at the same time finalised in the first phase, which now makes it possible for local and international scientists to process large quantities of data every day.
How it works
The SANReN national ring network links all South Africa’s major cities – Durban, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London -with each other. This connection provides a speed of 10 gigabits per second.
International connectivity is supplied via the Seacom undersea cable along with a joint collaboration with the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa and international networks such as GÉANT, a pan-European research and education network.
ICT for Education
Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize, deputy minister of higher education, states that the network forms part of the government’s aspiration to fast track research and education capabilities through ICT at all tertiary institutions, with top priority given to rural based institutions.
Mkhize represented the country at the Southern African ICT for Education Summit held at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe on 26 and 27 January.
Government has made a significant investment in various projects and infrastructure, of which SANReN forms a part.
Government-owned telecommunications company Sentech is establishing a national wireless broadband network focussing on rural access.
Broadband Infraco, also government owned, is modernizing its network to boost capacity and reach.
The government has additionally invested in submarine cable projects including the West Africa Cable System (Wacs) and the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy).
Wacs is an under-construction submarine communications cable linking South Africa with the United Kingdom running along the west coast of Africa.
EASSy is an undersea fibre optic cable system linking countries of eastern Africa to the rest of the world.
According to Mkhize, EASSy will provide an extra eight terabits to the country.
SA’s global IT ranking
The 2010-2011 Global Information Technology Report from the World Economic Forum ranks South Africa 61st of 138 countries on its networked readiness index.
The index analyzes a county’s IT readiness in three areas: the regulatory, infrastructure and business environment for IT in the country; the readiness of business, government and individuals (three key groups identified) to use and benefit from IT; and actual ICT usage figures by these groups.
For the second consecutive year, Sweden and Singapore were placed first and second respectively. Overall, Nordic and Asian countries lead in the readiness ratings.
South Africa has both good and bad points in this regard. Its regulatory environment is excellent, however its individual readiness and uptake of ICT remains low.
The high cost of access to ICT in South Africa is an additional challenge. However, SANReN is dealing with this problem.
This lies at the centre of the skills challenge in South Africa, admitted Mkhize.
Approximately three-million young people in rural and semi-urban areas have the most pressing educational needs, she stated.
While government’s investments is going a considerable way to enhance the future of rural students, in order for ICT investments to be meaningful, a holistic approach is required, she added.
“Above everything, we need to utilize centres of higher learning as hubs of technology transfer.”