Part II: Connecting universities, collaboration with government and developing IT capacity in higher education

Part II of TENET 20-year history series. Now well-established as an Internet provider to universities and research organisations, TENET works to consolidate its position in the higher education landscape.
Part II: Connecting universities, collaboration with government and developing IT capacity in higher education
Early map of the SANReN network

This follows from TENET 20-year anniversary Part I: The formation of TENET and its early history

By the mid-2000s TENET was well-established as the primary provider of Internet to higher education and research institutions in South Africa, but while its work was recognised by universities, it did not yet have the government support an NREN requires for long-term success. TENET also recognised that it formed part of a larger community which included IT professionals and NRENs in neighbouring countries, and part of its role should include working towards the strengthening of this community. This is largely where the organisation’s focus lay in these development years.

UbuntuNet: Building an African alliance

As the value of global connectivity provided by high-speed Internet access became clear, the time for Africa to claim its place in the global research and education networking world had come. As (then) CEO of TENET, Dr Duncan Martin, along with many others, played an important role in the establishment of the UbuntuNet Alliance, a regional association of national research and education networks (NRENs) in Africa. The goal of this alliance was, among other things, to develop and improve the interconnectivity between research and education networking participants in Africa and their connectivity with these networks worldwide, and the Internet generally.

The birth of UbuntuNet can be traced back to the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in 2005 where a number of individuals came together to say, it is time for a regional research and education network in Africa. These individuals would go on to be the founding directors of UbuntuNet. They were: Duncan Martin (TENET, South Africa) Victor Kyalo (KENET, Kenya), Margaret Ngwira (MAREN, Malawi), Americo Muschanga (MoRENet, Mozambique) and Albert Nsengiyumva (RwEdNet, Rwanda).

The alliance was formally established in the second half of 2005 with the vision to become a strong and viable African regional research and education network promoting ICT access and usage among NRENs in Africa.

Today UbuntuNet Alliance is headquartered in Malawi and works to secure affordable, high-speed Internet connectivity and efficient ICT access and usage for African NRENs. It has helped incubate several new NRENs in the region, and its membership now spans 16 countries from Burundi to Zimbabwe.

Resolving competition between TENET and SANReN

Also in 2005 the Department of Science and Technology (DST) received funding from the fiscus to build a national research and education network (NREN) in South Africa. This funding was significant: R365 million over three years, to build a network reaching all the major research institutions in South Africa. There was only one problem, TENET, as a private non-profit company, had already been around for five years and was providing this service to universities.

Nevertheless, prior to the landing of the SEACOM cable on the shores of Mtunzini in KwaZulu-Natal, SANReN had begun to build a national network, the first phase of which was a ring that ran from Pretoria to Johannesburg, to Bloemfontein, to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and back to Pretoria.

While this network, known as the national backbone, was a great boon for general Internet access to universities and research institutions in general, there was confusion between TENET and SANReN over who exactly the NREN was to be. There followed a period of intense discussion and negotiation between TENET, which had the full backing of the universities as its members, and the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as the body overseeing SANReN, backed by the DST.

“The competition between these two entities was quite untenable,” said Professor Loyiso Nongxa, who was Chairman of the TENET board and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand at the time. “So we asked representatives from both sides for proposals on how these two entities could collaborate and demarcate their respective responsibilities.”

The proposals, tells Prof Nongxa, differed wildly, but led to fruitful conversation around South Africa’s plans for cyberinfrastructure to support research and education. What emerged from these discussions — which continued over several years — was that neither organisation could exist without the other. To operate a network of the scale required to advance research and education in South Africa the two organisations needed to find a way to co-exist.

In January 2008 TENET and the CSIR signed an extensive agreement called the Collaboration Agreement to Deploy and Operate a South African Research and Education Network which laid the terms of the collaboration between the entities.

“Today this relationship between TENET and SANReN is constructive and symbiotic,” says Duncan Greaves, current CEO of TENET. “Ideally an NREN should be accountable to, and have the support of, both the community it serves, as well as government. Working together as the South African NREN, SANReN and TENET find this balance.”

