The quest for an African Internet
By Tracy Burrows, Johannesburg, South Africa
Peering and shared IXPs are a big part of the African Internet solution, say key players. But misconceptions and regulatory hurdles stand in the way.
Most of Africa’s internet traffic is currently rerouted internationally, making it more expensive to send data from Lagos to Abuja than it is to send data from Lagos to London. This additional routing costs over USD600 million a year. Routing as much internet traffic as possible within countries and within Africa would cut costs dramatically and improve efficiencies.
This is according to key stakeholders from across Africa, who took part in the 3rd African Peering and Interconnection Forum (AfPIF), hosted by the international Internet Society in Sandton, South Africa, this week.
AfPIF is a networking forum for infrastructure and service providers, IXPs, regulators and policy makers, aimed at stimulating peering and interconnection with an ‘African Internet’ in mind.
Key to this goal is establishing national and regional Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in every country and every region of Africa. These will allow for routing of traffic within borders and within the continent.
Striving to achieve this, the African Union this week announced a partnership with the Internet Society, to facilitate moves to establish IXPs in new regions and in the 30 African countries that do not yet have them.
The initiative, dubbed the African Internet Exchange System (AXIS) project, will provide capacity building and technical support to facilitate the creation of new IXPs. At least 60 workshops will be held in the various regions over the next three years, in a bid to encourage stakeholders to work together to launch IXPs.
Through the AXIS project, the interests of the AU and the Internet Society, working with other African Internet organisations such as AfriNIC, AfNOG and AftLD, will be realised in this collaborative effort to assist in the development of a more locally operated and, hence, more robust and economically accessible pan-African Internet.
Moctar Yedaly, Head of Information Society Division at the African Union Commission, says it is hoped that the AXIS project will address the current inefficient way of handling inter-country exchange of iInternet traffic.
Karen Rose, Senior Director for Strategic Development and Business Planning at the Internet Society, feels that Africa’s internet environment is an exciting place to be right now. There’s immense scope for growth, she says. “But a lack of collaboration and regulatory issues stand in the way.”
Small beginnings in Kenya
Rose says there seems to be a misconception that starting and IXP needs to be a massive, expensive project. “This is not the case. As few as three to five interested parties can launch an IXP with donated equipment,” she says.
She cites Kenya as an example, where only three industry players first collaborated to launch the Kenya Internet Exchange Point (KIXP).
Fiona Asonga, CEO of the Telecommunications Service Providers Association of Kenya ( Tespok), which administers the Kenya Internet Exchange Point (KIXP), says Kenya is a good example of both small beginnings and the regulatory hurdles that can face IXPs.
Asonga notes that when KIXP was first launched by three industry players in 2002, it was shut down after complaints, because it did not have a license.
Following arduous arbitration, KIXP was duly launched again and issued with a license.
A special license had to be created, and KIXP now holds the distinction of being the only IXP in the world to hold such a license.
The foundation for growth
Rose says the Internet Society knows the internet is a fundamental driver of international trade, economic growth, and social development around the world, and a foundational tool for growing business opportunities, jobs, and entrepreneurship, scientific advancement, education, and public administration.
“Yet these benefits of the Internet cannot be realized unless fundamental Internet infrastructures and related investments have the environment and tools to grow and flourish.Indeed, the long-term sustainability of the Internet in any region – including Africa -- relies on the ability of ISPs and other industry players to conduct their operations efficiently, manage costs, provide reliable service to users at a reasonable prices, and take advantage of growth opportunities that this continent of over one billion people provides.”
Taking advantage of the potential benefits of the internet, she says, requires getting past the hurdles and achieving sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective networking on the continent.
Some milestones have been achieved, she notes. For example, the significant recent investments in African submarine infrastructure, which will see over 25 Tbps (terabits per second) come into service in 2012. “This is a stark contrast to the 2011 base international capacity of just over 520Gbps (gigabits per second).”
“According to Packet Clearing House, however, the aggregate 2011 IXP traffic in Africa was only 5.26Gbps, indicating that local traffic exchange in Africa compares at only 1% of 2011 international capacity. Further, 98% aggregate local traffic exchange derived from only 3 countries: Egypt, Kenya and South Africa – with South Africa by far making up the largest share of locally exchanged traffic on the continent, representing some 79% of Africa’s total.”
The Transit Deficit
Rose says: “One of our challenges is that Africa still imports 99% of the internet traffic consumed by Internet users on the continent -- creating an Internet Traffic Trade deficit or “Transit Deficit” – where significantly less Internet traffic is generated and exchanged locally in Africa than is accessed from overseas.”
The good news, she says, is that according to Hamilton Research, over 138km of new terrestrial fibre came into service every day in 2011, adding to an existing base of some 675,000km. “Yet the cost of local terrestrial capacity in Africa compared to internationally capacity is still high. “
She told delegates at AfPIF: “That is why we are here over the next two days: to discuss the infrastructure, content, and policy issues that are critical to solving Africa’s “Transit Deficit.”
The hosting issue
While delegates at AfPIF agreed that peering and interconnection may go a long way to improving the situation, KIXP’s Fiona Asonga notes that this is just part of the journey. In Kenya, where the IXP has been in operation for several years, a great deal of the country’s internet traffic is still touted internationally.
Why? “Many Kenyan sites are still hosted abroad,” she says. “The answer would be to bring site hosting back home.”
Tespok is taking steps to improve the internet situation in Kenya, which includes looking to more local content and protecting the fibre optic cables that carry the data.
“Vandalism is one of the biggest problems internet service providers face,” she says. “Far too often, cables are damaged during construction work and the building of roads.”
Fortunately, she says, Kenya is set to see the passing of laws protecting fibre optic cables as being of national importance, which should improve this situation.
Getting past the challenges will take serious collaboration and investment, but stakeholders like the Internet Society and the African Union are optimistic it will be achieved.