NgREN: FG Urged to Invest in Broadband for National Devt

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Emma Okonji

Nigeria risks losing huge revenue strings, should the federal government completely abandon the Nigerian Research and Education Network (NgREN) project that was conceptualised in 2004, to provide broadband bandwidth to tertiary institutions for research and development.

Worried about the federal government’s recent withdrawal from financing the NgREN project, the drivers of the project, who are from the private sector, have called on the federal government to invest more in broadband across tertiary institutions, insisting it was the best alternative to expedite national development across the country. They warned that should the federal government withdraw its financial support for the project, Nigeria would be losing huge sums of money that could have been generated through the project in the long term.
Being the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, the project, which boasts 465mbps of internet capacity, represented 20 times the average connectivity capacity leveraged by the universities.

This was a project conceptualised, deployed and managed by Nigerians under a consortium of indigenous companies including CWG Plc, Airtel, Medalion, Resourcery, and Phase 3, while the federal government was meant to finance the broadband bandwidth that will be utilised by the NgREN project across Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education.
Although the idea of the NgREN was conceptualised as far back as 2004, it was however stalled, but later revived under the auspices of the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) and the Committee of Vice Chancellors (CVC) in January 2010.

The objective was for a Research and Education Network that will connect all higher institutions of learning together, and to the global Research and Education Network. The achievement made Nigeria the first in sub-Saharan Africa to join the league of countries in Europe and America that had functional Research and Education Networks.

A catalytic fund was secured from the World Bank as grant, and counterpart funding by the Federal Government of Nigeria in mid-2012 for the first phase of the project, while the procurement cycle was concluded in February 2013.

The first phase of the project which connected 27 Universities, the CVC and the NUC, with over one million users, delivered 155mbps capacity to each university and connected to the Multiprotocol Layered Switch core network, which had a 10Gbps capacity, as well as 465mbps internet capacity, providing high definition telepresence capabilities for real-time collaboration, voice over internet protocol, shared access to research content and joint experimentation projects.

The second phase was planned to cover five more clusters of about 100 institutions and five million users. Subsequent phases were to cover all higher education institutes numbering over 600.

Delighted by the enormous gains that the NgREN project was bringing to the Nigerian education sector, the Founder of CWG Plc and Entrepreneur in Residence at Colombia Business School (CBS), New York, Mr. Austin Okere, who is one of the drivers of the NgREN project, however expressed his worries and that of other members of the consortium driving the project. According to him, “This indeed would have afforded Nigerian Universities the opportunity to take a quantum leap in standards, and significantly improve their low ranking in quality of teaching and research output, and thereby bringing them closer to their global peers.

“But this is not to be, as the much heralded NgREN has been shut down for over eleven months due to non-payment of the segment bandwidth fees. The consortium of local providers have however, left all the equipment intact in good faith, awaiting the provision of bandwidth to restore services.”

Apart from the immense benefit, the economies of scale of the project saves the universities immense costs, as embarking individually on such a project will be grossly suboptimal and prohibitively expensive, Okere said, adding that Nigeria has a long history of poor project execution and abandonment.

He said instead of government spending as much as $500 million to acquire a second satellite that will compete with commercial providers, government should rather deploy the current satellite to serve the underserved in the rural areas, and invest more in broadband across tertiary institutions.