Connecting the SEACOM cable and the Rural Campus Connection Project

The importance of collaboration between TENET and SANReN was highlighted in 2010 when the SEACOM cable — the first privately owned and operated submarine cable to land on African shores — needed to be connected to the national backbone built by SANReN.

Back in 2007 TENET had bought ownership of a portion of the cable for the use of higher educational institutions for the lifetime of the cable. This investment meant a significant reduction in the cost for bandwidth for universities and was a welcome addition to a previously monopolised telecommunications market (Read more about the history of the SEACOM cable and deregulation of the industry in Part I). Now, in July 2009, the cable landed on South African shores at a beach in Mtunzini in KwaZulu-Natal. TENET had partnered with a company called Dark Fibre Africa to bring the fibre connection the 140km from its landing point to Durban University of Technology, from which SANReN planned a connection to the national backbone in mid-2010. This should have allowed universities access to the high-speed Internet at very low cost.

The challenge however was that the SANReN mandate was focused on research institutions, and did not prioritise universities with a teaching and learning focus in its planning, meaning not all universities were able to benefit from these developments. This was a concern because all universities were members of TENET and a key consideration in previous generations of the network was that no university should be prejudiced by geography.

The solution came from the current Chairman of the TENET board, Dr Molapo Qhobela, who was then the chief director at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

“Qhobela suggested packaging this challenge as a teaching and learning issue and approaching DHET for funding,” said Prof Nongxa. “The grant application was successful and we started something I am today still very proud of: the Rural Campuses Connection Project.”

This project was implemented by TENET over successive phases which ran from March 2011 towards the end of 2019 and connected 139 rural sites of universities to the national backbone. Read more about the Rural Campuses Connection Project here.

Another spinoff from the procurement of the SEACOM cable was that it helped facilitate the development of UbunutNet’s network by making it possible for the AfricaConnect project, funded by the European Union, to build a meaningful research and education network backbone.

Developing IT Capacity in Higher Education

Shortly after the establishment of TENET it became apparent that IT professionals would play an increasingly important role within higher education as technology advances created, and still creates, new opportunities for both research and teaching and learning. However, many IT staff at universities, particularly at institutions with budgetary constraints, operated in isolation and received little to no formal training and skills development to really take advantage of the opportunities presented.

To attempt to remedy this, the Developing IT Capacity in Higher Education (DITCHE) programme was conceived jointly by TENET and the National Research Foundation (NRF) in 2001. The programme began in February 2002 and was run by Mike Lawrie, first manager of the UNINET project (see Part I of the series), as part of the NRF, which was contracted by TENET to run the project.

At the end of 2002 TENET decided to bring the project in-house and recruited Duncan Greaves (current CEO of TENET) to manage the DITCHE programme.

“IT practitioners are at their most effective when they are connected to, and sustained by, communities of practice,” says Greaves. “I believe this programme was a success because we did not attempt to pump knowledge into the minds of IT professionals. Rather, by bringing them together into contexts in which they could learn from each other, we fostered the development of this community of practice.”

“The driving philosophy was that every institution has something to teach, and every institution has something to learn. Which meant that everyone at our events was on an equal footing.”

Thanks to the generous support of this initiative by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies, attendance by IT professionals to the DITCHE programme did not cost their institutions anything. TENET could cover not only the cost of the training, but also travel and accommodation.

As part of this funding, TENET also made relevant technical textbooks available to institutions on request, at no cost. This was particularly valuable for institutions with restricted budgets, where libraries tended to prioritise the needs of students and research staff over their support staff.

While the DITCHE programme came to an end in 2009 TENET is working to revive the programme in the near future.

TENET going from strength to strength

The creation of a community of practice of IT professionals within South Africa, the UbuntuNet Alliance, and the beginning of recognition from government of the important role TENET plays in the research and education landscape of South Africa all contributed significantly to the development of TENET as a key roleplayer in the SA higher education landscape.

When Duncan Greaves took over as CEO in 2013 the next step was consolidation.

“The later years of TENET were about a fairly systematic evolution away from the sole reliance on bandwidth as our primary service offering and the adoption by TENET of services like eduroam, identity federation and video conferencing,” says Greaves. “It is about the transition into a mature NREN with a diverse service offering.”

Watch this space for Part III of the TENET twenty-year anniversary series.