For Africa to improve its competitiveness and innovation on the global arena, it needs a good and affordable internet. For that to happen, Africa needs to rely on local internet rather than international links.
In an interview with The New Times’ Edwin Musoni the Senior Director of Internet Technology and Development at Internet Security, Michuki Mwangi outlined how accessible and affordable internet end user experience increases adoption and dependability.
Mwangi, who was in Rwanda for the Africa Peering and Interconnection Forum (AfPIF), spoke at length about how good internet enables innovation and competitiveness for the continent that has lagged behind for so long.
This forum has brought together tech giants like Meta, Google, Liquid, Microsoft, ISPs, MNOs, and content providers among others, what should Africa look forward to benefiting from such a gathering?
The Africa Peering Interconnection Forum (AfPIF), as you’ve seen is not only attracting the large internet providers, stakeholders, or key players and actors, but also bringing on board local and regional operators.
At the same time, it has attracted policymakers, and regulators who create an enabling environment that is needed and necessary to attract investments and to encourage the growth that is required for us to connect everyone.
This is the 11th edition of this kind and we have seen major milestones happening with respect to the number of operators that have been coming into the African market and who are providing improvements in the cross-border connection.
When the inaugural forum was held in 2010, there were very little cross border connections happening across the continent and very few exchange points that existed on the continent.
There was very little discussion around those issues. Why was it happening on the continent? We were continuously going to interconnect in Europe or Asia and the Middle East to exchange traffic. Today, that has changed and the conversation has grown and now it’s about exchanging traffic for intra-Africa, about bringing content that is valuable or useful, or of interest to Africa from those content providers abroad.
They’re actually coming to Africa. So that means we are no longer having to go and fetch content at our own expense, but they’re doing so at their own expense.
This year, Internet Society marked its 30th anniversary as a global nonprofit advocating for an open, globally-connected Internet. What do you consider as your major achievement in the last three decades?
The impact is that we have a lower cost of content that most users are trying to access. We also have improved resilience and reliability because there are more network options available to interconnect. So that means if one has an outage, you have the ability to connect through another. The end user experience has improved.
Our big vision, which has driven us over the last 30 years, we believe in an open, globally connected and trustworthy internet.
In the last 30 years, we’ve actually seen the significant increase in internet usage; more users have also come online.
To date, how is Africa performing in internet accessibility and what is needed for the continent to reach its full potential?
Africa is faring well, statistics show that our growth in terms of international capacity is surpassing all the other regions. Our pace in terms cost of accessing international capacity is going down significantly.
There are more investments happening, both in access to infrastructure and, investments in telecommunication infrastructures like the submarine cables. We are also getting similar happenings in data centres, which are key to hosting and digitising the content.
We are also seeing a lot more investments in the recent months, and this is a triple effect.
Before, a lot of the access providers were actually taking a considerable amount of their resources to buy internet capacity but now they don’t have to spend so much on international links because the costs have come down to considerable amount.
To date, African internet providers have more revenue and resources available to actually invest; we are also seeing progress in terms of the number of people who are continuously being brought online in markets or areas that are connected.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest growth in global internet penetration; however, there is still a big number of people who don’t have access to reliable and affordable Internet. What do you think is needed to connect the underserved population?
We still have some way to go. Data shows that we still have more than 40 per cent of the population in Africa still not connected and there’s work to be done in that space.
There are different business models that can actually be sustained in those areas because the areas that are yet to be connected are those in rural parts that are harder to reach; the traditional business cases don’t apply and so we need to look at different business cases and also technologies that can actually allow to connect those people because they’re in harder area to reach.
Internet Society has helped build community networks in different countries in Africa. How do these community networks work? What contribution do they bring to the communities? Do you intend to roll them out in other countries like Rwanda?
Our intentions are always about empowering communities to actually build their own wireless or networks and maintaining it themselves and we only come in to connect them to a service provider, who is nearby to get access to the rest.
There’s often a perception that we need a lot of money to connect people but I believe the important conversation should focus on what are the alternative ways of connecting people?
When you start putting numbers on the table, then they limit you to the technologies you may need to apply. So, if we say 840 million people have to be connected, if we use 4G then that number is different. If we are to connect them on fiber that would still be different. If we use satellites, that number will be different. If you try to mix and match all of them, that may not give you an inaccurate number.
We need to put a lot of focus on the challenges that have made it difficult to connect those that are not connected?
Much attention should be drawn on the barriers because in some of those areas, the barriers might be policy and there’s not much money needed to change the policy.
If the policy is enabled, then it will make it possible for people to invest and if people are going to invest, it means they will get a return on investments because they can see the opportunity.
It’s a question of what are the barriers that making it difficult for people to make the investment. And there are some places where the cost is not so much because there are alternative ways of connecting people in an affordable, sustainable manner.
Currently, millions of dollars are spent every year to route local Internet traffic through expensive international links, what are the effects of this and how can this be addressed?
This used to be a major problem but not anymore. We are seeing more traffic on the continent. The biggest challenge with routing the internet outside the continent is the huge cost that it carries. For a packet to go to Europe and back is twice the cost. It also affects the performance of the internet to the end user. Remember back then, when you wanted to stream a video on the internet, you had to wait for it to buffer and today, when you play, it is automatic. Why? Because we no longer have to send that content to Europe and back, the content is currently locally accessible.
That end user experience increases adoption and dependability. It also means that the end user becomes innovative because you not innovate on something you know. If you understand how something works, you can innovate around it.
As we continue working and training service providers and making them understand the benefits of sharing data, we see continue increase in traffic.