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World will wake to Africa

July 27th, 2016
The tech industry is constantly changing and EDWARD LAWRENCE, Director of Business Development at Workonline Communications, believes that there are huge changes in store for Africa, particularly related to the growth of the Internet.
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The cutting edge nature of the tech industry means that constant change is a certainty. I do believe that the changes in store for Africa in the near future, particularly related to the development of the Internet in the region, are truly revolutionary. Here are some of the trends that I think will shape the future of the internet on the continent in the next little while.

The world is waking up to Africa

Having attended several industry related conferences across the world in recent months, in places such as Marrakech, New Zealand, California and even Hawaii, it is clear that global attitudes towards Africa as a prospective market are changing.

Generally, market entrants have been overwhelmed by the success of their expansions into Africa. Amongst these, international online giants such as Google, Microsoft, Netflix and Akamai who are peering in South Africa seem to have been very successful. This trend is set to assist in lowering the cost of Internet access for local ISPs. Instead of them having to pay to pick up content from these networks from other regions (usually Europe), they can now pick it up at internet exchanges in South Africa such NAP Africa, JINX, CINX or DINX at very low rates, or even free of charge.

South Africa’s healthy Internet exchange (IX) ecosystem is, as will hopefully be the trend with less developed markets in the region, encouraging deregulation and lowering the cost of services for end users.  With the establishment of IXs, ISPs can reduce their costs and hence invest more in expanding their networks and gaining market share. Once content networks realise that they can connect with many ISPs with many end users in a single location at reasonable costs, they are encouraged to develop in the region. As this process occurs, it usually attracts further investment in the industry, draws revenue away from the incumbents, and opens the market for innovative new entrants.

Demand will increase and must be met

As more and more people connect to the Internet across the continent, the domino effect picks up pace and demand for Internet services increases. This increase in demand is coupled with high expectations from a quality and speed perspective by newcomers to the Internet (often regardless of the actual benefit of the additional speed to the user). Interestingly, we found that people living in South African metropoles often have higher expectations than people living in Europe when it comes to the quality of an internet browsing experience through their mobile network operator.

This is because quality of Internet and connectivity is a frequent discussion point here, mainly due to the poor state this market was in not so long ago. It is used as a marketing tool, and therefore front of mind for the end consumer. Consumers have been conditioned to be unhappy if they do not have superfast Internet. The demand is not as high yet in some other African countries, or more rural areas, but it is definitely developing at a rapid and steady pace.

Women first

Another interesting trend I have noticed of late is that there are very few females in the industry in sub-Saharan Africa. In North Africa, for example, attending an IPv6 training session in Tunisia, the room was filled with women, and there were very few men present. If you go to an IPv6 training session in South Africa, however, it is a rare occurrence to see a woman in attendance. I foresee a mass entry of women into the technical side of the industry in the near future as the social barriers to entry are torn down.

We see this trend manifesting in Europe, where many organisations made up of women working together have sprung up and have now garnered a lot of strength in the European tech community. We support these movements in Europe wholeheartedly, and we are currently investigating ways to recreate this trend here and elevate women’s roles in the local market.

The full value of IPv6 to be unleashed

Everything that connects to the Internet needs an Internet protocol address, a string of numbers, to do so. Before, these addresses were in an Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) format, but this format didn’t allow for enough addresses and they are coming close to exhaustion.  IPv6 is the latest version of the Internet Protocol, and features a vastly expanded potential number of addresses to provide for the needs of the rapidly growing number of Internet-connected devices and services around the world. In technical terms, the existing IPv4 notation has been extended from 32 bits to 128 bits per IP address.

Workonline is in the process of setting up an advanced IPv6 workshop to be held as often as once a quarter in South Africa, to guide engineers with the deployment of IPv6 on their network, as this is a need that we have recognised within the local industry. At the moment, many engineers have had basic training or exposure to IPv6. They get their addresses assigned from their RIR, they know how it works conceptually, but then they stop. They do not actually deploy it across their access layer because they are frightened by the potential risks involved and often don’t know where to turn to get advice or share thoughts with other engineers who have successfully deployed IPv6 across various types of networks. Attending an advanced IPv6 workshop with globally recognised experts present would allow them to speak more freely and get stuck into the guts of deploying IPv6 on the whole of their networks, unleashing the benefits of this protocol.

As I write this, I’m on my way to Copenhagen to join the RIPE meeting. Workonline partnered with layer 2 Internet Exchange Point (IXP) NAPAfrica, to assist RIPE NCC to gather Internet data that will help network operators gain further visibility into the structure of the African Internet.

With 21 other RRCs at IXPs around the world, until now Africa has been the only continent without a RIPE NCC Route Collector, which means that it has largely been in the dark from the perspective of Internet measurements. The decision to host a route collector is extremely beneficial to operators in the region. The sponsorship of bandwidth for the RRC is in line with our commitment to continue developing the African Internet as a whole. Having access to this data will be beneficial to our clients and the industry, and we are excited to be part of the project.

It is important that the industry continues to look for ways to bring better Internet to the continent through strategic partnerships.

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