SADC member states converged in Harare for a five-day capacity building workshop as they deliberated on, among other subjects, reducing the cost of internet services by keeping the region’s internet traffic local. This should be achieved by providing technical assistance to facilitate the establishment of National Internet Exchange Points and Regional Internet Exchange Points. Internet exchange points (IXP) are physical locations through which internet infrastructure companies such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), connect with each other. These locations exist on the “edge” of different networks, and allow network providers to share transit outside their own network. Our business reporter Enacy Mapakame (EM) met with the SADC’s senior programme officer — ICT, infrastructure and services Dr George Ah-Thew (GA) and discussed a wide range of issues around internet services in the region.
EM: What is the significance of this workshop?
GA: This workshop is to do with developing, monitoring and evaluation platform for the SADC regional internet exchange point (IXP) project. At the same time, we want to build capacity of our experts in the region, so that they are able to enhance the infrastructure that we have for optimised Internet access.
EM: What does this IXP entail and its significance?
GA: Let’s say you are sending me an email within SADC, it used to go to a third party, not in Zimbabwe. So it will go to your internet service provider to the email server and then it will leave the country and go to a foreign country, then come back to my ISP and I will receive the email.
So we are actually utilising the international internet that we’ve already paid a lot of money for but not efficient. We could have the two ISPs in Zimbabwe have a connection and that email will just become local, in other words, vital data for Zimbabwe remains within Zimbabwe.
Then the second part of the project was for data that is destined for SADC to remain within SADC. There was a tender within SADC where Zimbabwe and South Africa ISPs won the contract to be transformed from national to regional IXP. And for this project POTRAZ has been playing a very instrumental facilitatory role, the contract was both technical, financial and equipment support which Zimbabwe received.
So now that we have the regional IXPs one in South Africa one in Zimbabwe, we want to ensure that traffic from Zimbabwe going to Botswana remains within SADC and doesn’t go out. Now we are trying to promote connections within the member states to the exchange points.
EM: Outside the issue of speed, what are the other benefits SADC will accrue from this?
GA: It makes optimum use of our international internet infrastructure. But we are also talking about how to best use IP addresses. So what we are setting up in different select member states, is called Virtual Route Servers. And we are going to be doing some presentations and tests to see how these virtual ones are performing, which countries have them and how we can use that information to enhance service.
If the International internet of Zimbabwe cuts off, does that mean all internet services must go down? It shouldn’t, we should be able to send emails, we should be able to pull up content that is in Zimbabwe, we don’t have to go to US. So these new servers help to solve those problems.
Then we also have been looking at what can be done to help connection between the exchanges, and one of the ideas is since Government has already paid for fibre optic networks in centres for power, water, rail, for instance and they’re not using all of it. Now we want them to donate some back to ICT sector to help connect traffic that is local.
EM: What are the timelines for this project?
GA: Since March 2016 Eswatini, Namibia, Madagascar, DRC and Seychelles were we assisted for the national exchange points. The last country was Madagascar. As of December last year, Zimbabwe and South Africa completed regional exchange point.
But now we’re going to draw a way forward because we just finished last year. Now we want to set collective and we put some tentative timelines on how to move forward.
EM: Do we have capacity to run this as SADC?
GA: Yes, we do. This will be building capacity here to improve what has already been done. As I said, Zimbabwe has been fully trained, and is now operational. The country is already working all the traffic comes to the exchange point.
EM: Internet speed is also topical, why is it still slow and how can this be addressed?
GA: The issue of speed has to do with how much bandwidth a country can pay. Now, one of our biggest problems is the cost for cross border connections. In other words, Zimbabwe is a landlocked country and the internet is at the submarine cable connections. In order to get there, Zimbabwe has to transit through Mozambique or South Africa to get to the submarine cables and that is where the problem is. These transit links are too expensive. But if we are to send traffic from Zimbabwe to South Africa, why does it have to go to UK and then come back to South Africa? Why don’t we just use it straight from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
Studies are being done right now, to look at the prices so we can increase transparency too. We want to use that infrastructure for the energy sector because all the power companies are connected. Zimbabwe buys power from South Africa, which comes over the power lines. The power company also has one or two cables in the ground and we want to leverage some of it for connectivity from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
EM: How sustainable is the pricing of Internet services in the region?
GA: In this region, our internet services pricing is quite expensive. There is a website that allows you to check on prices and comparisons that people can make use of and check for themselves.
EM: It is understood different countries made presentations. From the presentations made so far how do you rate us as a region. Where are we now?
GA: I think we are advancing as a region. All SADC member states have at least one IXP, and we have two regional IXPs.
EM: What is the role of good internet connectivity to economic development in the region?
GA: Two things; number one, each time we pay for internet, dollars leave the country. The fourth industrial revolution everyone must be on internet, our people in rural areas must be able to go online to sell their commodities to various markets. So internet access will have an impact on how the economy moves and we need to ensure everybody is on board to enable that communication.