The MIM Communications Network

System Scehatic[System Schematic: Click to Enlarge]

The National Library of Medicine chairs the Communications Working Group of the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria (MIM), which began in 1997. The objective is to support African scientists and malaria researchers in their ability to connect with one another and sources of information through full access to the Internet and the resources of the World Wide Web, as well as create new collaborations and partnerships.

The initial meeting of the MIM CWG was held in January 1998 at the NLM/NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. In attendance were malaria research scientists, health information professionals, telecommunications experts and representatives of the major MIM funding agencies. In keeping with the underlying goal of supporting a broad spectrum of basic and operational malaria research needs, the researchers requested communications and connectivity capabilities sufficient to provide, at a minimum: robust and reliable e-mail, links to other research sites, access to full text journal articles, database searching, exchange of large files and mapping data, and timely access to electronic information resources worldwide.

In July 1999, Redwing Satellite Solutions Ltd. (based in the UK) and NLM’s technical consultant Mark Bennett successfully installed Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) ground stations at two malaria research sites in Kenya, at Kisian (CDC funded) and Kilifi (Wellcome Trust funded). The 64kbs dedicated bandwidth purchased was shared by the two sites. These two sites join the Malaria Research and Training Center in Mali which has full Internet access via microwave technology, funded by NIAID and made operational in June 1998.

The NLM team brought on two further sites in December 1999, in Ghana - in Legon near Accra (the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research) and in Navrongo (Navrongo Health Research Centre). The Ghanaian sites, engaged in malaria vaccine testing, are funded jointly by NIAID/NIH, the Naval Institute of Medical Research, and USAID.) When these sites came on line, the overall bandwidth increased to 128kbs and monthly charges were reduced since more sites were sharing the bandwidth.

In March 2000 a VSAT was installed for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Nairobi.  WRAIR share their access with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and CDC, and also, via onward wireless connections, with the Wellcome Trust Labs and the Library of Congress.  Funding for these sites in Kenya is spearheaded by WRAIR  

Six months later two further VSAT were installed at Ifakara and Amani in Tanzania. At the associated headquarters of the National Institute for Medical Research in Dar es Salaam a wireless connection was installed to the local ISP, CyberTwiga. Local area networks (also wireless) were installed at all three sites to provide maximum use of the connectivity. Funding for three sites in Tanzania has come from the NIH Director's Discretionary Fund. In May 2001 CyberTwiga also installed a wireless connection in Moshi.

In June 2001 a VSAT was installed at the ICIPE site at Mbita Point in western Kenya, bringing the number of operational sites on the satellite network to eight. Bandwidth available is now 768K on the outbound link to Africa and 512K on the return link to London. The outbound bandwidth is fully shared between all sites ensuring maximum efficiency in its use.

Site surveys have been carried out for upcoming installations at the Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe (due for installation in July) and at the College of Medicine in Blanytyre, Malawi (due for installation in Q3).

Redwing has given NLM a group rate for the MIM sites and is treating the group of sites as one customer. The group arrangement has advantages. The rate per site would increase considerably if the site were to buy it on its own. In addition, the consortium approach allows for flexibility in adjusting bandwidth to fit the needs of the individual sites.

NLM continues to support site visits and assessments, consultancies, evaluation and testing of the extant technology. Related issues of user training, in-country licensure of technology, and allowances for future technological advances (such as predicted worldwide availability of low-cost commercial satellite systems) are all part of an implementation plan developed by the MIM/CWG. The plan recommends immediate use be made of the affordable technologies now available to provide high-speed and reliable information and communication links in order to yield timely results in improving researchers' ability to do cooperative research and disseminate their results. Recommended technologies are VSAT, which uses a geostationary satellite and an earth station, and microwave, which uses radio waves. The latter is less expensive but is limited to line of sight transmission. The MIM sites that wish to operate a radio or VSAT link have to gain permission from the relevant in-country authority.

Julia Royall, project director