SA’s TVET colleges get broadband boost

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 26 May 2022

South African Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges have received a broadband boost.

This, after non-profit organisation the South African Broadband Education Networks (SABEN) bumped up bandwidth for the colleges from 10Mbps to 200Mbps, using FortiGate devices from NEC XON.

SABEN is a non-profit company serving school networks and the TVET sectors in South Africa. It is purpose-built to solve the digital requirements of these sectors; specifically to end bandwidth poverty among SA’s schools and public TVET colleges.

The need for faster broadband has become paramount since the pandemic began, as more students had to learn remotely in a bid to adhere to social distancing measures.

SABEN has connected and upgraded 256 of a targeted 283 TVET college campuses from 48 TVET colleges to the South African National Research and Education Network (SANREN).

In a statement, the non-profit organisation says it intends connecting the remaining campuses by year-end.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande recently expressed concern that internet connectivity issues and slow access to learning devices were among the key challenges that compromised the quality of education for tertiary students during the pandemic.

Students also frequently lamented that online learning was significantly less effective than in-person teaching because of limited online resources and the software used for lecturing.

“High-speed internet connectivity is critical for teaching and learning,” says Helga Watkin, project lead at SABEN. “The rollout has enabled the colleges to get more bandwidth and, in some cases, save thousands of rands each month.

“Many of the TVET colleges serve students in poorer, marginalised communities who face numerous social and learning challenges. COVID-19 lockdowns accelerated the need for connectivity,” she says.

“Desperate for an immediate connectivity solution, some colleges independently approached commercial connectivity service providers. They were charged well in excess of what it costs for SABEN to meet their current and future needs. Those shifting to the SANREN solution are the ones that see the greatest savings.”

Anthony Laing, GM of networking at NEC XON.
Anthony Laing, GM of networking at NEC XON.

SABEN accessed grant funds from the National Skills Fund via the Department of Higher Education and Training to provide the broadband connections and campus WiFi-based internet access backhauled via the SANREN operated by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

It also provides ongoing maintenance and support services to the TVET colleges in some of the remotest parts of South Africa.

It provides additional services, such as learning management systems, voice over IP and video conferencing.

TVET colleges only pay a monthly connectivity fee that is much lower than they can access commercially, says SABEN.

The FortiGate 100E series appliances that form the basis of the solution provide application-centric, scalable and secure SD-WAN with next-generation firewall capabilities.

They are deployed at campus or enterprise branches. A key feature is their system-on-a-chip acceleration that protects against cyber security threats.

It was key for SABEN to standardise on these appliances throughout the network, it says.

“Standardisation makes it easier to support and applies a level of future-proofing for unconstrained future expansion,” says Anthony Laing, GM of networking at NEC XON.

“The next-generation firewall capabilities reduce complexity and maximise return on investment with integrated threat protection in one, high-performance appliance.”

“The colleges and the students who benefit, particularly those in rural South Africa, could not normally access this level of infrastructure,” says Watkin.

“Now with 200Mbps lines connecting their campuses, they have improved access to learning. The colleges can operate more effectively, there are fewer technology-based learning disruptions, lecturers have adequate bandwidth for their applications, and there is wider access to learning and teaching materials. The net result is that we are reversing the negative impacts of bandwidth poverty.

“That helps learning development envisioned by the presidency to support socio-economic growth. That’s our ultimate goal.”