Words by the AfricaConnect3 comms team with inputs by Guys Halse (TENET), Kennedy Aseda (KENET), Klaas Wierenga and Karl Meyer (GÉANT). This article was first published on the UNESCO world education blog.
Students, researchers and lecturers are becoming more and more mobile. Lecturers often teach in different universities or campuses; students usually roam between different locations such as libraries, classrooms, and hostels; researchers move from place to place, looking for collaborations and exchanges. However, despite the urgent need of users to connect in different locations, institutions hardly have the capacity to address wireless network needs. This leaves roaming students and staff to resort to insecure practices such as borrowing login details or accessing open networks.
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for a secure Internet connection everywhere increased even more and encouraged more remote working and online learning. Students might be able to enjoy world-class Wi-Fi while on campus, but what happens when they go home? As the forthcoming 2023 GEM Report will explore further on its release later next month, many do not have internet at home. And those who are least able to afford internet access at home are often the furthest away from the universities.
This challenge was what led to eduroam (education roaming) being established, creating a secure, world-wide roaming access service for the international research and education community. It allows students not only to obtain access to stable and fast internet across campuses, but also when visiting other participating institutions and at thousands of public hotspots. Overall, this means decreasing the number of journeys to university campuses while, at the same time, reducing the burden of high mobile data costs.
Launched in 2003 in Croatia, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom, eduroam is now available in 106 territories worldwide, of which 17 are in Africa. In 2022, over 27 million students accessed eduroam in the continent. Users in 205 institutions across 345 locations can now roam freely and securely from hundreds of hotspots, like cafes, hospitals, campuses, bus stations and libraries. It celebrated 6.4 billion national and international authentications in 2022. It is a project of the pan-European network GÉANT, and it receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, which enables it to be free-of-charge to users.
We spoke to Frank Ndyanabo, a student of information technology and computing at Kyambogo University, a member of the Research and Education Network of Uganda (RENU), participating member of UbuntuNet Alliance. RENU offers affordable services and connectivity uniquely designed to enable collaboration among the country’s higher education institutions. Through RENU, Kyambogo University received equipment to roll out eduroam. eduroam was a life saver for Frank during the lockdowns.
Through his laptop or phone and with his pre-configured university’s credentials, he could connect to the authenticated network from anywhere across campus and at any time, at available locations around town and also when visiting external institutions that are also part of the eduroam community. The user credentials are not shared with the access point but forwarded securely to the user’s home institution, where they can be verified and validated. What with growing concerns around data protection and online safety, these features are set up to make sure accessing learning content online is far more secure than typical commercial hotspots.
National Research and Education Networks (NREN) like RENU are transforming the deployment of and access to digital technologies in Africa and eduroam is a great example of their work towards reducing the digital divide with affordable, dedicated, secure and sufficient connectivity for researchers and students. If properly harnessed, eduroam can be a powerful tool for students, lecturers, and researchers.
This was made possible thanks to the regional partners of the EU co-funded AfricaConnect3: the UbuntuNet Alliance, the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) and the Arab States Research and Education Network (ASREN). These provide community support to NREN roaming operators, who then roll out and maintain eduroam in their own countries. The NRENs in Africa are increasingly innovative and committed to bridging the digital divide, expanding the service outside of university campuses.
eduroam in Uganda
In 2020, RENU launched metro eduroam, an unprecedented initiative in the continent that allows to access free and secure wireless Internet connectivity off-campus in over 400 locations countrywide. But what if researchers need a stable Internet connection off-campus and they are not at one of those 400 hotspots? To solve this, in 2022, RENU went one step further and addressed the limitation of coverage by launching eduroam on the Go, a pocket-size routing device that enables users to connect to eduroam fulltime and not only from a few fixed locations.
eduroam in South Africa
In 2019, the City of Cape Town and the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET), installed eduroam in 57 of Cape Town’s public libraries. In the first week alone, eduroam saw over 15,000 authentications from 121 institutions including users from Europe, Asia, America, and Oceania. In 2021, TENET piloted successfully the roll out of eduroam to four hospitals in the Western Cape and in May 2023, also in all public airports managed by the Airports Company South Africa. TENET is also a member NREN of the UbuntuNet Alliance.
eduroam in Kenya
The Kenyan Education Network (KENET), another NREN under the UbuntuNet Alliance, implemented its first eduroam deployment in 2010 and has since then activated eduroam in 44 universities and colleges. In 2022 KENET deployed the first ever cloud based OpenWifi architecture in Africa by extending Wi-Fi coverage of student learning spaces, lecturer halls, and hostels at main campus of Kenyatta University in Nairobi, extending the reach of eduroam to at least 1,700 additional students with a capacity of supporting about 14,000 concurrent connections.
eduroam in Ghana
GARNET, the Ghanian NREN and member of WACREN, supports deployment and uptake of eduroam in the country. Over 240,000 members of the academic community are using the global Wi-Fi authenticator. Institutions like University of Ghana and the University of Professional Studies Accra have connected hostels outside of the campuses to eduroam for thousands of students to access the service from the comfort of their rooms.