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Technology

Alain Aina: 2019 Jonathan B. Postel Service Award Winner

Alain Aina has been a key player in the Internet in Africa. While the winner of this year’s Jonathan B. Postel Award has had support from organizations and others, his leadership in building technical communities has helped countless people to spread the Internet across Africa and the world.

As the chief technology officer of the West and Central Africa Research and Education Network (WACREN), Aina has been building a Regional Research and Education Network to interconnect National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in the region and connect them to the global Research and Education Network. He wants the world to see the work of Africa’s premier researchers and carve out its spot in the academic world – in a way that would be impossible without the resources of this new network and community. He also contributes to AfricaConnect2, a project that supports the development of high-capacity networks for research and education across Africa, by building on existing networks in Eastern, Northern, and Southern Africa to connect to West and Central Africa​’s WACREN.

Aina fell into this work after graduating in the early 90s with a degree in electrical engineering and in the maintenance and analysis of computer systems. He was hired to be a technical seller for a company in the Togolese Republic, which had a branch in Benin, where he’s from. The owner of the company had recently returned home from the United States and was anxious about computing and internetworking. He noticed Aina’s talent and added him to the technical team, where he ended up building the first bulletin board systems (BBS) in the area.

“People used the modem to dial in, then people on the same server could talk to each other,” he said. “Then we decided to put in the first email gateway, connecting to someone in Accra and later in Montreal twice a day to drop mail and download mail. But the cost was so high, it was not sustainable. The delegation of the country-code TLD in 1996 changed the paradigm for the email service and we were proud to demonstrate the first local web server and intranet.”

By the mid-90s there wasn’t a lot of support for people working on Internet access and connection, but there was ever-growing interest and demand. This meant that Aina and his colleagues often worked around the clock to set up networks and services in communities, then trained the local population on how to use what they had made.

“The Internet became so popular that the demand was suddenly so high, and it was putting pressure on us,” he said.

It was about this time that Aina started collaborating with the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), where he now serves now as a part-time network engineer and trainer. He later launched the first full IP services in the Togolese Republic and then in other countries in West Africa.

“At that time, most of the world did not believe that Africa could have the Internet and play a role. When you’d go to places, you’d have to train people,” Aina said. “Training materials were rare. We were lucky to have some books and some knowledgeable friends far away. The people you trained only knew you, so if something broke they called you to fix it.”

Aina helped build large parts of the Internet ecosystem throughout Africa, setting up networks, contributing to the creation of the regional Internet registry and the network operator group, and building ccTLD registries. He also started a consulting firm and became active in the private sector.

He eventually started attending Internet Society network technology workshops and getting involved with the organization in other ways. From 2011 to 2014, he served as a trustee for the organization. Active in the Internet community, he’s also involved with ICANN, the African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC), the African Network Operators Group (AFNOG), and other organizations. He helped found AFNOG, where he’s been an instructor since 2000, and he is one of the founders of AFRINIC, where he’s served in several roles, including acting chief technology officer, acting chief executive officer, and director of research and innovation. Aina is a key technical resource for the DNS community, including Africa Top Level Domains Organization (AFTLD).

A big part of his life has been Internet related, but he feels there is still so much more to do for Africa.

Aina says he was both surprised and humbled to receive the Postel Award. “I feel happy, but perplexed. I asked myself, ‘what have I done that is so special to deserve this?’ But when you look back, you can see it. You can see all the hard work in a virgin and difficult context.”

“I hope this award will motivate those who see me as a model and are contributing to the long walk to the technological liberation.”


Image credit: Minzayar Oo courtesy IETF LLC

Categories
Internet Governance Women in Tech

Young People: Building an Internet for Everyone

Young people everywhere are building technology, mobilizing communities, and raising their voices to shape policies that create an Internet that’s truly for everyone.

That’s why we’re partnering with the not-for-profit and non-governmental organization AIESEC on a pilot project to train 500 young people on Internet-related skills in Bolivia, Nepal, Namibia, and Kenya.

It’s our hope that this project will be the start a journey that will result in even more young voices joining a community of thousands of people around the world who believe in the open Internet.

Young people like Pamela Gonzales.

At only 24 years old, Gonzales is the co-founder of Bolivia Tech Hub, an early stage incubator that serves as one of La Paz’s only support systems for the city’s tech community, helping entrepreneurs to learn, develop, and collaborate on new projects.

She’s impacting hundreds of lives, but she says it didn’t come easily.

In her first year of university, she partnered with a friend of hers, a local web developer, and together they secured funding and built something new.

“My mission was to find a place to learn the things I couldn’t learn in the university,” Gonzales said. “I found there were a lot of students who couldn’t learn a lot of tech things because we didn’t have computers with Internet.”

