sheVery few people understand the difference between the typical Internet Service Provider (ISP) and National Research & Education networks, commonly referred to as NRENs.
In its simplest form, an NREN interconnects universities and research institutions within a country. The idea is to provide a high-speed link for researchers to share huge research data-sets within an exclusive environment.
Incidentally, the Internet, as we know it today, was originally a research network connecting several universities in the US and later on extended to include European universities.
Buy the mid 1980s, private enterprises had started to use this global network for commercial purposes. Eventually by the early 1990s, browsers were introduced to make this network more usable for 'Wanjiku' and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today’s global Internet, which pervades all forms of our socio-economic lives, was actually a research and education network.
So what happened to the research community and their need to exclusively share huge research datasets?
They re-created Internet2 by building and interconnecting exclusively to each other, very much like in the old days. However, todays Internet2 has far much better quality and speeds that exceed what the public internet currently experiences.
NRENs bandwidth capacities allow for collaborative research in cutting edge domains like DNA sequencing, Climate change, Remote Health & Surgery and Remote Manufacturing.
They also provide a technical test-bed for what will eventually spill into the mainstream internet within two to three years.
African networks and researchers have not been left behind, given that South Africa, Egypt and Kenya have had sustainable NRENs for more than ten years in form of Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET), Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT) and Kenya Education Network (KENET), respectively.
Whereas most people imagine that KENET is simply a glorified ISP for universities, it actually does more than providing internet service. It provides a platform for collaborative research within and beyond our universities and research institutions.
For example, KENET provides Virtual Labs for university researchers to execute high-bandwidth collaborative research activities. The Virtual Lab is a cloud-based computing platform where researchers can subscribe to and activate pre-configured virtual storage, network or computing resources on demand. For example, Prof. Elijah Ateka, an Associate Professor of Plant Virology in the Department of Horticulture at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture collaborates with Dr. Laura Boykin from the University of Western Australia (UWA) on the KENET platform in a gene sequencing project.
Similarly, Multimedia University uses the KENET Virtual Labs to provide students access to bandwidth-hungry Blockchain-Developer Labs that are not available on campus.
Can these services be availed by any one of the many commercial ISPs in the country? Probably yes, but at a higher cost and probably on shared links that would degrade the quality of the research and learning activity.
KENET as a consortium of universities and research institutions enjoys critical tax exemptions from government in order to continue providing these high quality research resources at affordable rates.
However, the recent Finance Act 2018 that introduced 15 percent tax on internet services threatens to disrupt this delicate NREN ecosystem because it fails to appreciate the intrinsic value that NRENs provides.
A 15 percent excise duty charged on KENET services would simply be passed onto universities that are already struggling financially and who will subsequently pass this cost to students.
In order to avoid the potential backlash that would arise from increasing student fees, most universities may instead opt to suppress their bandwidth requirements and in so doing, compromise the execution of the various research programs that rely on high-quality broadband services.
Government must therefore carefully balance between the short term financial gain of taxing NRENs against the long term benefits of exempting them, with the understanding that the ongoing research projects may spin off opportunities that would yield a wider tax base in the future.
Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu