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All African Backbone Networks Should Interconnect and Form One Seamless Continental Network

06 May, 2013
 
ICT Africa Writer
May 6, 2013

At the beginning of the millennium, there was a lot of push on the deployment of fibre optic networks for Africa. There were lots of discussions centred around connecting African countries to one another and to the rest of the world. Calls for fibre optic networks have been answered and there are widespread activities in almost every country to deploy fibre backbone networks. Unfortunately, most networks are being deployed in isolation, without a continental plan to effectively connect the individual national networks to one another.

One of our cries before the widespread deployment of fibre networks in Africa was that most traffic from Africa was being routed in Europe and North America, making communications very expensive for Africans. We preferred to keep African traffic in Africa and minimize the high cost of International circuits. One of the organisations that was in the forefront of pushing for keeping African Internet traffic in Africa is the African Internet Service Provider Association , AfriISPA. AfriISPA has been promoting and supporting the establishment of Internet exchange points throughout Africa.

The Internet Society has even established a forum, dedicated to African Peering and Interconnection . The forum addresses the key interconnection, peering, and traffic exchange opportunities and challenges on the African continent and provides participants with global and regional insights for maximising opportunities that will help grow Internet services in Africa.

On the hand, mobile companies are focused on how best they can interconnect their networks and reduce roaming charges for people travelling within Africa. Several conferences are dedicated to addressing interconnection and roaming.

Any meaningful exchange of voice, data and even video should start with carefully designed physical networks that can easily connect with each other. There are more than 140 network operators in Africa, each with their own backbone network development plans. It is only in a few cases where infrastructure companies deploy cross border networks that are designed to connect more than one African country. A good example is Liquid Telecom which now has a network that runs from South Africa through Zimbabwe, Zambia, DRC, and Kenya to Uganda. It becomes much easier for mobile operators in these countries to roam with each other or for Internet service providers to peer with each other over the Liquid Telecom network.

We ran an article, NEPAD e-Africa Commission – Lessons Learnt , in which we discussed challenges by continental bodies to develop their own backbone networks for Africa. That model seemed to have failed and the best role for these organisations is to facilitate and empower operators and infrastructure companies to build networks that can easily interconnect and lead to a seamless continental network. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and other organisations have attempted to deploy their own continental or regional fibre optic networks without any success.

We have maintained that the African Union and affiliated organisations should refocus their energies to support and facilitate the development of networks that can easily connect to one another. Fortunately, the African Union has set out to do exactly that. Dr. Edmund Katiti, of NEPAD, has indicated that the African Union has commissioned a study to support the interconnection of African fibre optic networks. The study will identify all installed, planned and proposed networks and identify the missing links that will make it impossible for all African networks to interconnect with one another. The African Union will then work with operators to determine how links can be establishing where they are missing.

We urge the African Union to move quickly with this initiative so that missing links can be addressed while most African operators are still building their backbone networks.


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