Bridging the digital divide with eduroam

The COVID-19 crisis has really amplified the impact of the gaping digital divide in South Africa. eduroam forms an important part of the COVID-19 response to give students access to the Internet and online learning materials
Bridging the digital divide with eduroam
Photo credit: Coenrad Morgan

Today a University of Cape Town student living in Khayelitsha can access eduroam, the high-speed Internet offered by nearly all South African universities and an additional 105 countries around the world, at their local library. A University of Witwatersrand (Wits) student living in Sebokeng needs only to travel 30 minutes to North-West University’s Vaal Triangle Campus to download their course content and videos quickly and for free on the eduroam network, while a University of South Africa (UNISA) student anywhere can check the eduroam interactive map to see where their closest internet access point is.

“But eduroam has so much more potential,” says Guy Halse, head of trust and identity at TENET. “There is no reason why we cannot have eduroam accessible at bus stations and taxi ranks, at all public libraries and other easily accessible areas where people linger.”

eduroam is the secure, world-wide roaming Internet access service developed in Europe for the international research and education community. It means students and staff can access the Internet on any campus of their own institution but also when visiting any other university campus around the country. eduroam is operated as a digital commons, as universities appreciate that collaboration and roaming is positive for research and education nationally. Students are more likely to excel if they have access to good quality Internet and all the resources they need, and excellent students will go on to become excellent postgraduates, excellent researchers or excellent leaders in their industry and communities.

“The original eduroam use-case was for a researcher at one institution to easily be able to collaborate with researchers at another institution without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get Internet access,” says Guy. “This is relevant in South Africa too, because we have a great deal of inter-institution collaboration, but a more important use-case, when you bring eduroam to Africa, is the potential it has to play in bridging the digital divide.”

The 2018 Statistics South Africa General Household survey revealed that only around 10% of South African households have internet access at home. The COVID-19 crisis has really amplified the impact of the gaping digital divide in South Africa as students in situations of privilege download coursework and lectures quickly and easily while the rest battle with high data costs and poor signal and 3G connection. Government’s zero-rating response has eased this problem a bit, but many universities are left footing bills for data bundles to cover the services that cannot be zero-rated.

“We believe eduroam forms an important part of the COVID-19 response to give students access to the Internet and online learning materials that doesn’t rely on mobile data and the whims of mobile operators,” says Guy. “For this reason we would like to continue expanding eduroam coverage beyond campuses as much as possible.”

Working with municipalities, ISPs to provide eduroam

eduroam’s model is very open: any Internet service provider (ISP) who wants to can become an eduroam service provider and TENET will happily help them with that. Across the world partnerships with municipalities to offer eduroam access to students in public spaces have proved very successful. This is a model TENET hopes will be replicated across many municipalities nationally.

In 2015, Rhodes University partnered with the Makana Municipality to provide eduroam access to students living in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown). This means all students, including UNISA students, can connect to eduroam in several libraries and a community centre. Then in June 2019 the City of Cape Town and TENET turned on eduroam in 57 of the city’s public libraries.

“Not only does this address the need experienced by citizens on a continent where Internet access is sometimes extremely expensive, but affordable connectivity can encourage citizens to participate in science (citizen science), contributing data and accelerating new discoveries,” said Ina Smith, planning manager at Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in response to the rollout of eduroam in public libraries.

“At the same time, it once again strengthens the role of public libraries in democratising access to information/ equally distributing opportunities across society (social justice), creating opportunities to participate as active digital citizens” she added.

The TENET team hopes to soon partner with many more municipalities and even private ISPs to make eduroam access ubiquitous in public spaces in South Africa.

Finding your nearest eduroam access point

There is also a need to raise awareness among students about eduroam, students may not realise that their nearest eduroam access point is not necessarily their own institution.

To find your nearest eduroam access point install the eduroam Companion App from your favourite app store or visit the eduroam interactive map.

“The potential eduroam has to overcome, for students at least, the challenges of the digital divide is so powerful,” says TENET CEO, Duncan Greaves. “We must bear in mind that it is the students who are located furthest away from campus are often also the least likely to be able to afford Internet at home. Working with municipalities and private ISPs to connect as many public spaces as we can to eduroam will go a long way to ensure no students get left behind in the COVID-19 pandemic.”