Africa getting attention from global network operators, CDNs

By Rebecca Wanjiku

After five years of investing in internet infrastructure, growing the level of local content generation and increasing the number of internet users, Africa seems to be getting the attention of major global network operators and Content Distribution Networks.

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

At that time, only Google was in the room, had started operations in Africa, and was willing 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 and have expressed their interest to grow services in the region.

Africa is the continent with the highest growth of Internet penetration and has one of the fastest growing economies; with over 15 percent of the population in Africa with access to the Internet, then it is indeed time for Internet business in Africa,” said Sofie Maddens, Senior Director of Global Services at the Internet Society.

Maddens added that a 15 percent internet penetration rate provides a valid business case for a win-win situation for both local and global content providers and network operators through lower costs and lower latencies.

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 as well as grow its business. Usually, if there are many users, Google can set up a server farm, a Point of Presence (POP) or set up the global cache. Apart from a stable internet, Google usually requires stable dedicated power and a stable economic climate, in order for them to set up a data center in any 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.

Volmer was presenting on the requirements that a country must fulfill before getting Google infrastructure. The requirements are similar to what Akamai or any other CDN asks for.

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

“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 to global players. Most of them want the situation they have in Europe where the law allows 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 countries in the region 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 said to be one of the key ways to grow internet infrastructure and a current project between the African Union and the Internet Society has started processes in30 countries, that are aimed at setting up IXPs.

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