APAN54 Meeting: NREN Support for Access to Rural or Remote Sites – 24 Aug 2022

APAN54 Meeting: NREN Support for Access to Rural or Remote Sites – 24 Aug 2022

Although connectivity in urban areas has taken a leap in the use of ICT for education, the rural and remote sites usually have lesser visibility and thus lower access to ICT. Some NRENs work closely with telcos to connect universities and research institutions together. However, the use and access to ICT for rural areas education is a challenge. SingAREN hosted this sharing session at APAN54 Meeting with some success stories on how and what technology has been used and future plans.

Mr. Oshada Senanayake, Chief Operating Officer – Digital Transformation at Brandix Sri Lanka (Former Director General of Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka and Chairman / CEO Information Communication and Technology Agency of Sri Lanka) started this session by speaking on “Digital Inclusivity through rural Connectivity Enablement as a Solution for Addressing Digital Divide”. He shared some key initiatives to narrow the digital divide in Sri Lanka. One is the launch of Gamata Sannivedanaya “Connect Sri Lanka Project” in alignment with the ITU’s Connect 2030 agenda, which saw the initiation of country-wide telecommunication infrastructure expansion with a goal of ensuring 100% 4G and fiber broadband coverage across the country, with connectivity as the key for achieving the digital transformation vision of the country.

Mr Oshada Senanayake also covered enabling digital education in the classroom, in the light of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. This involved support from various stakeholders, including the government, telecommunication services provider and LEARN (Lanka Education and Research Network), the national research and education network of Sri Lanka. Students were given free access to the Internet for connectivity to the e-learning platform.

Prof Kanchana Kanchanasut spoke on “Reaching rural communities with NRENs”. NRENs have traditionally been focusing on connecting research and education institutions with high-speed networks. Prof. Kanchana Kanchanasut and her team initiated TakNet, the first community network in Thailand in 2013. TakNet brought the internet to remote mountainous villages, to improve the lives of rural and remote communities. As TakNet expanded, Prof. Kanchana Kanchanasut established a social enterprise called Net2Home in 2016 to manage the community network. With the rapid expansion of the Internet infrastructures in recent years, her team’s focus has slightly shifted from purely addressing connectivity to a broader goal of smart communities with IoT (SEA-HAZEMON), agile networking (IXP and Content Delivery) and a rural community platform (Baengpun). Using TakNet as a research testbed, Prof. Kanchana and her team embarked on various research projects. These include the creation of an Internet of Things platform for real-time air quality monitoring, and BaengPun: Community Resource Sharing Platform, involving a distributed ledger service.

Karma Jamyang, Deputy Chief Information Communication Officer in department of Information Technology & Telecom, Ministry of Information and Communications, Thimphu, Bhutan, DrukREN (Druk Research & Education Network), presented on the journey of DrukREN over last 5 years. He established Bhutan’s first National Research and Education Network (NREN) called DrukREN in 2016. He also led the project in expansion of DrukREN to connect around 200+ new members in 2020. The national fiber optic network in Bhutan was completed in 2012, connecting 20 districts in Bhutan. The optic network is utilised by the commercial service providers, for their provision of services to urban and rural areas. DrukREN is a dedicated high speed National Research & Education Network (NREN) for the research & education community in Bhutan. Bhutan Internet Exchange provides high speed connections to international research and education networks. One of the key challenges in establishing connectivity in Bhutan is to overcome terrain challenges (e.g. forests), as Bhutan is a mountainous country. Mr Karma Jamyang sought support from the global Research and Education community for collaboration with researchers and students in Bhutan, new NREN services/ applications to deploy, and capability (human resource) development.

Ms Hellen Nakawungu, Senior Systems and Software Engineer, shared about Metro eduroam deployment by the research and education network for Uganda (RENU). Before the COVID-19 pandemic, eduroam was deployed only within the institutions connected to the RENU network. When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, RENU took action to work with the service providers, riding on the service providers’ existing access points, to deploy Metro eduroam beyond campus boundaries. This included cafes, airports, apartments and secondary schools across the country. The in-country lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic boosted the need for Metro eduroam. She also covered the deployment designs that were employed, the issues and difficulties encountered both during and after the service’s deployment, its advantages, and observations on traffic patterns and authentication requests.

Question at panel discussion: How does each country obtain the commercial providers’ support for their projects to bring digital connectivity to the rural areas?
Mr Oshada Senanayake (Sri Lanka) spoke on the importance of the “Digital Transformation Roadmap”, and to ensure sustainable use cases. Ms Hellen Nakawungu (Uganda) shared that the COVID-19 pandemic helped to drive more commercial providers to work with RENU on Metro eduroam deployment. Prof. Kanchana Kanchanasut highlighted that one of the key decision factors to attract commercial service providers to rural areas, is based on the number of users. Thus, she proposed the initiation of a small community network, before commercial providers can come in. In Thailand, the Research and Education partners continue to participate in the projects with commercial providers, to ensure that the rates charged for service usage remain affordable. It was agreed that partnerships with key stakeholders (such as commercial service providers and Government) are key in achieving connectivity to the rural areas.

A/Prof Francis Lee, Executive Committee Member, Singapore Advanced Research and Education Network (SingAREN), concluded the session by thanking all the speakers, who have taken various paths in their countries, to establish the common goal of introducing technology beyond urban areas to rural areas, to bridge the digital divide. The key takeaway is that there is more to be done and NREN should partner with the public-private entities.

Figure 1: Panelists and attendees at “NREN Support for Access to Rural or Remote Sites” meeting at APAN54 on 24 Aug 2022.

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