I’ve been working on various infrastructure projects for education for more than twenty years now, but the one constant through that time has been wireless technologies. In particular, I was part of the initial group of three that brought the eduroam idea (then called Location Independent Networking) to life in the UK, working with UKERNA. Curiously enough all three, then from universities in Manchester, Bristol and Southampton, now work for Jisc and are still engaged in one capacity or another in improving the eduroam experience.
eduroam is one of the Big Ideas
The eduroam roaming federation has been one of the Big Ideas™ of this generation of networkers, and I think that sometimes the education sector forgets how powerful it is. There was a time when the invisibility of a service was its badge of honour, a testament to its reliability, but in the current climate we need to ensure that people are aware of the direct and indirect benefits it brings, so that they can take some ownership and help protect and extend the coverage.
For a number of years, I’ve been trying to find a way to bring those benefits to a wider public sector base in the UK. Although I hate the phrase, one that recurs in discussions of federated roaming is “it’s a no-brainer”. Admittedly, once you bring someone to the point of understanding the new ways of working and efficiencies that something like eduroam brings, and they realise that they already have most or all of the infrastructure, services and skills they need to participate in it as part of their existing local provision, the arguments against deploying a roaming service are few on the ground. That’s why it is so surprising that it has been so hard to catalyse the creation of a roaming solution for a wider public sector, such as health, government or the blue light services.
What’s the problem?
So why has it been so hard? Well, the first hurdle is establishing need: there’s a chicken-and-egg argument around limited roaming demand (due to the absence of infrastructure to support it) justifying not creating such an infrastructure. It takes decision makers with vision to see that participating in a roaming federation will trigger a cultural change that will foster new ways of working, collaborating and sharing resources. Then there’s the thorny issue of funding. An eduroam-like infrastructure is very cheap to build and run, as national services go, but if the invoice ends up on just one department’s accounts, but the benefits are demonstrably distributed nationally, there’s an understandable reluctance. That’s where some of our former attempts to foster the launch of such a service have foundered, attempting a ‘top down’ funding model with central government. There’s also a question of scope: govroam is a roaming service for staff, in the main, but most public sites are also facing increasing pressure to provide connectivity for visiting members of the general public. Experience from eduroam suggests that trying to solve both problems (staff roaming and public connectivity), with their incompatible requirements, via a single network design is biting off too much. It may be that Jisc can also help address the public visitor problem, but probably not as part of the govroam deployment.
So in this current initiative, Jisc is trying to promote a govroam solution based on the proven eduroam design and compatible with similar initiatives internationally. It will be funded from the grass roots by the participants that receive the benefits, in a transparent way tailored to suit the purchasing processes of the sectors it serves. It will support basic network activities such as email, web and VPN, and form a foundation on which future designs that bring home organisation services directly to the roaming context could be built. As an early adopter pilot service it already exists and is supporting roaming across the UK.
It’s certainly timely. Three of our European neighbours have deployed a govroam network, albeit on a smaller scale, and within the UK, individual Trusts, Councils and PSNs are starting to create regional roaming capabilities. We are on the cusp now of either fragmenting into incompatible islands of proprietary roaming technologies, or agreeing to standardise on something with national or international scope.
I hope you will look into what is developing here and consider taking part; if you already an early adopter, I hope you will tell your colleagues about your experiences. I hope to remain part of this project as it matures, and ultimately to be able to grumble that it is so much part of life in government and health circles that people are starting to take it for granted. It is, after all, a no-brainer…