In Libya, Universities Struggle to Get Internet Access
TRIPOLI—At the University of Tripoli, in Libya, each academic department receives a handheld device to access the Internet. The WiMAX devices, inexpensive mobile hotspots that are commonly used throughout the developing world, are supposed to help faculty download data, upload research and manage thousands of students.
But the faculty members don’t necessarily use the devices for academic work said a literature professor at the University of Tripoli, Faraj Dardour. “The heads of departments have taken them to their homes so their children can use them to play games,” said Dardour. “They use WiMAX as their own, not the university’s, belonging.”
Corruption is slowing down the expansion of quality broadband in other ways in Libya.
The Alrefak Private University, a private school in Tripoli, had reached an agreement with a private company to install cable Internet service before the Libyan civil war broke out in 2011. After the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was overthrown, the company tried to extort higher fees from the university because its name was often mistakenly associated with a group of close Gaddafi supporters, known as “alrrifak.”
“The revolution delayed the implementation and after the success of the revolution the company did not keep its promise of giving the university the first year free of charge, instead they asked outrageous figures— 250,000 Libyan dinars per year—an amount the university cannot afford,” said Basma Almadani, the university’s finance director, adding that the revised sum was equal to the combined annual tuition of around 140 students.
The two academics experiences typify the effort to get Internet access in Libya. While many expect Internet penetration to improve in the north African country in the coming years as it puts the civil war behind it, professors, students and staff at universities in the meantime are making do with an Internet infrastructure that’s among the worst in the region.
Around 20 percent of Libyans have access to the Internet, according to the World Bank, up from 11 percent in 2009, when the Gaddafi government was still trying to keep a tight lock on the movement of information. Libya’s current Internet penetration is better than Algeria’s proportion—15.2 percent—but behind Libya’s other neighbors. Tunisia has a 41 percent Internet penetration rate. Egypt’s is 44 percent.
A medical student, Dhoha Alnnami, has benefited from the expansion of Internet access at Zawiya University, around 50 kilometers from Tripoli. “There is WiFi available to anyone in the university block area,” she said. “The network is not protected by a password.”
Still, the lack of experience with the Internet is taking its toll on higher education, said Asaad Ashaab, deputy dean of the University of Tripoli’s Faculty of Engineering. He noted that many engineering students wouldn’t use the department’s Internet connection even if it was working. Unaccustomed to the Internet or computers, many University of Tripoli students are technologically illiterate.
“Not all students have the basic skills of information technology,” he said. “Many of them do not have Internet skills or experience using computers. Regrettably, many of them hand in their assignments handwritten.”
Because there are no Internet connections at school, most Libyan students who are technology savvy go online either at home or in Internet cafés at the cost of one Libyan dinar—less than one dollar—an hour. Connections in either venue are spotty. Yet the more technologically sophisticated students are passionate about using the World Wide Web to supplement their studies.
“I use the Internet to search for more knowledge,” said Badruddin Alwerfalli, a medical student at University of Tripoli. “I sometimes need to watch lectures on YouTube, either in English or Arabic, when they are not explained well by our professors. But as you know, the Internet in Libya in general is very bad. It takes ages to open a page.”
The University of Tripoli is on the brink of significantly improving its Internet access, said Hilal Almontasir, dean of faculty of information technology. Funding shortfalls in the wake of the civil war delayed bringing broadband to the university’s 107,000 students. Now, he said, an international telecommunications company is laying cables for a new system that should be up and running in the next month or two.
“Change is needed to update most things in the university, the use of technology in management,” said Almontasir. “There is a plan for electronic administration.”
At Alrefak Private University, Almadani added that, despite the wrangling with the cable company, she and other administrators were also thinking about their school’s web presence and how they might streamline administrative duties using a website.
“A group of computer science students are working on designing a site for the university as a graduation project,” she said. “We hope that, once the project is completed, all university students will be able to get learning resources and communicate effectively with their lecturers and the university administration via the website.”
Dardour, the literature professor, was praying the administrators’ efforts would pay off. Universities in other Arab countries have begun to embrace electronic record keeping and communication. Libya, meanwhile, is falling behind, he said. “Unfortunately, our universities consume piles of paper,” said Dardour. “They get lost sometimes. It could be done electronically in a perfectly efficient way.”