After three years of discussions about exchanging Internet content within Africa, governments have slowly started embracing the idea of regional interconnection.
Progress has been made since the first Africa Peering and Interconnection Forum held in Nairobi in 2010, when African network engineers, ISPs, content carriers and network providers cited regulatory and policy challenges that had blocked cross-border connections.
"After the meeting in Ghana, we are seeing more effort by the government to move services to remote areas and interconnect with other countries," said Nii Quaynor, a director of the Africa Network Operators Group. "Indeed, the Ghanaian ministry of information took initiative that led to interconnection between Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso."
The discussions at the peering forum, meeting this week in Casablanca, have sought to involve both the private and public sector in exploring ways to exchange content more efficiently within the continent and eventually reducing the cost of connectivity. Because most content is hosted or exchanged in Europe or U.S., the cost of connectivity remains high, as operators have to pay global transit costs as well as lay and maintain local infrastructure.
National government efforts as well as regional initiatives on the part of various organizations have been credited with the move to make it easier for network operators to do business across borders. The African Union, for example, financed a project to set up IXPs in 60 African countries. The project is being undertaken by the Internet Society through its existing mechanisms set up to support ICT infrastructure in developing countries.
Other organizations have also made key efforts.
"The West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly has been key in promoting interconnection in West Africa because its decisions and rulings are binding on member countries and regulators implement them at national levels," Quaynor added.
The Internet Society estimates that $3.8 billion has gone to infrastructure investment that has allowed provision of broadband connections to 167 million people who are online in Africa, out of a population of a billion.
"Since 2009, there have been ongoing initiatives aimed at harmonizing strategies, policies and regulatory frameworks towards integrated regional Internet infrastructure; the outcomes are visible especially in establishing multistakeholder partnerships for infrastructure development," said Sofie Maddens, senior director of Global Services at the Internet Society.
One of the major contributions by governments is the laying of national fiber optic backbone in the majority of countries in the region. The backbone infrastructure is capital intensive and its availability has allowed network operators to concentrate on last-mile connections to consumers.
As governments work toward infrastructure interconnection, network operators, content carriers and ISPs are exploring ways to meet the challenges associated with local hosting such as erratic power, a shortage of funding and lack of infrastructure sharing, all of which increase capital expenditures and makes the Internet access business unattractive.
There still are also problems with border interconnection and lengthy waits for right of passage for infrastructure from one country to another but participants are optimistic that as more governments join the discussions, the regulatory and policy headaches will ease.