Alfonso Pene, an information technology student at Eduardo Mondlane University, spends a lot of time on the Internet researching computer programming languages. But the university‚s slow connection speed makes doing his homework an exercise in frustration.
"It‚s too slow. It takes forever to download applications, says the 24-year-old senior, slouched in front of a terminal in one of the university‚s computer labs. While he is waiting, he says,"sometimes I walk around, have something to eat.
That is about to change as a result of an effort by six major U.S. foundations to boost Internet bandwidth at African universities.
Under the program, dubbed the Bandwidth Initiative, Eduardo Mondlane Mozambique's premier university will see its bandwidth improved 50 percent in the next month or two without any increase in its monthly payments. That should give students and professors greater access to research materials from throughout the world, help coursework move online and assist Africa in finally becoming a "full member of the world's academic community," as one project backer says.
For students and teachers, the change also means, simply, that doing 15 minutes worth of work answering e-mail or posting lectures on the Web will no longer take an hour, says Americo Muchanga, director of the university‚s Information Technology Center.
Right now, "you end up only doing the things that are necessary, like dealing with urgent e-mail,‰ he says. With the new bandwidth, "people won‚t feel like they‚re wasting their time.
Mozambique, like many African countries, has little fast, cheap Internet access. Several new fiberoptic cables capable of offering broad bandwidth pass through neighboring South Africa, but the closest connection point is still 190 miles from Maputo. The cost of laying a cable to close the gap would be $6 million, well beyond the resources of a poor nation still recovering from a long civil war, Muchanga says.
Many African countries face similar problems, one reason that Internet access at most African universities costs $10,000 a month for the same bandwidth American and European universities enjoy for $100 a month.
The new initiative aims to overcome that problem by giving African universities broadband access via satellite and grouping them together as a single buyer to win bulk discounts. Right now, 11 universities in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa, as well as Mozambique, are part of the $200 million, five-year program.
"Because we're a large group, we can always get the best deal," Muchanga says. "It gives us a lot of bargaining power."
Backers of the initiative say improving higher education in Africa and giving the continent improved access to the latest technology and information will be crucial to helping Africa find ways of solving its own problems.
"Africa's universities are increasingly looked upon to generate the ideas and talent necessary to address Africa's challenges on Africa's terms," says Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the initiative's supporters. As is the case anywhere in the world, "knowledge, innovation and talent are critical currencies needed to thrive in today's interconnected world," she says.
In Mozambique, the bandwidth boost also has the potential to expand the availability of higher education in a country where 19,000 high school seniors now graduate each year but only 2,500 can be accepted at the country's main university.
For Muchanga, the faster connection will provide one big personal benefit: He will no longer have to come into the office at 2 a.m., when computer usage is lowest, to get his work done at a reasonable speed.
He hopes improving connection speed also will help persuade the 80 percent of professors who now don't post their lectures on the Internet to give it a try.
"Information technology can improve teaching and learning. But the change comes from people, not from IT itself," he says. The university will soon have access to the improved speed it needs and "now it depends on us what we do with it,"
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By Laurie Gouring
Article posted on 4/3/2006
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