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Building the Sustainable Internet with a Spirit of Cooperation

By Vint Cerf

While much has been written about bridging the digital chasm and connecting the next billion to the Internet, it is slow going to make it happen.  Currently, 3.4 billion people do not have access to the Internet and the bulk of them live in developing countries and rural areas.   In these underserved areas, women are far less likely to be connected to the Internet than men – in low and middle income countries, women are 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men and are 26% less likely to use mobile Internet.  This all means that the economic opportunities and human connections provided by the Internet are not readily available to the people who need it the most.

I believe that solving this problem requires us to put local people and their needs, as well as the tools for sustainable, locally driven progress at the center of the plan. This is why I co-founded the People-Centered Internet (PCI) and why I am such a fan of the work that Steve Huter and the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) at the University of Oregon do.

Steve and his team have exactly the right approach to building networks in underserved areas.  They help at the invitation of a local team, scoping their work to meet local needs. They come in with an effective plan to build the skills and capabilities needed to actually run and grow the network.  They leave behind not only connectivity – they leave a skilled and employable workforce who understands the business model and local needs for connectivity in their specific geography.  Then PCI can come in to help these newly connected local teams create the applications that make the Internet work for them.  This article is a great summary of the common ethos between the two groups.

Steve agreed to do a quick Q&A to give us some insight into NSRC’s work:

Q:  Can you give us a sense of the impact that NSRC has had around the world?

A:  The NSRC was established in 1992 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide technical assistance to organizations setting up new computer networks to connect scientists engaged in international research and education and to help expand the NSFNET. Today the NSRC continues to develop network communications infrastructure and local engineering capacity in areas of the world where there is a deficit of affordable connectivity and core network engineering expertise.

A fundamental tenet of the NSRC model is to listen first. We want to be sure we are helping people solve the right problems to achieve their Internet development objectives. Once we are clear on the objectives and desired outcomes, NSRC provides a combination of technical training to help build up human capacity and facilitate direct engineering assistance to help improve the operational performance and stability of local Internet infrastructure.

The broader impacts of NSRC’s activities are global in scope. NSRC’s focus on teaching and training about network design and operations, combined with technically supporting international colleagues, results in the development of stable computer networks, managed by local hands, in many countries all over the world. NSRC achieves this through targeted capacity building activities and partnerships with universities, Internet Service Providers, industry, government and supranational agencies in Africa, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Latin America-Caribbean, and North America.

In the 1990s, the NSRC played a key role in helping establish the first Internet connections in Peru, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Egypt, Guinea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Kenya, Morocco, Liberia, Senegal, Tanzania, Cambodia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jamaica, Togo and other locations. These initial connections and local workforce development contributed to building critical expertise in different world regions that spread to neighboring countries, and helped ignite many of the first ISPs, first national research and education networks (NRENs), and first Network Operator Groups (NOGs) in dozens of countries around the world.

The winning formula is a hands-on, request-driven approach that is grassroots in nature, and employs a bottom-up train-the-trainer philosophy, so outreach and training can continually expand. This allows for creative and hard-working young people to enter the scene and bring fresh ideas for ways to build new Internet services beyond what exists today.

Larry Smarr, a professor of computer science and engineering at University of California, San Diego, summarized the impacts of the NSRC’s work a few years ago with a quote that I like: “During the quarter century that this group has been helping to build Internet infrastructure around the world, there’s hardly a place on the planet that has not been touched by the great work of the NSRC.”

Q:  What are some of the biggest issues that you run into when you start working with a new team?  What are some of the pleasant surprises?

A:  Below is a partial list of the challenges that NSRC personnel have observed in working in more than 130 countries around the world:

  • Lack of accessible bandwidth and competition between enough service providers in some markets, particularly in rural areas
  • Challenges with navigating Internet administrative processes (obtaining IP address space, ASN, etc.)
  • Network security challenges
  • Issues with reliable power and other infrastructure items (cooling systems, dust, moisture, cabling, etc.)
  • Lack of terrestrial fiber
  • High cost of telecommunications and network equipment
  • High import duties and taxes, VAT, etc.
  • Difficult regulatory environments and regulatory barriers
  • Poorly structured physical networks
  • Lack of enough well-trained network engineers.
  • Retention of well-trained network engineers once they are enabled
  • Excessive dependence on external sources of funding
  • Lack of sustainable funding models to cover operating costs
  • Lack of well-structured government models for research and education
  • Lack of national or regional cooperation to share costs and infrastructure
  • Many countries need stronger national leadership to push for policies that facilitate open architecture networking, which is what makes the Internet the Internet.

