End in sight to internet woes

Kenya fits the bill as far as connectivity is concerned, boasting the highest bandwidth per person on the continent, the fastest speeds, and some of the lowest internet costs. In fact, internet provider Liquid Telecom CEO Ben Roberts says now that Kenya leads, internet woes will more likely come to an end.

Coming from a technical background, the 43-year- old Chief Executive is currently many steps into a journey of making sure that successful growth is achieved at Liquid. An engineer by background, graduating from Bristol University, Mr Roberts moved into the telecom world, making IP networks and would join Liquid 12 years ago to build networks.  

He comes in at a tricky time when the country has more undersea cables than any other nation on the East African coast, with government support having been directed at increasing access and participation by more carriers. 

The landing of the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy), The East African Marine System (TEAMS), SEACOM and LION high-capacity submarine cables brought a 20-fold increase in international bandwidth in the country to 20Gbit per second. Kenya has also  more licensed international gateways than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, now at 13, according to the Internet Society.

“South Africa has the biggest ICT spent, high ICT awareness  and regional customers, but Kenya is significant. Kenya is at the heart of East Africa so a lot of Kenyans, international companies are putting up offices in Kenya… so for us. It is a crucial thing to be in Kenya,” he says. 

Since the technology bubble burst in 2000, efforts at provision of connectivity in small towns and in remote counties has sort of failed. But Liquid is guaranteeing better future. 

“The uptake is very positive. We have expanded fibre to some counties in western Kenya like Siaya. We are more resilient with our fibre to make the network more reliable… and so far we have invested around 20 million dollars so far. The future investment is $30 million,” says Roberts. 

With the devolution taking shape and businesses in the county needing connectivity, things are clearly looking up. The Telecom giant has positioned itself to serve all the 47 counties in Kenya specifically eyeing banks, universities as well as all businesses which need access to internet services.

Kenya has now emerged in the top position in Africa for internet access. It has the connection of the continent’s most concentrated cluster of undersea cables, the galloping development of the Kenyan Internet Exchange Point; the creation of thousands of Points of Presence by international and national service and content providers – delivering speedier content; and the achievement of the second cheapest internet costs on the continent.  

The localisation of internet connections through the Kenya Internet Exchange Point (KIXP) has also been critical to Kenya’s emerging internet leadership. KIXP allows local internet users to interconnect locally, without traffic being pointed back to the US or Europe. 

The Kenyan exchange is now localising more than 1Gbit/s off peak traffic, dramatically reducing from 200-600ms to 2-10ms on average, while allowing ISPs to save almost $1.5m per year on international connectivity, and to make revenue gains on increased internet usage – on faster speeds – of as much as $6 million a year per operator.

In 2011, Google installed a Google Global Cache (GGC) in Kenya, retaining static content, such as YouTube videos, after it has been downloaded in Kenya, which has also had a significant impact on ISP traffic levels. For example, the Internet Society reported that the educational network, KENET, experienced a roughly ten-fold increase in Google usage, from 20Megabits per second to 200Megabits per second, after the cache was established, attributing the rise to better speeds.

Shifting content and routing to the local exchange has similarly impacted the mobile operators. According to an ‘Assessment of the Impact of Internet Exchange Points – Empirical Study of Kenya and Nigeria by the Internet Society’, one operator alone is seeing a revenue increase of just under $6 million a year from the rise in locally routed Internet traffic.

The country has benefited in much broader ways again from its rapid embrace of local internet infrastructure. 

The Kenya Revenue Authority used local routing that saw 160,524 citizens file their income taxes online in the first half of fiscal year 2011, and 5,000 users register for the customs system, representing 95% of the industry. Technology, according to the taxman, has been key in assisting it meet its tax collection targets.

The benefits of the KIXP are also beginning to extend beyond Kenya’s borders. As of January 2012, 56% of the Autonomous System numbers routed through the KIXP in the previous six months were from 16 foreign countries, ranging from Botswana to Zimbabwe, and as far away as the United States.

Cross-border terrestrial networks are also expanding rapidly in Africa. Carriers still largely use intra-African capacity to connect with submarine cable stations for onward transit to Europe, rather than to facilitate the exchange of African traffic, but this is beginning to change.

“Being able to supply this national and local infrastructure at competitive price to users is absolutely key. When users are getting a good service at better cost there will be further increasing internet take-up, and see Nairobi join Johannesburg as one of Africa’s two regional internet hubs,” says Roberts.

Liquid Telecom’s fibre network stretches over 17,000kms across country borders, including the first ever regional fibre ring connecting the east African countries to each other and the rest of the world.

“It is a new beginning. Liquid acquired companies in Kenya Uganda, Rwanda and DRC… apart from other business processes I’m smoothing people into the new organisation so they know the value what it means to them, growing the team, bringing the right people knowing where they are going, where we are going… it is quite a challenge. Nothings has been a smooth ride,” he says 

The company is quite diligent with the fibre so if they identify some areas as risk they put surveillance. This has helped them deal with criminal matters as well as cases of vandalism. 

 

“I see Liquid Telecom a leading group facility in Africa with largest fibre network in the next four years. Our main targets are corporates and our networks wholesalers…,” he says. 

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