Today, the Hub is completely funded through sponsors. Gonzales spends a lot of time securing funding, but to get it off the ground, she says she and her co-founder had to start from scratch.

“We started doing a lot of contests and challenges, and that created a small tech group which was very creative and full of new people,” Gonzales said. Many of the participants eventually started companies and the ones not going into entrepreneurship secured jobs as developers. As time went on, Gonzales turned her attention to the country’s vast underserved communities. Bolivia Tech Hub runs Technovation for women and girls, and the Curiosity Machine Program, for families.

Community building is at the heart of Gonzales’ work.

She is also a member of the Internet Society Youth Special Interest Group (SIG Youth), a community of young people dedicated to ensuring the voices of young people are heard when it comes to decisions that impact the Internet.

These young people represent the future of the Internet and the world. They are building their dream Internet and they will help inform the policies that govern it. You could be one of them.

Help build an Internet that’s for everyone. Join SIG Youth!

Categories
Technology

Steven G. Huter – The 2018 Jonathan B. Postel Service Award Winner

With so many moving parts to advancing Internet access and enabling communities to reach the rest of the world, the biggest key to success, according to this year’s Jonathan B. Postel Award winner, is listening.

Steven Huter listens. He says it’s his most important job. The Director for the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) and a Research Associate at the University of Oregon says before configuring community networks and setting Internet development goals, his organization has to make sure they are solving the right problems.

“Listening first to what local Internet developers request and desire in terms of assistance, based on their respective conditions and challenges, is vital for a successful outcome,” Huter says.

Only half the people in the world have Internet access, and the NSRC works on creating “a sustainable community of Internet-savvy engineers and local operators that can enable continuous progress in their countries to bring more affordable Internet access and better network performance for their respective communities.”

Essentially, they go to areas in need, help set up the hardware and digital necessities for Internet access, and train local operators and system workers to handle that network independently. And Huter has been an integral part of this process, not only through his technical prowess, but through his communication skills and devotion to others.

“Steve has grown this program dramatically over the period of his stewardship,” said Vint Cerf, former classmate of Jon Postel, and associate of Huter’s. “He’s made connections friends and admirers literally all over the world. And the people he’s trained have often ended up in very high up positions in communications and networks.”

The NSRC provides technical information, engineering assistance, training, donations of networking books, equipment, and other resources to indigenous scientists, engineers, and educators. They work with universities first and the advances slowly work their way into the private sector. It’s takes more than know-how; it takes charisma.

Cerf is known as one of the fathers of the Internet, and he says Huter brings personality to the industry in a way many can’t.

“Steve’s personal commitment to this role and his perspective—which is that the people he comes to help—are the most important part of the equation,” Cerf said. “He comes with a very humble attitude which gives enormous respect to the people he is helping.”

To date, the NSRC has facilitated more than 650 tons of network equipment and technical reference books to engineering and computer science departments, university libraries, non-governmental organizations, and networking training facilities in more than 120 countries in the world.

“The main objective is to build a community of network operators who help each other with exchanges of knowledge, technical skills, and local hands cultivating local expertise,” Huter says.

“I help glue together a core NSRC team at the University of Oregon with dozens of international contractors and volunteers based in many different countries to scale the work globally and enable continuous progress in all regions of the world.”

Adept in numerous languages, gracious, kind, and giving of his time and resources, his associate and ICANN chair Steve Crocker says that the award is truly deserved.

“I think it’s fantastic that he won this award. I’ve known him for quite some time, and I’ve been impressed with his unique combination of being technically very competent, having a multicultural background, and easily bridging gaps between several cultures,” Crocker said. “He’s just a decent human being. He enjoys the process and does it around the globe.”

And as more of the structural components are laid down, Huter is moving toward helping on other levels, too.

“I am interested in thinking beyond building core networks to how we can collectively make good use of new technologies,” Huter said. “By engaging the Internet’s technical wizards to help government agencies understand that they are positioned to improve the lives of their citizenry if they embrace the future and reshape government policies rather than put up obstacles, there is a lot good work we can do in the coming years.”

This award is given not just for prowess, but for selflessness, for putting others above yourself.

“A lot of people get awards for doing great things, but often the truly good guys get left in the shadows,” Crocker said. “This award is focused on bringing those people out of the shadows, so people who know Steve and the work he’s been doing will say that’s a great choice.”

Huter was acquainted with Postel, making the award mean even more.

“Jon Postel inspired me and many others by his dedication, persistence, awesome work ethic, and thoughtful style of leadership. I particularly enjoyed conversations with Jon about hiking in the mountains and enjoying the wonders of nature, so will gratefully accept this opportunity as a reminder to get out and enjoy more time with family and friends in his honor.”

Learn more about the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award and past winners.

Photo ©Stonehouse Photographic / Internet Society