ASI@CONNECT – Bridging the digital divide across Asia-Pacific
Asia@Connect marks the 4th phase of EU funding to the TEIN programme that successfully established a regional network across Asia-Pacific in 2006 and has progressively expanded its geographical footprint over the years. With a further substantial five-year EU-funding commitment of €20M until 2021, focus during this project phase will be on increased involvement of additional partners within the
Asia-Pacific R&E community to deliver the project and on stepping up efforts to support, in particular, the emerging countries.
Following the celebrations for its official launch at APAN43 in February in New Delhi, work has now begun in earnest. Helga Spitaler from GÉANT caught up with key project representatives to find out more about this ambitious project and their plans to successfully deliver it over the next five years.
Who is behind Asi@Connect?
BK: As coordinator and beneficiary of the EC Grant Contract, TEIN*CC has overall responsibility for implementing the Asi@Connect project. In line with sustainability arguments, we were established as a non-profit organisation by the Korean government to take over project and network management from DANTE (now GÉANT) at the end of TEIN3 in 2012 and, as such, we represent and act on behalf of the 24 project partners. In actual fact, it is the Asi@Connect Governors representing the partners and the Asi@Connect Steering Committee drawn from amongst the Governors that are the real face of Asi@Connect and its objective of creating a networking environment in which R&E collaborations can flourish. And, of course, Asi@Connect continues to benefit from GÉANT’s strong partnership and advisory role.
What sets Asi@Connect apart from previous project phases?
BK: Well, in the past the focus was primarily on creating a physical network, by procuring regional Asia-Pacific connectivity and internationally with Europe. The TEIN Initiative started with a single circuit between France and Korea in 2001, during subsequent EU funding rounds (TEIN2/3/4) we saw significant expansion to the point that, 16 years on, we have the world’s largest regional backbone in place!
JA: Indeed. Asi@Connect will continue to upgrade capacities and extend the geographical footprint by connecting additional countries, such as Afghanistan and Myanmar. But with Asi@Connect the focus has shifted towards capacity development, application programmes to promote and increase utilisation of the TEIN network and towards new initiatives to tackle the digital divide in emerging countries. For these expanding activities we have set up new delivery procedures, based on Calls for Proposals (CFPs), with a rigorous selection process and the EC’s final approval. The Steering Committee (SC) plays a vital role in ensuring that this complex process runs smoothly, is fair and transparent.
The first CFP was announced at the end of December 2016 with a closing date a month later. We received 52 proposals from 18 countries/economies – an amazing but, to be honest, also overwhelming result with a steep learning curve ahead for us. The SC members rolled up their sleeves, set up review committees and, following a rigorous evaluation process, went on to recommend 13 solid proposals to the Asi@Connect Governors.
RSM: Involving the wider community in delivering and, by extension, benefitting from Asi@Connect lies at the heart of this project phase. There is a strong drive to focus on the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and on activities with strong societal impact. The partners have come together with a common objective to contribute towards community development by providing high-capacity, high-speed network access as well as funding outreach for proposals that have the potential of fostering development in the region. In this context, Asi@Connect aims to contribute towards a number of Sustainable Development Goals through improved access to education and research resources. Don’t get me wrong, securing tangible benefits to the population at large has been obviously an objective also during previous project phases, but Asi@Connect brings this mandate to the next level through its structure, focus and delivery mechanism.
BK: Worth adding that each of the 6 work packages focuses on different aspects of development and requirements, be they technical capacity building, deployment of specialised network services or application support. The aim is to help community members develop and consolidate sustainable networks, develop skill sets and platforms for knowledge exchange and ultimately support the development of the community.
A solid backbone is there – but how will you ensure that its connectivity is actually being used?
BK: Promoting the benefits of the network is key to the success of the project, reason why an entire work package is dedicated to encouraging network-enabled R&E collaboration and application sub-projects. In parallel, we need to equip our partners, particularly in LDCs, with the necessary technical expertise to be able to support their users. Capacity building, in turn, will catalyse further R&E activities and lead to increased network usage - so a virtuous circle all round. Actually, we have seen the positive effects of this approach already during TEIN4: we held 22 application and 29 Human Resource Development (HRD) training workshops which led to the expansion of the tele-surgical TEMDEC programme, uptake of eduroam as well as to campus network design and NREN development led by the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC). And we have ‘inherited’ great EU-Asia R&E collaborations, such as in the fields of high-energy physics (LHCONE), weather forecasting (EUMETSTAT) cultural cyber-performances, food security and disaster warning which we will continue to support.
