COMMENT:

Could history repeat itself and undo our academic network because of commercial pressures and faltering Government support?

REANNZ (Research and Education Advanced Network of New Zealand) was set up after TuiaNet failed in the early 90s, as telcos picked off academic and research institutions from the consortium.

Relying on commercial providers turned out to be a mistake that the Kiwi Advanced Research Network (KAREN, now REANNZ) was set up to rectify so Kiwi scientists could work with their international peers instead of being isolated by slow, expensive links in the South Pacific.

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Just over a decade after its formation, REANNZ faces a customer revolt with the Victoria, Lincoln, and Canterbury universities having quit the not-for-profit provider.

The word in academia is that more institutions are considering switching to commercial telcos, citing high REANNZ bandwidth costs and inability to see the value of a specialised academic network provider.

Now we're plunging into a data-dense future with computational science that requires enormous international information flows.

For universities to abandon REANNZ seems a risky move in that scenario, driven as it may be by commercial considerations.

The reality is REANNZ will always be a tough sell.

Network optimisations such as uncontested bandwidth, peering, low packet loss and jitter aren't tangible for customers and difficult to appreciate until they're gone.

End-users generally don't have a full network overview and look at the internet as a homogeneous entity.

The reality is more complex, with the internet being a collection of autonomous networks that agree, or don't, to pass data between each other.

Academic networks co-operate in an internet, so to speak, and can optimise routing for high speed and low-loss data transfers between themselves.

Researchers can use the networks for experiments with new technologies on a global scale.

Although science is about sharing knowledge, global politics mean it's an advantage to know the route data flows take and to be able to ensure they go over encrypted links to avoid sensitive research ending up in the wrong hands.

Close co-operation between the academic networks mean they can run free services such as Eduroam that let students, scientists and staff access their institutional networks around the world.

Eduroam is one of those "nice to have" features that is only available via REANNZ and other academic networks.

The universities that have quit REANNZ miss it and are now trying to regain commercial access to Eduroam.

But it is 2018, and technology has moved forward with leaps and bounds.

Telcos and internet providers are able to offer excellent products and services that would've cost a fortune just a few years ago.

Going with commercial providers could result in keener pricing for academic and research institutions.

But how much of the potential savings will be eaten up by having to bolster IT departments with experienced, skilled and hard-to-find techies to ensure the commercially provided services are adequately designed for existing use and future growth.

Also, commercial network providers are also under pressure from internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon Web Services that can ramp up product and customer volumes globally without having to think much about returns on infrastructure capital expenditure.

The only way telcos and internet providers can compete in that reality is through market consolidation to make up for slim margins with increased customer volumes.

Market consolidation means less competition and initial keen pricing in such an environment is likely to increase as commercial providers have a duty to their shareholders to earn as much as possible.

Which is not to say that REANNZ shouldn't make changes. REANNZ going out to bat for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project was probably a mistake. SKA is increasingly looking like a white elephant that won't have researcher support and the Government is going cold on the project.

Perhaps it's time for REANNZ to kick SKA towards the private interests that want it, and focus more closely on where the New Zealand science community's interests lie.

And the Government needs to be more consistent with REANNZ.

What's the point of getting REANNZ to buy bandwidth on the Hawaiki Cable and then remove a chunk of funding which makes it harder for the academic network provider to adjust its pricing to match commercial competition?

Maybe at some point technology will have developed to the point that REANNZ becomes an expensive and redundant infrastructure option for academia and science.

We're not there yet and for now it makes sense for REANNZ and its customers to sit down and iron out their differences, with some help from the Government.