Why Africa is abandoning internet satellite status

By Geoffrey Shimanyula

Africa’s Internet life began as an outpost on the world network. Any Internet user in Nairobi calling up, say, a website in Kampala would trigger a data signal that travelled all the way to Europe to join and get routed onwards from one of the world’s Internet superhighways.

However, a huge wave of investment in the continent’s Internet infrastructure has changed the routing for much of Africa’s data traffic so that it never leaves the continent.

For the techies, the big bonus from this has come in what is known as ‘latency’, which is the time taken for data to travel. Peering, which connects different points in Africa directly, typically cuts latency to 150th of its previous levels.

For an online gaming fan, that means shooting your opponent before he shoots you, to the businessman it means fast use of your corporate cloud systems while you are on the move out of the office, for the sports fan it means watching the World Cup on Kwesé iflix with high resolution and goals as they happen, for the film lover it means streaming Netflix with no buffering or waiting for download.

For everyone, the change in speed is profound. In Kenya, a data request from one point in Nairobi to another that is transferred via Europe typically takes 300 milliseconds. But a direct data request between the two points takes fewer than 2 milliseconds.

Continent-wide the benefits of peering in increasing Internet speeds is colossal. Data traffic that leaves Africa to get from Kenya to South Africa will, likewise, take around 300 milliseconds. But once the two points are peered directly, the time is cut to 50 milliseconds.

As a group, we at Liquid Telecom have built a fibre network of over 50,000km across Africa to connect nations and businesses directly. But it is the addition of more than 1,600 peering partnerships that is also transforming traffic speeds across the continent.

In Kenya, prior to the landing of submarine cables in the coastal town of Mombasa in 2009, the country’s only internet gateway was through satellite links. All Internet traffic had to be routed from Kenya to internet gateways in Europe then back.

But with the country now benefitting from an extensive fibre network country-wide, linked to four major submarine fibre cables, it has additionally gained its own Internet Exchange Point. The IXP is located within the East Africa Data Centre, in Nairobi, which is the most peered and connected data centre in East Africa, additionally hosting caches for many of the world’s leading global content providers.

For example, YouTube and Netflix users in East Africa now experience faster download speeds and seamless streaming because these content providers now host their servers locally, meaning users’ requests for videos do not need to travel to servers hosted abroad.

For cloud-based services, Liquid Telecom has partnered with Microsoft to offer Office 365, Microsoft Azure and CloudConnect for Microsoft ExpressRoute in Africa, allowing users to store, manage, process data and share online hosted resources.

Altogether, this expanding infrastructure has delivered a 78% reduction in internet communication time (latency) in Kenya, from an average 900 milliseconds before 2009 to less than 200 milliseconds today.

An open peering policy is fundamental to this low latency and high-speed internet communication and has driven peering partnerships across Africa, as well as the development of internet exchange points in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa.

Between all these nations, it is now possible to send and receive data over a direct link without going via Europe.

African ISPs are also peering into multiple major internet exchanges in Europe and the Middle East, connecting with content delivery networks and other service providers, to further reduce latency for African clients in accessing the global Internet.

A final technological leap in moving Africa onto its own, independent Internet infrastructure, is the development of backbone networks of high-speed Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS).

These networks provide enterprises with seamless inter-branch connectivity, for prompt transactions, instantaneous exchange of email, uninterrupted video conferencing experiences, and shared office resources, such as printers.

Thus, on the back of these three simultaneous elements of Internet infrastructure development, keeping Africa’s data traffic in Africa is now becoming a reality.

The goal, as the demand for high-speed internet services continues to rise across Africa, is to, one day, reach the point of hosting and connecting all of the continent’s data internally, generating the continent’s own highways and place on the global Internet map as a centre, rather than as an outpost.

(Geoffrey Shimanyula is the Chief Commercial Officer at Liquid Telecom Kenya).


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