In most African countries, if you send an email across town it makes a long and circuitous journey to North America or Europe or even Japan before arriving in the inbox of the intended recipient. That costs money in international connection charges and also results in a myriad of latency issues. This structural problem mirrors similar difficulties with Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure: calls between two African countries must first get routed through other continents.
Local Internet exchange points (IXPs) allow one country to route all or most of its internal Internet traffic within its boundaries thus saving money and increasing connection speed. IXPs therefore create in effect a “clearing house.” The goal is simple and is summed up by the IXP’s mantra – “keep local traffic local.”
In the not-too-distant future, regional IXPs, and perhaps even a continental exchange point, might allow African countries to communicate across borders without waiting for the message to travel around the globe. Perhaps with VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calling this would also start to solve the parallel telecommunications problem. All of this will depend on the regional and national initiatives being undertaken in Africa. To date, the major barriers to IXs are largely political and regulatory. In fact, getting any IX/peering arrangement off the ground is 10% technical work and 90% political.
The bottom line is there are many advantages to developing direct interconnection – the primary reasons being cost, reduced latency, and expanded bandwidth. There is nothing to stop the development of an African Internet exchange point that would exchange traffic between African countries.
The African Union Commission (AUC) has launched the African Internet Exchange System (AXIS) Project to strengthen national programs and regional cooperation for the deployment of Regional Internet Exchange Points. They noted that Africa is currently paying overseas carriers to exchange “local” (continental) traffic. In fact, recent research claims that Africa is paying well over US$400 million for these connections. This is both a costly and inefficient way of handling inter-country exchange of Internet traffic.
The AXIS project aims to keep Africa’s Internet traffic local by providing capacity building and technical assistance to facilitate the establishment of Internet Exchange Points and Regional Internet Exchange Points.
However, for this to be successful, national and regional broadband infrastructure must be in place. The spectacular growth in the mobile sector has not been replicated in the Internet sector, as African access to broadband has been very limited over the past decade.
Internet penetration in Africa was about 11.5% in 2011. As submarine cables find their way along Africa’s coastlines, the continent is slowly but steadily emerging from an era characterized by excessively high prices, near zero broadband penetration rates and self-defeating regulatory models.
The African bandwidth revolution is nearly here, ushering in the economic growth, social transformation and business opportunities that comes with broadband access.
The next important step is imagining a world of African regulation that is “technology-agnostic”; a world in which IP dialing or VOIP is possible. Calls would be made using an Internet that would be connected using the regional IXPs or an all-Africa Internet exchange point. Just think of all the money saved by not routing regional telephone or IP traffic calls away from the continent!
These initiatives are a big step in the effort to deepen Internet penetration, promote local content development and innovation and bolstering the already growing African DNS industry.
All of this is part of Africa’s future. The question is no longer “Will it happen?”, but “How fast can it be put in place?” And the answer to that question is in the hands of the African people.
Bob Ochieng is Stakeholder Engagement Manager for East Africa