African University libraries and internet connectivity: challenges and the way forward.

Author:Echezona, R.I.
 
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Introduction

Universities play an important national role in Africa. They are frequently the most effectively performing institutions in their countries. As a result, Universities are the principal reservoir of skilled human resources in most African countries. University roles in research, evaluation, information transfer, and technology development are therefore critical to social progress and economic growth. Universities in Africa perform a unique role in their societies; they serve as a principal conduit for information flow and technology transfer between the industrial world and their country. For this reason, university strategic planning should pay special attention to the challenge of accessing current scientific knowledge (through journals, books, CD-ROM, On-Line resources) at affordable cost.

University libraries are expected to be the informational hub of the campus and they should play an enhanced role in the fulfillment of the Universities' mission. The role and function of libraries within African Universities requires significant rethinking and restructuring in light of recent advances in information and communications technology (AAU, 2002). The ICT has transformed the Library into a new information unit by facilitating electronic operations of various library functions such as cataloguing, electronic acquisition and serial control, electronic inter-library loan and electronic circulation functions.

University libraries in many African countries have faced a difficult decade, with rapid erosion of funding for books and journals, staffing difficulties and perhaps a loss of the perception of the library as the centre of academic scholarship. Librarians are often portrayed negatively and there may be little understanding of their responsibility for delivering relevant information in whatever format as needed to the Academic community (AAU, 2005). They were of the opinion that access to excellent Internet connectivity can be a "make or break" for a higher Education Institution today and for instance in Africa, access to adequate Internet bandwidth presents a great challenge for University management.

Objectives of the Study

The paper explores the state of Internet connectivity in Africa in relation to higher education institutions and the corresponding libraries as a hub of the institutions. It examined various efforts by countries and organizations to link Africa to global information superhighways. The challenges posed by the lack of ICT infrastructure and low bandwidth are also discussed. It also offers recommendations for solving these problems and launching African university libraries into the global information and research interchange. African universities are pivotal to development in Africa through research and education and their libraries are the engine facilitating these developmental process. Being part of the global information environment is not negotiable.

Internet Connectivity

The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks including schools, governments, businesses, and other organizations. The Internet facilitates information exchange across the globe. African university libraries, as a centre of academic and research activities for development, require this connectivity to remain viable in the present ICT environment. Bandwidth, according to Alhasan and Adepoju, (2007), is the amount of data that a computer network can transfer in a certain amount of time. O'Leary, et al., (2005) define it as how much information can move across a communication channel in a given amount of time. In short, it is the capacity of a particular connection. It is measured in kilobits per second (Kbps) or megabits per second (Mbps). A kilobit is one thousand bits; a megabit is one million bits and a gigabit is more than one million bits. A dial-up telephone modem can transfer data at rates up to 56 kbps; but Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and cable modem connection are much faster and can transfer at several mbps. The Internet connections used by business often operates at 55 mbps, and connections between routers in the heart of the Internet may operate at rates at 2,485kbps. DSL and cable modem connections are classified as wideband or broadband networks having a high capacity and operates at high speeds. Dial-up modem connections are narrowband networks, which have very low capacity and usually low speed.

The way in which information is produced, shared, and consumed is now so heavily mediated by information technology that a university depends on the quality of its connections to both the commercial Internet and the global research network. Bandwidth determines the efficiency of Internet connections, but equally important is the type of infrastructure used in the connectivity. The effectiveness of Internet connectivity depends on the speed of transmission across the networks. The greater the number of bandwidth per unit time, the greater the speed of data transmission and reception.

Internet Initiatives in Africa

Many initiatives have taken place to get Africa interconnected to the information super highway. NGOs, telecommunication companies, philanthropic organizations and some countries of the developed world have extended their services to ICT development in Africa. The partnership for Higher Education in Africa (including the Ford, Macarthur, and Rockefeller foundations) has helped a consortium of 13 African universities to cover connecting cost.

Other Initiatives

SAT--3/WASC/SAFE initiative has contributed to Africa's integration into the global information superhighways. September (2004) asserts that this initiative has demonstrated the ability of African and global telecommunication companies to work together to realize essential and critical telecommunications infrastructure for Africa. It has also facilitated the acquisition of international fibre optic cable connectivity for the first time in the large number of West, Southern, and Central African areas (French, English, and Portuguese speaking countries). The result of this is the migration of many countries from satellite to terrestrial connectivity. September summarizes the impact of SAT-3/WASC/SAFE to African Internet connectivity as the introduction of high-speed global optic fibre network, improved quality, reduced cost, large bandwidth, and more sophisticated communications.

The East Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSY) is an initiative born out of the desire to remove the digital marginalization of East Africa. CIPESA (2006) has noted that East Africa is one of the most "digitally excluded" regions of the world with just about 2% of the population connected to the Internet. The Internet connectivity in the region is very expensive and inefficient because of its sole dependent on satellite for communication. Essay's vision was first conceived at the first East African Business summit in Nairobi in November 2002 with business leaders from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda in attendance. The envisaged construction of 9,900km fibre optic system will enhance connectivity among African countries from both traditional and new broadband services and at the same time cover the cost of connectivity. CIPESA ICT Policy Briefing (2006) states that EASSY is planned to link the Eastern and parts of South Africa to the international fibre optic system. Seventeen Southern and Eastern African countries are expected to benefit from improved communication services and lowered costs.

The Regional Information Society Network for Africa (RINAF) was initiated in 1992 (then called Regional Informatics Network for Africa) as a framework for UNESCO's support for African co-operation to promote academic and public sector computer networking. RINAF started with the support from Italy, the Netherlands and the Republic of Korea and UNESCO's Regular Programme. In may 2002, an African Regional Workshop on "Distance Education National Policy and the Role of ICT: Design, Building, Implementation and Management" was organized by the Regional Informatics Network for Africa (RINAF) at the UNESCO Regional Office for Education in Africa in Dakar (Senegal). In 2007, the Scan-ICT project for the Gambia marks another milestone...

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