France-IX is excited to be a partner in the AXIS project, initiated by the African Union and handled by the Internet Society (ISOC). The project has the ambition of establishing an African Internet Exchange System with IXPs in 33 countries.
AXIS is a challenging, long term undertaking for which we are pleased to provide advice, training and resources to establish much needed national exchange points throughout the continent. Eventually, Internet Exchange Points will be the essential ingredient to improving access for African towns and cities. National IXPs will generate cost savings, reduce price barriers and help introduce the Internet to new categories of users, encouraging new local businesses and services such as call centres.
In time, many of the current complex geographical, political and economic issues will be resolved to make the AXIS project a reality. The African Union and Internet Society’s AXIS program plans to have as much as 80 percent of local Internet traffic exchanged throughout Africa by 2020.
However, before 2020 there is the need for a near term solution. This exists in the South of France, as a cost-efficient gateway for the EMEA region, through its ability to handle and deliver content (especially for francophone Africa), which both Africa and the Middle-East haven’t been able to host so far.
African Internet Exchange: Current challenges
To make a short summary of the current AXIS situation, less than five per cent of African Internet exchange traffic is internal. So much patience and effort is still required.
A glance at the map of Africa and the submarine cables encircling the continent today, as well as those planned for the next two years, clearly illustrates the abundance of subsea cable supply. In recent years the investment in submarine cables connecting both coasts of Africa to other regions is reported to be more than US$3.8 billion. However this massive international connectivity resource has still some way to go in order to fulfil its potential of bringing the benefits of powerful connectivity at competitive prices to individuals and businesses across the African continent.
Satellites are the most obvious means of mass internet communications, because of their huge footprints covering vast areas of Africa. Satellite services for Africa fulfil an excellent role in providing internet connectivity to serve those regions where the distances for laying fibre ducts or the high costs of connectivity are impractical. New satellite technology promises greater download speeds and lower latency for broadband use. However, there are both financial and technological shortcomings that still qualify terrestrial connectivity as the most effective alternative for high capacity internet communications across the African continent.
The need for cross-frontier connectivity
The major investments in the terabit capacity undersea cable resources on Africa’s shores will never be fully optimised without substantial terrestrial connectivity evolution.
African coastal communities are well served but there are 16 landlocked countries within the continent, which can’t exploit the potential for their communities due to the lack of cross-border connections.
Countries without a coastline do have the choice of investing in a cable landing from a country next door. Through terrestrial fibre connectivity they essentially become an owner of their own national landing point. Unfortunately these virtual ‘customs’ frontiers do create additional complex local issues, closely mirroring those of our own frontier posts before we opened our borders through the European Union.
Another point is that insufficient terrestrial connectivity limits terrestrial bandwidth and unfortunately results in monopolies that push up end user prices, leading to restrictions on access. It’s common in some African countries that internet services aren’t affordable for everyone, as price is the main barrier which excludes demographic sectors that could influence business growth and the regeneration of local market dynamics. Monopolies hinder the development of national IXPs, which bring the potential to build up substantial internal bandwidth markets.
Expense of tromboning and International hubs
One immediate effect of inadequate Africa cross-country connectivity is the current situation known in the trade as ‘tromboning’ – bouncing internet content from one continent to another through the primary internet exchange hubs, primarily in London and other European centres.
Recent market estimates (by ISOC and Analysis Mason) show that African countries spend of the order of USD 600 million a year in transit costs that may be more suitably applied to develop national markets and realize local synergies.
Furthermore, smaller numbers of national IXPs restrict the volume of local caching of content, inhibiting the growth of local CDNs. Google’s content delivery platform, reaching over 100 countries, remains the most significant presence in Africa. Bringing content and services as close as possible provides the best quality internet experience, increasing user satisfaction while lowering costs within a competitive environment.
Added to the above factors is the increasing role of the large regional or international hubs emerging to provide peering services to the rest of the internet at competitive prices. London has developed into one of the key international hubs for Africa, providing such a regional interconnect for global transit, and proving its importance to emerging African economies.
There still remains a pressing need for CDN solutions to serve African Internet populations while opening up unforeseen possibilities for other regional resources. It is why, in my opinion, Marseille is well situated to become a prime EMEA telecoms location. A look at the current subsea cable map of European and Africa shows the proximity of Marseille to the African continent, as well as having the extra benefit of sitting next to six key Mediterranean subsea cable lines.
Marseille: A peering city for Africa?
Activity is beginning to scale-up in Marseille with, among others, four peers, two French operators having international backbones and two CDNs including Google. These four leading member networks, also linked to Paris, underline the value of Marseille for international networks, especially from Africa.
Marseille promises room for growth with total peering traffic exceeding 14Gbps, accounting for a little less than ten per cent of the traffic exchanged on our own company sites. In France it is now the second most important peering point after Paris, as well as the first French regional point not only dedicated to local French peering but to both French and international traffic from around the world (and of course EMEA). IXP members connected in Marseille dedicate their port to local peering but can exchange up to 100Mbps with members connected in Paris.
Currently there are six datacentres in the city of Marseille, together with six submarine cables providing a total capacity of ten Terabps. Two of these Mediterranean cables have been operating for many years and offer pricing lower than other cables because of the high degree of local competition for services.
London still remains a favourite for African internet connectivity. The WACS cable lands in the UK coming from South Africa, the most developed country in the African Internet sector. The LINX internet exchange has been up and running since the early 90's and already connects more than 450 peers, adding to the capital’s credentials.
Still, pricing on WACS is higher than on eastern African cables landing in Marseille, according to the most recent study from ISOC and Analysis Mason. And since the launch of the ACE cable last December, there are now opportunities for France to complement the UK, especially in attracting traffic from the 21 African French speaking countries who usually find it easier to work with a content provider in their own language.
Creating the perfect balance
It’s an exciting time to be involved in a dynamic Africa internet ecosystem which requires a delicate balancing of diverse cultures, national ambitions, billion dollar resources and infrastructures to bring this massive continent into the global internet community.
Looking ahead, perhaps it is important not to underestimate the strategic importance of locations like Marseille as a close call for Africa’s needs. Also, there’s no doubt in my mind that AXIS is a crucial investment for the development and access to the Internet in Africa. The need for establishing national exchange points, built on a reliable and already approved model, but still adapted to local specificities, will improve access to the Internet and generate cost savings.
I am confident that in time all of the barriers and challenges will be surmounted and Africa will take its place as a more thriving Internet partner to the world.
Author: Franck Simon