Measuring the impact of COVID-19

All pandemics bring societal change that is, in many cases, permanent in character. The greatest long-term threat to NRENs is that there may be a permanent change in the nature of universities as a consequence of this global crisis.
Measuring the impact of COVID-19
Duncan Greaves gives opening presentation at UbuntuNet-Connect 2020

“All pandemics bring societal change that is, in many cases, permanent in character. The greatest long-term threat to NRENS (national research and education networks) is that there may be a permanent change in the nature of universities as a consequence of this global crisis,” said TENET CEO, Duncan Greaves, speaking at the opening of the UbuntuNet-Connect virtual conference in November 2020. Key to responding to this threat, he added, is diversifying the NREN product line and avoiding a reliance on bandwidth sales for financial sustainability.

NRENs are specialised telecommunications providers dedicated to supporting the needs of research and education communities within their countries. While the primary focus is to provide high-quality network connectivity, by connecting institutions to each other and to the rest of the Internet, most NRENs have grown their support offering and provide expertise and other support for a range of technologies and services needed for research, such as trust and identity, security, storage and collaboration.

The UbuntuNet Alliance is the regional research and education network for Eastern and Southern Africa and hosts an annual conference which brings the African NREN community and other stakeholders together to discuss shared experiences. This year’s conference, titled Positioning Research and Education During Crises, focused particularly on the impact of COVID-19 on African NRENs.

Challenges for financial sustainability of NRENs during the crisis

In his address Greaves noted that the pandemic brought substantial challenges to African NRENs, partly as a result of the lockdowns, the primary public health response to the pandemic available at the time.

“The immediate consequence of lockdown was that it emptied out our universities and for many NRENs their bandwidth use dropped to almost zero,” he said. This drop in the use of bandwidth, as well as the public cost of the pandemic, posed a major threat to the financial sustainability of NRENs.

“As governments mount expensive public health responses to the pandemic, they re-prioritised their spending, sometimes away from higher education,” he noted. At the same time, universities were often forced to spend a lot on buying mobile data for their students. The obvious way for institutions to make up that shortfall was to reduce their spending on bandwidth.

“We have had plenty of enquiries about whether it is possible to temporarily reduce a university’s monthly bandwidth,” said Greaves. “Our response is: it is possible for any university to reduce its order, but if they all do it at the same time it will put us out of business.”

Role in NRENs in supporting higher education during lockdowns

At the same time the experience of lockdown has, in many countries, demonstrated the important role NRENs do play in higher education and research. Most universities, and certainly all universities in South Africa, were forced to pursue emergency remote teaching.

“This was not intended to be a replacement for campus-based teaching or a rapid migration to online learning,” stressed Greaves. “All they have done is adopt emergency measures in an attempt to save the academic year from disaster.”

“And for many of these universities, support from their NREN has been critical to what success they have enjoyed.”

Across Africa the roles NRENs have played have varied slightly. Reliance on mobile network operators, while not a complete solution, played an extensive part of solving the problem of internet access for students at home. Many NRENs, TENET included, became closely involved in negotiations with network operators over this.

Other roles played by NRENs included hosting learning management systems for free, providing access to videoconferencing software and cloud services also became important for many NRENs.

Extending eduroam access and deploying eduVPN was also useful alongside the reliance on network mobile operators,” said Greaves, noting the particular success here of the Research and Education Network for Uganda (RENU) which deployed eduroam in over 300 public spaces across the cities of Kampala, Mukono and Entebbe to connect students, researchers and university staff off-campus.

COVID-19 change in the world of work

As with nearly all companies worldwide, TENET and other NRENs across Africa, have been forced at short notice to adopt distributed work-from-home arrangements Greaves noted that while TENET has been operating successfully for the duration of the year on this work-from-home basis, the arrangement has taken its toll.

“We have continued to deliver and support services and we have become involved in new and important initiatives during this period,” he said. “But while we have adapted to this new way of working, in the long term, the effects of a spatially-distributed organisation are going to be problematic.”

“Over time, operating an organisation in this way erodes the bonds that tie it together and has consequences for its collective working knowledge which tends to erode as people work in physical isolation from one another,” he said.

Anticipating the ‘new normal’

The new normal is not yet upon us, said Greaves in his closing remarks. “This pandemic will cause a profound change in our world and a profound change in universities, and therefore on the nature of NRENs.”

“What the new normal looks like will depend on many things,” he said, “not least of which is whether vaccines will be able to confer lasting immunity, but it will take a few years before the full nature of these effects is worked out in the way our NRENs function.”

Our focus in that time, he said, is to ensure we stay relevant and responsive to the changing needs of our universities.

“Higher education and research will be part of any imaginable future, bar the apocalyptic ones,” said Greaves, “and that means NRENs will be needed too. But they may look different from how they do now.”