When the only connectivity in an environment is offered by commercial network operators, Internet development tends to be slow. This has certainly been the case in my home, Nigeria, where every improvement of performance and accessibility has generally been accompanied by an increase in cost.
However, things are starting to change. In this post I will discuss how community-centric networks are playing a part in reducing costs and increasing accessibility in developing economies such as Nigeria.
Internet exchange helps facilitate change
The Nigerian Research and Education Network (NgREN) was established in 2012 to interconnect all research and education institutions in the economy and link them with other research and education networks worldwide.
Network engineers in Nigeria — an economy with well over 600 higher education entities — had long craved a research and education network. One or two towns attempted to build local research and education clusters but without persistent champions and like-minded administrators, these bore little fruit.
Although the launch of NgREN was heralded as a new dawn for Internet development, not just for Nigeria but all of West and Central Africa (it was the first NREN established in the region), it is yet to persuade many. Initial funding connected less than 10% of higher education entities before the project went idle after two years, only being reactivated with funding from the federal government earlier last year.
Because so much has happened in the Nigerian connectivity landscape in some 15 years, the following pseudo-timeline is included to provide context.
Note: Any bandwidth price references within are prices to pick up wholesale capacity (100Mbps or more) at the major locations and do not include costs for any last-mile delivery or taxes.
Complementing the efforts of the recent reboot of NgREN, the Bandwidth Consortium (a connectivity project of the Nigeria ICT Forum of Partnership Institutions) is working with the Nigerian Internet Exchange (IXPN) to build and nurture local research and education clusters.
Last year, the Consortium connected a router to IXPN’s Abuja exchange and made it accessible to local higher education institutions. Members are being connected via leased optic-fibre circuits owned by a local ISP as part of a pilot supported by the Consortium, or are connecting directly via radio links where feasible.
By peering with the IXPN’s route servers, users receive local routes via the IXPN and all traffic runs over cheaper fibre links than those offered by commercial ISPs.
Interestingly, more than half of the traffic (on an average day) is destined towards the in-country link, which is related to the fact that a lot of cached Google services, CDN mirrors, and locally hosted applications are available through the IXPN.
Connecting the Consortium router to the IXPN requires many steps, including: an Autonomous System Number (ASN), an IP address block, a BGP-speaking router, an ‘affordable’ physical connection to the IXPN, and of course an IXPN membership, which typically requires that you possess the other ingredients and pay the applicable fees.
These may all seem trival, however, in a network-challenged environment, these tend to be stumbling blocks that the Nigerian Network Operators Group (ngNOG) tries to enlighten members about.
Many university administrators find it hard to understand why they should fill out some forms, sign an agreement, and pay membership fees to get an ASN and IP address block, when they already pay an ISP for connectivity. In the AFRINIC region, getting an ASN also involves proving that your network is multihomed (that is, you have more than one upstream ISP) or that your network will soon be connected to an Internet exchange.
To provide immediate access to the IXPN within Abuja, the Nigeria ICT Forum, which is an AFRINIC LIR, is making its router accessible as startup support to members within Abuja who are still in the process of acquiring their Internet numbering resources.
The more higher education institutions are connected with high speed links, the more efficient the connectivity becomes and the greater the chance that the Internet can develop and grow at the rate of other economies.
Dewole Ajao is a network administrator working with the Nigerian higher education community to improve connectivity and build technical capacity through ngNOG.
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