(Ecofin Agency) - Africans continue to depend on international links for internet access on the continent. Despite the regional interconnection strategy for Africa, which aimed to reduce the share of African internet traffic routed internationally to 20% by 2020, this goal remains far from reach. Yet, Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) stand out as crucial interconnection tools, offering the potential to help populations in Africa access high-quality, broadband, and affordable connectivity without relying on international links. A recent Ecofin Pro report by Muriel Edjo delves into the challenges hindering the effective implementation of IXPs and sheds light on the multifaceted constraints, including infrastructure, financial, and regulatory hurdles.
The report entitled "Breaking Digital Barriers: Unleashing the Power of IXPs for Advanced Internet Connectivity in Africa" highlights the central role of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) as key assets, as they have the potential to bring telecommunications networks together, enabling the seamless connection and exchange of Internet traffic via shorter, more direct routes. Deploying IXPs in a country ensures local internet traffic exchange instead of relying on expensive international links. Consequently, the purchase cost for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) is significantly reduced, leading to lower costs for consumers while ensuring faster traffic speeds. IXPs also attract a diverse range of local and international operators, offering them a more cost-effective way to access potential local internet users. Networks such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs), mobile operators, and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) like Google, Baidu, Akamai, or Facebook connect to the exchange traffic.
However, only three countries have stood out so far. Indeed, in 2010, the African Internet technical community embraced an ambitious vision to have 80% of all Internet traffic locally accessible with only 20% being sourced internationally by 2020. South Africa achieved the 80/20 goal, while Kenya and Nigeria closely approached it by already exchanging 70% of their traffic locally. The success of these countries, each with more than three active IXPs, is attributed to their early adoption of internet exchange points as a solution for faster and more cost-effective connectivity, well before the AXIS project was adopted. These three top-performing countries have also created a favorable regulatory and technical environment that has attracted the attention of international content distribution networks.
In addition to investments in strengthening infrastructure, IXP stakeholders have waived mandatory financial requirements for peering (Internet traffic exchange) among member companies. This is done to encourage new members to register and engage in selective peering agreements. As a result, major international content providers (Google, Facebook, Akamai, etc.) have added at least one edge cache (a system of digital intermediate memory accessible from remote locations worldwide) in these three countries. Many of them have also added a Point of Presence (PoP), facilitating the hosting of local content. Consequently, significant cost savings have been achieved.
Let’s recall that the AXIS project (African Internet Exchange System Project) is an initiative launched in 2012 by the African Union Commission with financial support from the EU-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund and the Government of Luxembourg. It aims to keep Africa's Internet traffic local by providing capacity building and technical assistance to facilitate the establishment of Internet Exchange Points and Regional Internet Exchange Points on the continent.
Data from the African IXP Association (Af-IX) show that there are currently 53 active IXPs located in 47 cities across 36 countries in Africa. This means that between 2012 and 2023, Africa has gained 41 active IXPs. However, the Ecofin Pro report found that in the remaining 33 African countries where IXPs are deployed, only about 30% of internet traffic is exchanged locally. Several factors contribute to this delay, including inadequate development of high-speed telecommunications infrastructure, limited national-level fiber optic footprint, and almost non-existent fixed-line internet, the report said. Financial and regulatory constraints are also present. Establishing and maintaining the infrastructure required for IXPs requires substantial investments. High interconnection costs between networks can also discourage operators from deploying IXPs.
Regarding telecommunications market regulation, collaboration among stakeholders is sometimes perceived negatively, as a sign of collusion. Moreover, in highly competitive markets, each company tends to focus on maximizing its revenues and quickly amortizing its investments.
To accelerate IXPs’ implementation and prevent another decade of inaction, the Internet Society recommends reforming telecom markets to encourage the emergence of competing access networks, including fixed Internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile operators providing Internet access. This aims to stimulate the development of IXPs and expand national infrastructures beyond the main landing point for submarine cables, and the primary demographic center.
A particular focus should also be placed on investing in neutral data centers to transparently accommodate all stakeholders wishing to connect to an IXP in a country. This involves strengthening international connectivity and formulating policies conducive to greater collaboration among sector participants.
Countries without IXPs should also accelerate the establishment of such infrastructures, given the current and future development challenges associated with broadband access.