Finally, a major challenge facing many Internet access initiatives is the lack of stable and reliable power, without which, affordable, sustainable, persistent access is not achievable. While there has been some investment in this area, robust power infrastructure remains a major challenge that will require large-scale investment over the next couple of decades.   Internet and power infrastructure investments should go hand in hand, with exploration of renewable energy systems as part of the solution.

The pleasant surprises center around the resilience and vision of dedicated people who work to improve their communities and find creative solutions to build affordable network access and locally useful services. Developing great friendships with thousands of people in 100+ countries over the decades who invite NSRC colleagues into their homes to break bread together and enjoy meals with their families is a wonderful benefit that we cherish deeply.

Q:  Can you tell us about one of your most interesting success stories?

A: Working with the Research and Education Network of Uganda (RENU) has been particularly delightful and gratifying. We observed that the initial efforts many years ago to develop the NREN faltered for a variety of reasons, but their work for the educational community in Uganda over the past five years has been highly effective and impressive.

One key ingredient that changed costs for interconnecting member institutions was Google’s Project Link in Kampala, which established more than 800km of fiber optic infrastructure offered via a wholesale pricing model.  This has become a key driver of investment and growth in Uganda. It spurred competition, reduced access costs and aggregated demand. With strategic help from Google for some of the challenging “last kilometer” connections, they were able to grow from just a few university members to close out 2018 with 112 campuses connected to RENU. They moved from megabit connectivity just a few years ago to gigabit connectivity and now into multi-gigabit capacity. RENU leadership cultivated a strong development partnership with NSRC to provide training, some strategic equipment donations and engineering assistance, which now benefits all member universities. They holistically embraced NSRC’s model and techniques more than any other research and education community we’ve worked with over the years, and now produce an annual set of targeted training programs for all of their members, and they provide direct engineering assistance (DEA) to help institutions that need it.

RENU took the concepts further and introduced the Life After DEA program in 2018. They reviewed the performance and impact of the DEA activities that were carried out between 2014 to 2017 across the country and assessed next steps for continued improvements in performance, costs, and services. A total of ten campuses were visited for the Life After DEA assessment of 2018, revealing some of the flaws in their approach in earlier years. They learned and adapted their Internet development model, which guides their approach in 2019 and beyond. This kind of reflective self-assessment and learning inspires NSRC and will help us evolve our own model and techniques. RENU has also been generous and helpful to neighboring countries with technical staff exchanges with networks in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and others to help strengthen the East African region, and ultimately inspire others on the continent.

Q:  What is your vision for the NSRC in five to ten years?

A:  NSRC people like working at the frontiers and helping connect Internet developers from all countries and cultures to work together more effectively. We are also quite interested in thinking beyond building core networks to how we can collectively make good use of new technologies. Engaging more women and youth to become part of the technical community will expand what the Internet can become. We also endeavor to help government agencies understand that they are positioned to improve the lives of their citizenry if they embrace the future and reshape government policies rather than put up obstacles.

The steady expansion of mobile networks around the world has substantially improved some modicum of Internet access, but mobile network operators are challenged to offer affordable broadband in sparsely populated rural areas and markets with subsistence level incomes. So we actively explore any potentially creative solutions and have been involved with numerous experiments using TV White Spaces technology, for example.

While NSRC focuses primarily on utilizing tried-and-true technologies such as optical fiber and wireless, we keep an eye on alternative connectivity solutions such as Alphabet’s Project Loon that uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere to create an aerial wireless network, and hope they mature to become viable solutions. New low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite initiatives from OneWeb and SpaceX may eventually offer another last mile access platform.

The combination of improving infrastructure, which creates more supply, and people working together to deliver relevant platforms and services, which drives demand, is good for the whole Internet ecosystem. Success for NSRC in the next five to ten years is helping cultivate a stronger community of Internet-savvy engineers, indigenous operators and entrepreneurs that can enable continuous progress in their countries to bring more affordable Internet access and address some of our biggest global challenges, including improvements in delivering education and healthcare, sourcing clean water, increasing energy efficiency, utilizing data more effectively to address environmental and climate threats, and improving life for more people around the world.