A South African National Research and Educational Network

Mike Lawrie


A presentation made at the
NATIONAL INTERNET AND EDUCATIONAL COMPUTING CONFERENCE
Herschel, 28 Sep 1995
Mike Lawrie, Manager: UNINET

The history of Uninet can readily be traced back to the efforts of South African Universities, who tried to establish a research network in 1985. Prior to this, the CSIR had a nation-wide network for its own use, and there was a linkup of Wits/Potch/Pretoria universities.

Towards the end of 1987, the Foundation for Research Development, with the consent of all interested parties, took the intiative in setting up Uninet. Seed money was provided to pay for equipment and circuits, and each site paid a nominal fee to be part of Uninet. The value of the efforts that some sites put into establishing the network far exceeded the fee. About 15 sites were involved in Uninet within a year or so. Currently, there are more than 50 fee-paying sites on Uninet, dial-up links to a number of African countries, and full Internet links to two African countries. The fees recovered are used to pay for the circuits used by Uninet, all told an amount of R3.3M in 1995.

One has to bear in mind that the mission of the FRD is the balanced provision of human resources and expertise in science, engineering and technolgy, through the support of research and education, for economic growth and the social advancement of all South Africans. It has been stated on numerous occasions by the President of the FRD, Dr R R Arndt, that the brief covers all South Africans from the cradle to the grave, although the focus is of necessity at the tertiary educational level.

The drive for the network was to provide a way for researchers and academics at Universities and at research institutes to exchange information via a network. This had proved to be of immense value in the USA, and South Africa could not afford to be left behind if the FRD was to fulfil its mission.

So, how has it happened that schools are using Uninet circuits?

The history is that it seemed to be quite easy to link St Andrew's College in Grahamstown to Rhodes University. All of the elements were right - these include a supportive headmaster, a network-aware computer centre, the right teacher at the school, and experience with low-cost Internet connections.

The Uninet Board, which consists mainly of members elected by the fee-paying membership, agreed on an interim policy of no charge as long as the connecting site handled all of the problems. This policy is still in place. On the one hand, it is fine, on the other, schools never know when this might change and they will have to pay for their Internet connectivity, be it to Uninet or to a commercial Internet Service Provider.

Schools are not the only organisations with financial problems. There are a number of institutions that need network access but appear to be unable to find the funds. These include teachers training colleges, colleges of education, museums, and no doubt many others.

So, what should we do in South Africa to address these problems?

The FRD recognises the importance of having schools connected to the Internet. Apart from allowing better educational support, in that teachers can use the net to discuss educational problems, there is a need that the next generation of South Africans be familiar with the tools of the Information Age. There is also a need for a channel of delivery of lesson material to schools, in particular interactive TV-based material.

At the same time, Uninet's needs are growing. The circuit to the USA doubled in capacity on 26 May 95, and by mid-September it was running at 100% load for 24 hours a day. The best estimates are that Uninet needs to double its bandwidth each year, starting from a 2048 Kbps base in 1996. Simple maths shows that this leads to a budget increasing from R3.3M of 1995 to almost R50M in the year 2000. That is an average of R1M per site, which means that the large sites will be paying around R5M/yr.

By way of comparison, Brazil is spending R40M/yr on its Internet infrastructure, it has a link to the USA running at 4096 Kpbs, and regards it as a matter of national survival that Internet connectivity happens. Circuits that connect educational institutions to the backbone enjoy a 50% discount off the commercial tariffs.

The current thinking at the FRD is that Uninet must be looked at afresh. There are three distinct phases, the initial startup 1987-1991 that used seed money, the expansion period of 1992-1994 when many sites joined Uninet, and now the higher bandwidth needs.

So, a proposal is being formulated that could lead to a network that has as its objectives the provision of IP services for research and education, where education is to be used in its widest sense. Included in the meaning are schools, Community Colleges, Colleges of Education, Technical Colleges, Museums, private educational instiutions, NGOs and Foundations that are involved in education, and others of this ilk. On the one hand, this network should support realtime interactive and multimedia education, and on the other hand add a dimension to education that is fast becoming an accepted norm amongst competitive nations.

The fine details are yet to be worked out - eg how would services be supplied, centrally or via local initiatives like the WCSN, what would the tariff structure look like, timescales. For sure, such a network is not going to happen because "they" do it for "us", we at this conference are both the "they" and the "us", we will have to get involved in a manner that is win-win for all of us.

For one, I am confident that this can be done, and that there is ample spirit and willingness in the country that will make this succeed. I've given my ideas. I'd like to hear yours, and to get your input on how we might proceed.


<slide 2>
HISTORY OF UNINET


<slide 3>
CURRENTLY (Sep 1995)


<slide 4>
THE MISSION OF THE FRD

The balanced provision of human resources and expertise in science, engineering and technolgy, through the support of research and education, for economic growth and the social advancement of all South Africans.

It has been stated on numerous occasions by the President of the FRD, Dr R R Arndt, that the brief covers all South Africans from the cradle to the grave, although the focus is of necessity at the tertiary educational level.


<slide 5>
FOCUS OF UNINET

To provide a way for researchers and academics at Universities and at research institutes to exchange information via a network.

South Africa could not afford to be left behind if the FRD was to fulfil its mission.


<slide 6>
SCHOOLS USING UNINET?

The first link was easy (St Andrew's College in Grahamstown to Rhodes University)

The Uninet Board agreed on an interim policy of no charge


<slide 7>
OTHER INSTITUTIONS

Schools are not the only organisations with financial problems.

There are a number of institutions that need network access but appear to be unable to find the funds.

These include

What should we do in South Africa to address these problems?


<slide 8>
UNINET'S NEEDS ARE GROWING.

The circuit to the USA doubled in capacity on 26 May 95.

By mid-September it was running at 100% load for 24 hours a day.

The best estimates are that Uninet needs to double its bandwidth each year, starting from a 2048 Kbps base in 1996.

Simple maths shows that this leads to a budget increasing from R3.3M of 1995 to almost R50M in the year 2000.

Brazil is spending R40M/yr on its Internet infrastructure, it has a link to the USA running at 4096 Kpbs


<slide 9>
PROPOSAL

A proposal is being formulated at the FRD that could lead to a network for research and education, where education is to be used in its widest sense.

Included in the meaning of education are

Realtime interactive

Add a dimension to education that is fast becoming an accepted norm amongst competitive nations.


<slide 10>
DETAILS? WHAT DETAILS?

The fine details are yet to be worked out, eg

For sure, such a network is not going to happen because "they" do it for "us", we at this conference are both the "they" and the "us", we will have to get involved in a manner that is win-win for all of us.

I've given my ideas. I'd like to hear yours, and to get your input on how we might proceed.