LRREN: Driving Education, Research and Innovation in Liberia

Dr. Darren Wilkins.

In September of 2018, heads of various Liberian universities and colleges converged at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MoPT) to discuss the establishment of a National Research and Education Network (NREN) in Liberia. Subsequently, on December 13, 2018, the same group met and signed an agreement for the establishment of an NREN which was later named, the Liberia Research and Education Network (LRREN). The LRREN is expected to join/connect to regional and international NRENs to boost research and education in Liberia; an endeavor that ultimately enhances our national economic development initiatives. 

Before going further, let's briefly discuss what an NREN is and what benefits it brings to Liberia, at a time when the nation faces serious economic strangulations. I will first provide some insight into NRENs and briefly discuss Liberia’s newly established NREN; the LRREN. 

A National Research and Education Network or NREN is a specialized Internet Service Provider (ISP) that interconnects research and educational institutions within a nation or region, and externally to similar networks across the global Internet. NRENs are often considered strategic assets of economic and social value to a nation because they play a major role in closing the digital divide between academic and research institutions.

Succinctly put, NRENs specialize in fulfilling the data communications, networking, application, and e-services needs of the host country’s research and education community. They are usually distinguished by their support of a very high-speed network both at the core and access levels with the possibility of offering dedicated channels for individual research projects. 

NRENs are considered incubators of creativity and sources of innovation of both scientific and technological ideas that often spill over to society. For example, the Internet and the World Wide Web are well-known products emerging from NREN academic and research activities.

In the past, it was common to see NRENs connect universities and research labs and provide them with the required facilities for advanced education, research, and development. Nowadays, the scope of NRENs has extended to hospitals, schools (primary and secondary), museums, telecom service providers, and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). Despite the diverse membership list, universities and research institutions are the main players in the NREN community.  

Liberia Research and Education Network (LRREN): Enshrined in the Draft 2018-2023 National ICT Policy is a mandate for the creation of a research and education network to improve education and research for national development. And, acknowledging the need for an NREN in Liberia, the MoPT, the University of Liberia, and several other tertiary institutions, Digital-Liberia E-Government Project (DLEG) and USAID held discussions on the possibility of establishing a one in Liberia.

As I mentioned above, a subsequent meeting was held in December of 2018 with various parties including local universities and colleges (University of Liberia, AME University, United Methodist University, AME Zion, Stellar Maris Polytechnic, Bomi Community College, Bassa Community College, Starz, Bluecrest and Barshell University) that led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the establishment of the Liberia Research and Education Network (LRREN). 

Since the signing of the MoU, both USAID and the DLEG have made significant financial and technical investments to expedite the establishment of the LRREN. In addition, USAID and the DLEG are also providing funding for the deployment of a CAMPUS NETWORK for the UL; the institution that has taken lead in the establishment of the LRREN. DLEG and USAID are expected to assist in connecting ALL four campuses of the UL (Fendall, Capitol Hill, AM Dogliotti, and Sinje), thus providing internet access for faculty, staff, and students. The CAMPUS NETWORK project involves connecting backbones through fiber optic cables, high-end networking equipment and solutions, and the expertise of both local and international professionals.

To prepare universities and colleges for this endeavor, DLEG and USAID sent technicians from the UL, AME University, and Stellar Maris Polytechnic to Ghana for training (train the trainer) and to garner an understanding of how NRENs operate. DLEG has also brought a consultant from Ghana who is familiar with NRENs based on his work with GARNET, Ghana’s NREN. 

A few days ago, a team from the Network Startup and Resource Center (NSRC) of the University of Oregon arrived in Liberia to provide a five-day technical training for technicians and network engineers of members of the LRREN. At the same time, the LRREN, through the UL joined the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN), which is an entity that promotes collaboration among national, regional, international research and education communities. The UL is also in the process of identifying a facility (on Capitol Hill) that will serve as the secretariat for the LRREN. And, since the LRREN is a SPECIALIZED INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER (ISP) there are plans to obtain an ISP license from the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA).  

So, what does the LRREN bring to Liberia’s developmental agenda? The first thing we need to know is that the LRREN will support the demands of education, research, efficient communication, and collaboration in Liberian academia. It is expected to promote cooperation and collaboration between the academic and research communities’ constituents. The LRREN will position Liberia’s academic and research communities in the international scene by connecting the NREN to other worldwide NRENs; and hence better exposure and easier access to the international accumulated research and knowledge base. 

LRREN will significantly reduce the cost of the internet for faculty, staff, and students of institutions that are connected to its network. Since the LRREN is an amalgam of colleges and universities, cost-sharing of network and research equipment, services, and applications will take the burden off each of its members. The LRREN can benefit from things like economies of scale since it operates as one single network entity in the procurement of connectivity services and applications from service providers (CCL, LIBTELCO, Orange, Lonestar, et al). 

Finally, as far as sustainability goes, the LRREN will be supported by contributions from its membership and the services it intends to provide. Furthermore, funding is expected from donors (local and international) including the World Bank, USAID, DFID, EU, hopefully, the Government of Liberia, private and public foundations, NGOs, private industry, and others. I am very excited and optimistic about UL’s campus network and the establishment of the LRREN. I see both initiatives overwhelmingly impacting our national social, economic, and educational goals. That’s it for today. 

Until next week,

Carpe diem!!!!