National Research and Education Networks help boost local traffic

By Dr. Boubakar Barry

For decades, African countries have been spending billions of dollars in transit cost in order to communicate to each other. This has first applied to voice communication, then also to data communication, especially since the development of the Internet from the 1990s.

In the last 15 years, there have been several initiatives to change this state by establishing Internet Exchange Points (IXP’s), thus allowing local traffic to remain local.  The AXIS project that has been implemented by the Internet Society (ISOC) under the mandate of the African Union (AU) is one of these initiatives.

Today, more than half of African countries have an IXP, thus saving a lot of financial resources and improving the quality of communications by reducing latency drastically. Direct cross-border traffic exchange does also contribute to these savings and improved quality of service. There is however room for improvement, as many countries on the continent still don’t have IXPs, thus imposing local traffic to be exchanged through international gateways.

The academic community has been involved in many of these IXP initiatives. Moreover, due to the establishment of NRENs (National Research and Education Networks) in many African countries, research and education traffic is being exchanged directly between members of these NRENs.

It is a known fact that the education and research community generates a lot of traffic for teaching, learning and research purposes. It’s due to the size of this community and its special requirements in terms of bandwidth that NRENs have been established. Of course, do to the volume of traffic involved, it would be inefficient and costly to route this traffic through international gateways.

NRENs have therefore established closed private networks on which members peer and exchange traffic. They constitute platforms that allow and support collaboration and sharing of resources.

The West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) will go even a step further by peering at regional level.

WACREN, established in 2010, has currently 11 members, namely: RerBenin (Benin), RIC (Cameroon), RITER (Côte d’Ivoire), GabonREN (Gabon), GARNET (Ghana), MaliREN (Mali), NigerREN (Niger), NgREN (Nigeria), snRER (Senegal), TchadREN (Chad) and TogoRER (Togo). RENATER, the French NREN and Eko-Konnect of Nigeria are WACREN Associate Members.

The NRENs listed above are in different stages of development, and it is expected that the AfricaConnect2 project funded by the European Commission will serve as catalyst for their further development.

The WACREN backbone for which an international tender has been opened in the framework of the AfricaConnect2 project will be constituted by a 10G+ backbone with 3 to 4 main hubs and access links at 1G+ for the NRENs. At least two links to Europe on the 10G+ backbone will connect WACREN to GEANT (the pan-European research and education network) and the global research and education network, through peering with Internet2 (USA), CLARA (Latin America) and APAN (Asia-Pacific).

WACREN and its sister organizations UbuntuNet Alliance and ASREN, the three regional RENs covering West and Central Africa, East and Southern Africa and Northern Africa respectively, being aware of the benefit of peering and keeping local traffic local, have the objective of peering among themselves on the continent by the end of 2017.

Given the volume of traffic in the education and research community, this move will have a significant impact on growth and efficiency of Internet traffic in Africa.