How can we bring together the best minds while also stemming the brain drain from developing countries? That has been the focus of the European Union’s partnership with GÉANT for the past 20 years. Working with National Research and Education Networks (NRENs), our partnership strengthens regional state-of-the-art data communication and drives innovative collaboration. We spoke to Tom Fryer, Head of International Relations, to find out more about how we are working to improve knowledge sharing and improve the ability of researchers, academics and students to collaborate better.
Tell us, in a nutshell, how our partnership is improving lives and contributing to a more sustainable future?
Our partnership has had an impact across the globe from Latin America, Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. Together we have helped develop R&E networking and overcome the digital divide in many regions across the globe. Today over 100 countries are connected to the global connectivity mesh for R&E, providing affordable and reliable high-capacity connectivity.
But it doesn’t stop there. The projects also support access to e-resources and e-services that open a world of unlimited global collaborations and opportunities to students, researchers, and scientists. NRENs across the globe have a multiplier effect and a greater impact on society: from helping researchers solve some of society’s greatest challenges, in fields like disaster management, agriculture, healthcare, environment, climatology and more, to bridging the digital divide and unlocking opportunities for online education and training.
What are the biggest challenges to connecting continents and regions?
Inflated pricing due to the telecommunications market monopolies is one of the main reasons for the slow development of the digital economy. The slow progress in some areas of the world, for instance in many parts of Africa, is not a reflection of a lack of interest on the part of potential end-users. It is rather due to lack of awareness of their benefits and offering. Outreach and advocacy work are key to promote greater awareness of the role of NRENs.
In countries where little national support and recognition is given to the ICT experts who specialise in running networks for specific R&E needs, it is challenging to realise the full potential. Building adequate human capacity and technical skills is essential for interconnecting the world, and the regional network projects play an important role in building the required skill sets among NREN staff.
How do you ensure your work is sustainable – environmentally, socially and economically?
NRENs not only connect institutions for the purpose of knowledge-sharing and data exchange, but also promote an inclusive and fair research environment for all members of the global R&E community. Through our EU-funded projects, we empower our partners around the world to become focal points in their respective R&E ecosystems so they become trusted partners for their national stakeholders, such as governments, universities and research institutes, other research infrastructures and donors. Quality data-communications networks, alongside trust and identity services, ensure access to data anywhere - reducing the travel needs for researchers and making the need to send data discs across the globe on an aeroplane a thing of the past!
What person, project or initiative sticks in your mind and why?
I would highlight two projects that are currently running with funding support from the EU: AfricaConnect and BELLA.
From a cable perspective, Africa is today one of the best-connected continents in the world, yet internet penetration is still the lowest because the market doesn’t regulate itself. Together with our Regional Network partners in Africa, we challenge the internet service providers to live up to their social responsibility. Since the start of the first phase of the AfricaConnect project in 2011, the results have been staggering. Prices have dropped by up to 97% in Algeria and the internet capacity has grown by 60% in Zambia.
NRENs also focus on building human resource capacity and technical expertise through trainings and workshops, and on raising awareness through advocacy and donor engagement. This, in turn, guarantees quality education to African researchers and learners, boosts industry and catalyses innovation in novel sectors, creates new decent jobs and narrows the gender gap in STEM.
While there is a very strong and growing submarine cable market provision between Europe and Africa, this cannot be said for the market between Europe and South America. This has meant that ever since GÉANT and its sister network in Latin America were connected nearly 20 years ago, traffic has been physically routed via the United States, leading to significantly high costs and latency. 10 years ago, the EC-funded feasibility study, ELLA (Europe Link with Latin America), established that there is a market for a new submarine cable system to be built directly between the two regions. A proposal for a cable, named EllaLink, emerged. At the same time, the European Commission came together with the BELLA Consortium to establish the BELLA Programme. The view was to establish a sea change in connectivity between the two regions, but also across South America. As we speak, the construction of the EllaLink cable is speeding towards its completion, providing previously unimaginable connectivity levels for R&E between Europe and Latin America.
What or who motivates and inspires you to keep working every day?
GÉANT has built trusted partnerships with the like-minded innovation-driven people who are passionate about R&E networking and who, just like us, believe strongly in the power of digital tools for bridging the digital divide and in addressing shared global challenges. However, all too often our international colleagues lack national funding or support to drive the excellence of ICT technologies for R&E development. However, their vision and dedication paired with hard work and persistence gives us endless inspiration to make a difference through our projects.
Where do you see the world in 2030 and what contribution will our partnership have made to achieving that?
Over the past year the world has seen a challenge that was previously unimaginable for most people. The ability to deliver education at all levels has encountered seemingly unsurmountable barriers. NRENs across the globe have stepped forward to develop ICT solutions to help their institutions to keep learning going, save the academic year and facilitate research in the hunt for a vaccine.
Over the coming years, the world will face other challenges, with the environment a key one of those. Our partnership can play a key role in ensuring that digital access and tools are available in the R&E space across continents to enable researchers and research collaborations to develop sustainable solutions to the problems that our planet faces.
If you could sum up our partnership in 5 words, what would they be?
Collaboration, Community, Innovation, Trust, Vision.