When it comes to providing modern digital communication facilities to the public Universities (‘schools’ in US), we have come a long way. This scribe used a 14.4 kbps dialup modem along with a very early version of Linux Slackware back in 1996 to connect a UUCP server set up at NED University of Engineering & Technology which was in turn connected to internal network of the university. Users could telnet to the UUCP server and use PINE to read and write emails. A single nodal account from the UNDP’s sponsored SDNPK initiative allowed the students of the university to own an email address (quite a novelty at that time in Pakistan) and interact with others on the Internet.
Fast forward to 2007 and things have changed remarkably. Most of the public Universities now have a high-speed (2 MB to 8 MB and even higher in some cases) Internet connection coming to their IT center which in turn feeds the campus network. Initially, this was delivered as distinct circuits by (the then) public PTT (PTCL) carrying Internet transit bandwidth. In late 1990s, the government used to ask commercial ISPs to provide free of cost Internet circuits in lieu of certain tariff cuts or overall sector responsibility.
Under Dr Atta ur Rahman’s various initiatives at HEC (Higher Education Commission) were taken and Pakistan Education & Research Network (PERN) was envisaged to allow greater interaction between the schools in Pakistan on patterns similar to the North American schools. The details about PERN are interesting. From PERN’s official website:
Pakistan Education and Research Network (PERN) is part of the overall vision and objectives of IT Action Plan that was launched by Prof. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman as Minister of Science and Technology. The project is financed by the Government of Pakistan in cooperation with PTCL (Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited) Research and Development funds. The network is designed, operated, and maintained by NTC (National Telecommunication Corporation). The project is aimed to be an integral part of the overall Education System of the country and is designed to interlink all Public / Private Sector Chartered Universities / Degree awarding Institutes registered with Higher Education Commission, Government of Pakistan.
and the network details:
Existing Optical Fiber System of PTCL/NTC and IP/ATM backbone of NTC is utilized for the CORE network of PERN. The network design of PERN consists of three nodal points at Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. The educational institutions are connected to their respective nodal point by a 256 Kb/s to 6Mbps link from the nearest exchange of NTC/PTCL using OFS, DXX (or better system), DRS or VSAT, whichever is technically feasible. Routers are installed at University premises by the Universities to provide connectivity with the access routers from the nearest node. The three nodal locations are interconnected on existing optical fiber system and terminate the Internet facility in the pool. Currently, the interconnection of three main nodes is on 34×34 Mbps and Internet connectivity is 65 Mbps for Islamabad, 33 Mbps for Lahore and 57 Mbps for Karachi. The bandwidth will be increased as per requirement. This architecture allows institutions to pool resources with each other through national fiber network and to access Internet from the respective nodal points.
APP has a report on PERN participating Public universities now getting four-times the amount of Internet bandwidth from PTCL at the same cost and the private cousins getting double the amount of Internet bandwidth at the same cost – all this for the sake of furthering the education cause in Pakistan.
The problem with this scheme of things is that we do not need transit Internet capacity in the university beyond a certain limit that would allow easy access to most of the resources on the Internet. If the whole point behind PERN and other such initiatives is the growth of network centric intra-school academic activitie, transit Internet bandwidth doesn’t stand as the first goal that needs to be pursued. Enabling high speed, optical fiber based circuits between the schools and equipping the back end hardware and humanware needs to be set as the target. Once the students studying and doing research at these public school get addicted to the digital facilities such an all-optical-fiber-network can provide, the results will start coming in the shape of increase collaboration (without the need of any connection beyond Pakistan), digital document storage, recovery and exchange, and increased upgrade of the humanware that run and use this network. Doubling and quad rippling the transit Internet capacities stands the risk of allowing better downloads of Youtube, easier song swapping and fun with bittorrent!