Support for the Liberia Research and Education Network

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— An Open Letter to His Excellency Dr. George M. Weah, President of the Republic of Liberia

“Mr. President, on the digital field of play, Liberia remains on the substitute’s bench even though she is a striker with unsurpassed talents and skills; like you were on the soccer pitch. Now is the time for Liberia to get in the game.”

By Dr. Darren Wilkins | 0886703789\0777129092 | [email protected]

Dear Mr. President:

I present my compliments and respectfully request the Government of Liberia’s (GoL) support in the establishment of a National Research and Education Network (NREN) in Liberia.

Mr. President, before going further, please accept my profoundest thanks and appreciation for your unsurpassed support for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Liberia. Your recent embrace, approval and subsequent signing of the National ICT Policy 2019-2024 clearly illustrate your willingness to use ICT to catalyze the Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD). Furthermore, your decision to move Liberia to a digital economy is visionary. Most importantly, your decision to digitize the registration process at the University of Liberia (UL) has brought a colossal paradigm shift in the way students register their courses and how instructors enter students’ grades. To see students register and pay fees using their mobile phones is absolutely phenomenal. All of these achievements remain part of your legacy and will echo in eternity.

Mr. President, one of the components enshrined in the National ICT Policy of Liberia 2019-2024, is a mandate for the establishment of a National Research and Education Network or NREN, to support higher education and research in Liberia. To implement this mandate, sometime in September of 2018, heads of several tertiary institutions and the telecommunications sector converged at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MoPT) to discuss the establishment of a NREN. 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).

Mr. President, LRREN is a special purpose ISP primarily for tertiary institutions as well as other institutions that are involved in research and education in Liberia. It is expected to connect to other regional and international Research and Education Networks (RENs), to boost research and education in Liberia; an endeavor that ultimately enhances our national economic development initiatives. The establishment of the LRREN could not have materialized without significant assistance received from one of our partners; the USAID-Digital Liberia Project. Some of the support given to the LRREN by USAID-DLP include: the installation of a campus network at the University of Liberia (UL), the provision of training through the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) from the University of Oregon, and the provision of a consultant to support the University’s CIO on Information Technology (IT) governance, IT policy development and aligning IT to the strategic goals of a tertiary institution.

Mr. President, upon its establishment, eleven tertiary institutions became pioneers of the LRREN. These institutions include: University of Liberia (UL), W.V.S Tubman University (TU), Cuttington University (CU), AME University (AMEU), AME Zion University (AMEZU), Grand Bassa Community College (GBCC), Bomi Community College (BCC), the United Methodist University (UMU), Starz College of Technology, Bluecrest University, and Stella Maris/Mother Pattern College.

Mr. President, being cognizant of the fact that the concept of a NREN is relatively new to many Liberians, especially those outside of academia, the need to create awareness, accelerate acceptance, build the capacity of strategic stakeholders and identify mechanisms to ensure sustainability, became an imperative. Hence, USAID-DLP organized a five-day study tour of several tertiary and telecommunications institutions in the Republic of Ghana.

Mr. President, during the latter part of October, an eleven person delegation from tertiary institutions and the telecommunications sector of Liberia flew to the Republic of Ghana to participate in a study tour. The “host” institutions included: University of Ghana, University of Professional Studies Accra, Valley View University, Ashesi University, the Ministry of Communications, the West and Central Africa Research Network (WACREN), CSquared, and Ghana’s National Information Technology Agency (NITA). The goal of the study tour was to enable strategic stakeholders obtain both administrative and technical knowledge of the structure, operations, possibilities and challenges of running a quintessential REN.  The study tour was also intended to help accelerate acceptance of Liberia Research and Education Network or LRREN, and help stakeholders identify ways to ensure the its sustainability.

Mr. President, the study tour in Ghana was an “eye opener”. It allowed the delegation understand and embrace the importance of ICTs in education and its overall impact on economic development. It also allowed the delegation to understand the roles of major stakeholders, especially government, in sustaining NRENs. For example, the Ghanaian government provides support to Ghana’s Academic and Research Network (GARNET) through the country’s e-Transform project. A major contribution from the e-Transform Project was the payment of 275,000 Euros to WACREN (our regional REN), to enable GARNET connect to other global RENS and benefit from their services. Of course, support to GARNET also comes from its members and stakeholders such as the World Bank.

Mr. President, NRENs provide a lot of benefits for the improvement of education and the achievement of national economic goals. NRENs play a role in closing the digital divide, especially the one between academic and research institutions in different geographical areas with different levels of ICT services. In addition, NRENs provide an opportunity for economies of scale as one single network entity procures connectivity services and applications from service providers. This also offloads the administrative and operational burden from individual members. NRENs support nations’ library systems by providing internet access and other services such as online libraries, online databases and journals, collaboration with other members, research opportunities and so on.  NRENs provide a medium for education, cutting-edge research, science and technology which are the key ingredients for sustainable social and economic development

Mr. President, academic and research networking are now regarded as an essential national infrastructure (public good) comparable to roads, water and energy services, due to its impact on learning, teaching, and research. Building a strong education and research community is a cornerstone for prosperity, societal development, stability and regional integration.

Mr. President, the establishment and sustainability of a functional, robust and effective NREN in Liberia will require intervention of the GoL and other stakeholders. The GoL will need to provide budgetary allocation to ensure the LRREN is sustained. This could be done directly to the LRREN or through the University of Liberia, which has taken the lead in this endeavor. Support from our partners, both national and international is also desperately needed for the LRREN’s operations.

Mr. President, the most immediate needs of the LRREN are as follows: funding for initial connectivity to WACREN which is estimated at 275,000 Euros, the renovation of the building that has been identified to house the secretariat, a Special Purpose ISP license, and the cost of taking internet capacity from Liberia to WACREN’s Point of Presence (PoP) in the Ivory Coast. The latter is being handled by the Cable Consortium of Liberia (CCL). A waiver of fees by both the LTA and the CCL would be a significant help to LRREN.

Mr. President, on the issue of sustainability and as I mentioned above, budgetary allotment from the Government of Liberia is an imperative. LRREN’s revenue generation is also expected from tertiary institutions, hospitals, primary and secondary schools, research institutions, and other institutions that will benefit from its services.  Another source of revenue for the LRREN is the potential management of Liberia’s top level domain or should I say, the .LR domain, when it is turned over to Liberia. In addition, a robust capacity building program and proper remuneration (for retention purposes) of the LRREN’s staff are crucial to its sustainability.

Mr. President, NRENs play a critical role in the development of critical network infrastructure and networked services for researchers and educators. NRENs are an asset for a country and a key component to national and international development. There is no doubt that Liberia needs a functional and sustainable NREN to facilitate learning, instruction and research, which ultimately bring about and/or leapfrog economic development. Establishing the NREN is one thing, operating and sustaining it, are other factors that we must be consider seriously.

Mr. President, on the digital field of play, Liberia remains on the substitute’ bench even though she is a striker with unsurpassed talents and skills; like you were on the soccer pitch. Now is the time for Liberia to get in the game. Hence, supporting the LRREN will not only bring Liberia “in the game” on the digital pitch, but it will also allow Liberia to score, after receiving her first pass.

Mr. President, I hope this request receives favorable consideration and I take this opportunity to renew assurances of my highest esteem.

Sincerely,

Dr. Darren Wilkins

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