Connecting rural campuses addresses challenges faced by researchers

The Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UTC) boasts a number of rural sites where important research and teaching are undertaken. Until recently, these sites have had to make do with the unreliable levels of connectivity available in the region.

In 2018,  the UTC segment of the Rural Campuses Connection (RCC) project, part of a national initiative to connect the country’s rural research facilities, was completed, significantly improving connectivity for rural campuses.

“The RCC project was very rewarding in terms of customer satisfaction,” says Bruce Fielies, senior manager of Workplace Services at UTC Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS). “Researchers are used to working on campus and take this connectivity for granted. Then they go to rural research sites and they’re confronted with major challenges around internet speeds and instability of connection.”

This slow connectivity has cost researchers a fortune in both time and money. One group, says Fielies, had to rely on a data top-up service. They only knew their data bundle had been depleted when they ran out of data and lost connectivity – there was no way of monitoring data use. “This made it a nightmare to budget for, and the near-constant disruptions to their network access negatively affected their research.”

Fortunately, the lack of access to adequate broadband in rural areas was identified by the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET). They procured a grant from government to connect the 53 mostly rural higher education research and teaching sites in South Africa to the South African National Research Network (SANReN).

Once TENET secured the funding, universities submitted their rural sites for approval as beneficiaries. TENET then covered the installation costs and two years’ maintenance costs to keep these sites on the network.

At UCT, ICTS has connected a total of nine rural sites so far, with four still in progress. Researchers can now easily access the internet and collect and upload data, with little or no connectivity interruptions. Students at these campuses can also access their lectures through video conference facilities.

“We have had very positive feedback from researchers and students,” says Riedewaan Jacobs, senior technical officer at ICTS. “The speeds offered by the new infrastructure are significant, which enables us to deliver the same services available on upper campus.”

Published: 12/2018

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