Network operators, content distributors set their sights on Africa

Years of infrastructure investment are paying off

After several years of Internet infrastructure investment, with increased local content generation and Internet users, Africa seems to be getting the attention of major global network operators and content distribution networks.

In 2010, about 60 infrastructure providers, ISPs and tech experts met in Nairobi to discuss ways to interconnect more within the continent and exchange more content.

Back then, Google was the only vendor in the room and had started operations in Africa with a willingness to explore ways to help the continent maximize its infrastructure and in the process lower connectivity costs. This year, Akamai, Cloudflare, Interxion and Jaguar Networks are present at the Africa Peering and Interconnection Forum in Dakar, Senegal, and have expressed interest in increasing services in the region.

Africa is the continent with the largest Internet penetration growth and fast-growing economies. More than 15 percent of people across the continent have Internet access, so "it is indeed time for Internet business in Africa," said Sofie Maddens, senior director of Global Services at the Internet Society.

That level of Internet penetration provides a valid business case for a win-win situation for local and global content providers and network operators who will have lower costs and latencies, she added.

Google probably carries most of the content accessed in the region and its decision to enter the market was driven by the desire to raise the number of Internet users and grow its business. Usually, if there are enough users, Google can set up a server farm, a point of presence or a global cache. Besides Internet infrastructure, Google usually requires a stable, dedicated power supply and a stable economic climate to set up a data center in a country.

"Given the stringent requirements from Google, I doubt any African country can qualify for the set up of a data center but we continue to grow the POPs and global cache in the region," said Thomas Volmer, senior manager with the Google Global Cache team in Europe.

While making their forum presentations, Cloudflare, Jaguar and Interxion made it clear that there is a need for the region to grow its content before global players come into the market, but interest is there.

"We are looking for more partners in Africa, we are setting up POPs in Johannesburg, Mombasa and Cairo," said Jerome Fleury, a network engineer at Cloudflare.

Just as infrastructure investment is important, regulatory development is equally important. Most global companies want the same situation they have in Europe where regulations allow them to operate in many countries as long as they have a license from one country.

"No company wants to keep investing in licenses from one country to the other -- it makes work easier if the law recognizes some of these developments, the infrastructure is open and there is competition," said Kai Wulff, project lead for the Google fiber-optic project in Uganda.

Some African countries enjoy a more vibrant regulatory atmosphere that allows more international companies to set up shop, but others are still stuck in the 1990s and laws have not yet changed.

The development of Internet exchange points is one of the key ways to grow Internet infrastructure and a project between the African Union and the Internet Society, aimed at setting up IXPs, has started that process in 30 countries.

Most of the CDNs start by setting up infrastructure in South Africa, considered the most developed in the region, then move to other countries such as Kenya and Nigeria.

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