"Give African Universities Free Internet Access"
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Nairobi)
October 11, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
The Chronicle of Higher Education quoted this op-ed in " 'A Digitally Isolated Africa' " as part of its "The Wired Campus: Education-Technology News from around the Web" series on October 10, 2007.
Most African universities have hardly benefited from advances in telecommunications technologies and remain digitally-isolated from the rest of the world. This is due to government neglect and misguided views on the role of the market in facilitating Internet access.
But African universities remain underserved and are hardly benefiting from the global fund of freely available knowledge. In contrast, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced that the country’s universities will soon have free Internet access.
The announcement was in response to a plea made by university chancellors.
Access to knowledge is the lifeline of knowledge-based institutions and should be accorded the same priority as other critical infrastructure needs by universities such as access roads. Today, high-speed access to the Internet by universities may be even more important than access roads to campus.
Most faculty and students have no reliable Internet access. African universities of the size of the University of California have the Internet capability of a single US household. In theory it is like trying to get 30,000 people to use that single connection. In practice it does not work.
It is not uncommon to find university presidents relying on commercial Internet cafés for their regular business communications. But high prices and unreliable access have hobbled the use of the Internet as an effective learning and research tool.
The limited bandwidth that exists costs as much as $15,000 a month. And even when universities pay this much, they hardly have reliable access, leave alone the exact bandwidth they are paying for.
The result is a digitally-isolated Africa that cannot effectively educate its students and conduct quality research.
In much of Africa, communications prices are far higher than the cost of infrastructure warrants.
Africa (other than South Africa) is currently linked to the developed world by a single fiber-optic cable down the West Africa coast. It is the most digitally-isolated region on the globe.
Even so, that single cable is still underutilised. That cable is operated as a monopoly, and the owners (a consortium of Africa and foreign, including US companies) have set bandwidth prices so high that most users connect via satellite instead.
The vast majority of potential Internet usage is cut off and usage is restricted to those who can afford stratospheric rates.
Paradoxically, this makes free information a very expensive resource. African governments have abdicated their role in providing digital infrastructure to universities. This critical role has been left in the hands of external initiatives such as Bandwidth Consortium supported by four major US foundations under the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.
The consortium reached an agreement with Intelsat, a satellite service provider to expand Internet bandwidth to African universities and cut cost to about a third of the current rates.
The consortium started with 11 universities and two higher education agencies in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. Another 18 institutions have started using the service and the membership is expected to grow.
While such philanthropic responses to Africa’s higher education challenges are welcome, they cannot be a substitute for strong government support for university infrastructure. The way forward must involve serious government foresight and efforts to connect Africa to global knowledge networks.
Professor Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project
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