JA: When talking about network usage we have to take into account that there is a difference between partners with a well-established NREN and active user engagement and those that are just building their national networks. It is important to identify target applications with societal impact which benefit in particular developing countries and are led by more advanced partners. It is equally important to support the very basic network usage and encourage collaborations in the LDCs.
RSM: A lot of R&E content is readily available to the public on the internet, via asymmetric routing. Efforts should be made in the direction of getting this content uploaded to R&E networks, where traffic can also be monitored. The delivery mechanism for content generated in small-scale experiments, for example, or for contents delivered over VC, should be cost-effective, have maximised impact and stimulate further peer collaboration. Tools which would support effective utilisation and secure access of the R&E content by people across various time zones should be developed and promoted.
At NKN I have seen utilisation of connected institutions grow from 100 Mbps to multiple 10 Gbps in a span of 2-3 years. Until 5 years ago, high-speed access was a scarse commodity for the research community in India. NKN changed that landscape, latency is a thing of the past and sharing of compute resources and data between institutes commonplace. However, I want the collaborative platform to be even stronger. Research in the future will be multi-disciplinary, for effective collaboration to happen we should build a repository of experts whose knowledge can be harnessed and shared across projects. The impact of a network can only be measured on the network of effective collaborations that it can help build.
What are the main challenges ahead?
BK: Ensuring long-term sustainability of the project and establishing a self-sufficient organisation behind it. This implies engaging in targeted lobbying activities with key stakeholders, i.e. national governments, to ensure they understand the need for R&E networking and provide the necessary funding support.
JA: The much larger EC-funding share, the scale and complexities of the project and the CFP procedure, which is new to us, certainly keep us on our toes. One of the main challenges the SC faces is to assist TEIN*CC in defining the activity plan for the next 5 years and fine-tuning the proposal section process.
Another challenge is how to best coordinate 24 NREN partners and involve like-minded organisations such as APAN, ISOC, APNIC and NSRC to stimulate good proposals. And, finally, how to help TEIN*CC monitor and ensure that the awarded sub-projects are successfully carried out.
RSM: In my opinion, making this initiative sustainable without depending on resources from the networking partners and progressively making the application portion of the project self-sustained is a major challenge on the road ahead. Another challenge is how to make developing and under-developed countries part of the mainstream activities of Asi@Connect. Penetration, awareness and utilisation of the R&E network in countries which have just been connected or are yet to be connected will need to be worked on. We need to encourage more proposals from those countries. If required, we can also hand hold them and work with them to develop good proposals.
What are your expectations for the next five years?
JA: I would like to see all partners join forces and work with other local organisations to successfully implement this ambitious project. We want to live up to the expectations of the European Union and help bring the best minds together. I do think that it is within our reach to achieve the objectives, build a mature proposal evaluation procedure, devise a solid monitoring system and make Asi@Connect a real success.
RSM: As representative of India and NKN, I would like to see a mechanism put in place to calculate quantifiable benefits to the end user and the community and regional connectivity being scaled up by supporting other countries via the Asi@Connect platform. As Chair of Governors, my key expectation is that each Governor makes a diligent effort to maximise utilisation of R&E connectivity in their respective countries and bring it to a stage where it becomes indispensable. I expect them to create a platform where the value of the R&E network is appreciated, thereby increasing the number of collaborations in the region. I would also like to encourage tapping into the existing expertise in Asi@Connect, in the form of ISOC, NSRC etc. and use them to set up teams of experts that can help build a bridge between developed and developing countries. The knowledge that resides across the 24 Asi@Connect partner countries is immense, if we can find a mechanism of tapping this potential and building a repository of this talent, I feel we can really make a difference!
Asi@Connect is funded by the European Union under Grant Contract ACA2016/376-562.
For more information about the Asi@Connect project visit www.tein.asia
Asi@Connect Work Packages
- WP1: Network procurement and management
- WP2: Capacity development of NRENs in developing countries
- WP3: R&E network design & operations and associated capacity development
- WP4: Development of specialised network products, services & applications and associated capacity development
- WP5: Promoting Asi@Connect-enabled R&E collaborations for societal benefit
- WP6: Helping to bridge the digital divide in developing countries