NAPAfrica wants to make the Internet more accessible across Africa. Launched 12 years ago, it’s grown immensely since then, playing a pivotal role in Africa’s Internet access and providing quality services. In the last year alone, NAPAfrica has seen 100% growth in traffic, now reaching 2Tbps.m
Located in Teraco data center facilities in South Africa, NAPAfrica is Africa’s largest neutral Internet exchange point (IXP). It offers direct access to 500 unique networks servicing more than 20 countries in the southern African region. Peering at NAPAfrica is 100% free—there are no cross connect, membership, or port fees.
The Internet exchange point offers a way to support open interconnection platforms and has effectively lowered the barriers of entry to a free market.
In Africa, too much of Internet traffic has to travel too far. An email to your next-door neighbor might have to travel across countries or continents before it arrives. Internet exchange points route traffic locally rather than internationally. They help make the Internet faster, cheaper, and better.
“When we started we had three customers in our data center,” says Andrew Owens, manager of interconnection and peering at Teraco. “The idea of being able to easily interconnect when you only have three clients… [it] becomes difficult to justify that it is a good thing.”
NAPAfrica now plays a leading role in establishing interconnections within the exchange. Using insights from similar data centers in Europe and the Americas, Teraco recognized the potential of interconnection and the benefits the market would gain from an exchange within a data center.
The most basic rule for connecting to any IXP is to have public Internet Protocol (IP) resources—namely an autonomous system number (ASN) and IP address space from an Internet Registry—advertised across the IXP. The exchange is not limited to any type of customer. “If you have a network you qualify to connect to an IXP,” says Owens.
NAPAfrica helps businesses get their own IP resources and interconnect with others at the IXP. As a major hub, NAPAfrica interconnects over 480 networks from South Africa, surrounding countries within the continent, and beyond.
“In our experience, exchanges are always good for the ecosystem and market. Believing in it as we did back then, we decided to adopt an approach that centered on, ‘if you build it they will come,’” says Owens. So, in 2011, NAPAfrica began driving this goal, with a plan to launch in 2012.
If you have a strong Internet community it is easier to build an IXP, encourage usage, and provide a way in which people can interact. It becomes a powerful way of sharing knowledge and skills, says Owens.
Pivotal to the success of the IXP was knowing that NAPAfrica was supported by the community and that the uptake from Internet service providers (ISPs) across Africa would be positive. The global Internet community also rallied behind NAPAfrica, helping to bring services to the continent.
NAPAfrica is now a significant player in this global Internet community.
“We spent time being part of this community. It was hard work to bring Internet content delivery networks (CDNs) to invest in Africa, because there were both legal and business challenges,” says Owens. In South Africa, he says, it was easier to do business because of the licensing regime.
While new in South Africa, these networks needed a place to interconnect with each other. The Internet is all about “eyeballs and content”, and NAPAfrica was successful in gaining traction with ISPs and content providers. It then approached the global community to bring more content to South Africa.
When Amazon, Microsoft, and Google cloud providers started investing in infrastructure within South Africa, NAPAfrica provided the global content delivery networks and security providers with a platform they could use to launch their services in the country. They could do so without necessarily building new infrastructure or putting something physical down, which can be difficult for networks when creating a business case.
Now, with cloud providers in South Africa and peering through an IXP, a lot of content can easily be sourced locally, says Owens. As everything is in such close proximity, and considering that NAPAfrica does not charge any port fees, cross connecting fees, or membership fees, if one can get to the exchange it costs nothing. In fact a number of ISPs that use NAPAfrica see up to 80% of user traffic going through the IXP path—which translates to 80% savings on international Internet capacity.
A Community of Connectors
Andrew Owens, manager of interconnection and peering at Teraco, thinks the African Peering Interconnection Forum (AfPIF) has been great for the continent. “What we see at AfPIF is the global community coming to Africa—Africa has a network of operators interested in peering, interested in getting content and cloud into their country, and it’s no longer a case of where Africa goes to the rest of the world to have these conversations,” he says.
“There is so much opportunity for Internet services in Africa. AfPIF is a place where [the] regional and global peering community get to talk about things. We have seen so much success and a lot of what is happening is a result of AFPIF.”
NAPAfrica and the 80/20 Goal
In 2010, the African Internet community joined together in support of the ambitious 80/20 Initiative. They set out to locally exchange 80% of Internet traffic consumed in Africa, with only 20% routed from outside the continent.
When Owens first got the 80/20 t-shirt at an AfPIF meeting it seemed an unreasonable goal. “[When] we looked at it then, I didn’t know whether it was necessary or possible, but that has changed significantly over the years,” he says.
South Africa is the only African country to have reached the goal of 80 percent of localized traffic, with more than 50 connected networks.
Owens credits South Africa’s success to the innovative way it started. With a lot of fiber laid out, strong wireless ISPs emerged and worked hard to get the Internet to the people. The content networks made their jobs easier, he adds.
Achieving the goal has been a long road. “A lot was required to be done in the background regarding community engagement, sitting down with enterprising networks, and explaining to them about peering,” says Owens.
With a more resilient infrastructure—and Internet access that is faster, cheaper, and better—it’s safe to say the hard work has paid off.
Building a successful IXP isn’t just an engineering job. It takes time and effort to develop trust, common understanding, and mutual agreements in local communities. Join us and help grow the Internet!
Image by Jacques Nel via Unsplash