NRENs: Accessing the connectivity revolution for education

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[Note: This was originally posted in two parts on the World Bank's End Poverty in South Asia blog. It is reproduced here by gracious permission of the author.]

Linking Asia-Pacific to Europe and beyond | photo courtesy of Dante.netWhen Jim Wolfensohn, then President of the World Bank, sent me to Kabul in early 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban, in order to set up the first GDLN center in Afghanistan, the main challenge was to find decent Internet connectivity. In the end we had to set up our own satellite connection back to the World Bank in Washington, DC. The same happened in Sri Lanka. How things have changed in South Asia.

For a long time, universities in the region had to rely on high cost, low speed, satellite based services to bring Internet access to its faculty and students, but that situation is changing rapidly. Led by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Pakistan and more recently by the National Knowledge Commission in India, and by a host of other programs in other countries, educational institutions across the region are building or rebuilding their networks, connecting to each other and to global networks with high speed fiber optic links that are set to revolutionize how we share knowledge and collaborate in research.

The building blocks of this connectivity are the fiber based campus networks in individual institutions that connect to a centrally operated high capacity national fiber backbone, called an NREN (National Research and Education Network), which in turn connects to other countries’ NRENs and then to regional networks like GÉANT in Europe or Internet2 in the US.

The South Asian NRENs that are currently operating are; ERNET in India, NREN in Nepal, PERN2 in Pakistan, and LEARN in Sri Lanka. The other countries in South Asia are working to build their own networks, some with the help of the World Bank.

The Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) in Bangladesh for instance, has a component funded by the World Bank to build BdREN, which aims to connect all of the higher education institutions of the country to each other at very high speeds. LEARN has been the first NREN to get support from the World Bank; to acquire long-term access to fiber and to establish a videoconferencing service for its members. Combined with the World Bank efforts at the country level, the European Commission and the US National Science Foundation are part funding the linkages that connect the country NRENs to each other and to European, Asian and American networks. A global academic village is being built right now!

How did this happen so suddenly?

The key to the opportunity to build an NREN is the availability of fiber optic cable in telecommunications networks. These cables are being deployed globally, undersea by international telecom consortia and in country by public and private telecoms, and by other network owners like railway and electricity companies. After the telecom bust in the late nineties there was a lot of consolidation and buying up of assets including the undersea cables, which brought down the cost of submarine fiber but also brought a lull in the deployment of new fiber.

However, there is a new confidence in the market, most notably in the emerging economies of Asia and Africa. Africa will show a veritable explosion in the availability of submarine connections in the coming two years. The map shows some of the new connections coming to parts of South Asia too. Within South Asia the real revolution has been in the deployment of in-country networks, although new submarine cables are being laid too, adding to what was already there.

Assessing the connectivity revolution for education

PERN2 High Level Design | click to view Full Resolution MapOne could say that by being connected to the rest of the academic world through an NREN your isolation from research projects, high cost lab equipment, and world-class leading edge knowledge will disappear. If you are a physicist you can contemplate joining research teams using the Large Halidron Collider in CERN in Switzerland, an astronomer can manipulate in real time a telescope in Chile or access the data from radio telescopes, a medic can join in high definition seminars on advanced techniques in surgery or remote diagnostics, climate specialists can access and provide data to disaster management databases, an economist can access and contribute to economic modeling resources, and everyone can gain access to the thousands of on-line specialist journals.

Even without large international bandwidth NRENs can host mirror sites that keep local traffic local, a typical example being Digital Libraries which can download international journals and databases that need only be downloaded once to a country and then accessed at high speed on the country’s own high speed backbone. Another example of high bandwidth local use is the Country-wide Classroom project which is bringing IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) classes to cities in India without an IIT, and which runs on the currently being deployed National Knowledge Network, the $1.5 billion project of the Government of India.

How can you access these networks?

The first port of call for such an enquiry is to contact the Chief Technology Officer at your own institution and to enquire about the status of its connection to your NREN and of the speeds that you can expect on your office PC, your computer lab workstation, or your campus WiFi network. You can also look up the links to your own NREN, provided above, and see what services they provide and their plans for the future.

Guest blogger Michael Foley was the lead Distance Learning Specialist at the World Bank in Washington, DC until his retirement three years ago.  Beginning in 1997, Michael work on all aspects of the Bank's Global Distance Learning Network
Michael welcomes comments, questions and suggestions on this exciting topic.

Image credits: The map "Linking Asia-Pacific to Europe and beyond" at the top of this blog post is (c) and is used by permission.



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