The increase in internet speed at the University of Limpopo (UL) from 30 megabits per second (Mbps) to 150 Mbps brought about major improvements in internet traffic from 2012. However, until matched with sound and compatible infrastructure, connectivity is not everything, as Professor Jesika Singh, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC): Research, Innovation and Partnerships argues.
Notwithstanding a view that “there is absolutely no comparison between where we were, back in 2010 and what we have today,” according to Dr Farivar Rahimi, Director in the ICT Department, of Academic Computing Support Services (eLearning), pockets of dissatisfaction with connectivity stability continue to be experienced across campus. For example, Dr Thembinkosi Mabila, Director: Research complains of “erratic internet connectivity at the university of late;” the Human Resources Information Systems Supervisor, Ms Bridget Mehlape, also gripes about intermittent connectivity which affects her team’s productivity; Mr Hopi Mboweni, long-time lecturer in the School of Education and an avid internet user, says he for the first time after many years experienced instability in connectivity, for a full week in mid-February, 2019. Two members of the Students’ Representative Council’s dissatisfaction with connectivity stemmed mainly from inconsistent coverage at residences and insufficient hot spots across campus.
However, according to Mr Gideon Ledwaba, Deputy Director: Service Desk (User Support) in the ICT Department, many of these issues have more to do with the local ICT infrastructure than with the cable line link to Polokwane. Ledwaba says it is important that internet users all understand the nature of the issue that ICT is dealing with. The problem started with an upgrade on the telephone system to accommodate a new call centre, in January this year. The older IP phones were found to be incompatible with the software upgrade which prompted replacement of the old telephones to resolve the problem at hand. Because the telephone and the computer share the internet infrastructure, breakage of the phone signal to the IP phones also affects internet connectivity. “As a temporary measure, we occasionally disconnect the voice line to enable the users to retain access to internet. Admittedly, this is not ideal. The affected staff will continue to suffer this inconvenience until the whole telephone system is completely overhauled. We’re already busy with the overhaul and we anticipate that this challenge will be resolved by end of May 2019.”
Once the whole telephone system has been overhauled, and the re-cabling of the older buildings is completed by the end of May, the connectivity uncertainties should be resolved, Ledwaba assures. However, that will still leave one lingering challenge unresolved. See further below.
For Prof Singh, the biggest issue is speed. “I know we’re very fast but our challenge is our infrastructure and its ability to absorb the allocated speed and even go faster.” She admits that the university’s network is being managed relatively well, adding that “we do not suffer connectivity problems except occasionally” and, even then, Prof Singh admits that breakage happens in unforeseen circumstances, such as “when someone cuts off cable…which results in a total blackout.” The DVC: Research takes comfort in that the ICT Department, which has monitored trends over the years, are addressing infrastructural challenges holistically from the entire enterprise perspective. “A large scale cabling project is now in the implementation phase on campus,” Singh states, with a sigh of relief.
Even Ledwaba from the ICT Department has given assurances that once the CAT-4-to-CAT-6 cabling upgrade across the main campus is completed in May 2019; once the overhaul of the telecommunication system is complete in May 2019 and also after Wifi hotspots are increased and connection points are spread to more buildings and residences, these connectivity problems will become a thing of the past.
Without some kind of connection as back-up, local infrastructure upgrades are not 100% foolproof
While the UL infrastructure problem is something within the control of the institution, and it is clearly already being addressed, there is an external problem that keeps Ledwaba wide awake at night: the fact that the university’s link to the SANReN network is limited to the cable line running between Polokwane and Mankweng. “You see we are not part of the mainline ring that runs from Gauteng; links to Venda through Polokwane and continues to Mpumalanga, going all the way to Durban, Cape Town and linking back to Johannesburg,” Ledwaba states. He explains that being part of the ring would have meant that connectivity breakage at any portion thereof would have given the UL options to connect via alternative points along the mainline. “In the current circumstances, we face an ever-looming risk of total downtime due to the permanent threat of cable vandalism in the country. We have more than once borne consequences of cable theft on our dedicated line. That can happen again any time.”
Ledwaba, who, as the Acting Director: ICT in 2011 was overseeing the implementation of USAf’s Rural Campus Connection Project (RCCP) from the UL point of view, remembers what happened then very vividly. He says after the university transferred funds to the Tertiary Education and Research Network of SA (TENET), the implementation partner to USAf, there were delays in the fibre layout process and the institution complained to the service provider. “To offset the delays, TENET (through a third party) put us on wireless service for a year in 2011, pending the commissioning of the fibre link. As far as TENET was concerned this was a temporary measure. As soon as they commissioned to the cable they disconnected the wireless service. This robbed our campus of a back-up for when connectivity via the cable breaks for whatever reason.”
Total downtime is a major operational risk to any entity
The then Acting Director recalls that TENET cautioned that keeping the wireless connection would come with costs, which were highly prohibitive at that time. “Even though we hardly ever experience total downtime, we have had enough breaks to know that when downtime hits us, it halts our productivity all around. So I cannot imagine a full day without connectivity. Without a back-up line we are sitting with a major risk. So this is a grey area for me.”
The University’s ICT Director, Mr Isaac Maredi fully appreciates the risk alluded to above. “The availability of internet connectivity redundancy for UL remains a critical and high priority issue and is part of our consideration as we finalise our enterprise architecture (EA) and master systems plan (MSP) project. We will definitely be pursuing a permanent solution in due course and TENET will be one of our key partners in this regard.” Maredi says one option that they are already mulling over, which may form part of their envisaged MSP, is leveraging the current Access Point Name (APN) contract with Vodacom. He adds that in this digital era, where technologies are evolving rapidly, what could have been a solution in 2011 is probably 2-to-3-fold obsolete today. “In the final analysis, our decision will be informed by the business case and the strategic choice that UL has to make as and when we finally propose a solution for our connectivity failover.” Although they have not yet formally engaged TENET in this regard, “TENET, our key partner and stakeholder, will definitely be engaged when we start the process.”
In turn, TENET’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr Duncan Greaves, says as a responsive service provider, their doors remain open to hear out, and respond appropriately to UL’s concerns as soon as the latter is ready to engage.