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East Africa: The Race to The Terabit Backbone

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In the last few months, two major operators in Kenya announced their plans to upgrade their traffic backbones. Safaricom announced it’s partnership with Huawei to upgrade its Mombasa-Nairobi backbone to 400Gbps while Liquid Telecom announced its partnership with Nokia to upgrade its East African backbone to an initial capacity of 500Gbps using OTN/DWDM technique. This as you would imagine is a massive upgrade from the current capacities.

With the increase in the use of Internet and mobile phone use in Kenya and the greater East African region, these backbones will ensure that the region does not suffer from bandwidth constraints due to lack of capacity to carry the traffic. Also, to enhance the user experience, Internet giants such as Facebook and Alphabet (parent company to YouTube) have set up powerful cache servers within the country. These cache servers store most popular content locally in Nairobi at the Africa Data Center in Nairobi and iColo in Mombasa. How these work is for example is when a person watches a YouTube video and shares the video link with others in Kenya, the next person won’t get the video from the YouTube servers in the US or Europe, but will get the video from a server in Nairobi where a copy will be temporarily stored. What this means is that the video will load faster with no buffering and also ease up capacity on the international backbone that would have been used to access the video by everyone to whom the video was shared. Same case for Facebook videos and photos. With the increase in smart phone adoption and multimedia content sharing on social media such as WhatsApp and the fact that over 70% of East African internet traffic is social media and video streaming, the amount of traffic is bound to increase exponentially if the region starts to use broadband and cloud more productively and not just for recreation, these backbone upgrades are therefore happening at the right time.

Fiber-Optic Upgrades 101

Other than the high capacity they provide, the other main advantage of using fiber optic cables for data transport is that once the optical glass core is buried in the ground, any upgrade of capacity does not necessarily need additional cores buried (unless better cores with much less losses per km come to market or the existing core is extensively damaged). The upgrade only needs to happen at the end point equipment.

Fiber optics use light to carry information, in the early days, a single color of light (a.k.a wave length) was used to carry traffic. However, with the advancements in physics, it became possible to use several colors of light (several wave lengths) to carry traffic in a single glass core; a technique known as DWDM. All advancement in optical transport is simply based on how many color shades or hues that a fiber network equipment can detect. Just like in the 5G arena, there has been a silent war between European and Chinese OEM’s on whose equipment can detect more hues (more wavelengths). The more hues the equipment can detect at the same power levels, the more data can be carried on that channel.

5G and Multimedia Traffic

With the approval by the 3GPP of the 5G-NR standards, it is expected that 5G networks will deliver speeds of up to 20Gbps (in lab conditions), real world speeds will hover around 1Gbps which is still high by today’s metrics. With the increase in consumption of multimedia and streaming content, the demand for even bigger data backbone pipes will continue on an upward trend. Just to give an example, in mid 2017 Liquid upgraded their EA backbones from 10Gbps to 100Gbps and less than two years later to 500G because of the demand. In the next 3 years or so, Liquid’s 500G and Safaricom’s 400G won’t be sufficient. There will therefore be the need to scale up to the Terabit space. This will allow the operators meet capacity demand in the region for both data and voice traffic. This is especially critical at a time when many Internet companies are setting up Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and cloud presence in Kenya. Facebook is already in Mombasa, Google in Nairobi and Mombasa, Netflix and Akamai in Nairobi and many others. Microsoft is finalizing the setting up an Azure Stack in Nairobi as Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced that they are setting up local cloud presence in Africa with an availability zone in Nairobi and South Africa. These locally based cloud points of presence will enable cloud service providers offer lower latency to end users across Sub-Saharan Africa and will enable more Africans to leverage advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Internet of Things (IoT), mobile services, and more to drive innovation. With the current broadband use not being productive use; with most traffic being recreational and social media, the availing of low latency cloud services from within the continent will drive up our efficiencies and help the region to develop.

Government’s Role

I happen to have attended the National Broadband Strategy II (NBS II) stakeholders consultations and review of the proposed strategy. There seemed to be a shift from the strategic direction of NBS I which mainly focused on creating an enabling environment for private investors to roll out broadband networks in the country. In the proposed NBS II that covers the period 2018-2023, government seems focused on using tax payers money to roll out broadband. This to me is not the way to go as previous government investment in similar projects such as the National Optic Fiber Backbone (NOFB) haven’t been well executed and currently stands at 12%. The percentage completion of the other projects under NBS I such as digitization of core government registries where several registries have been digitized was not documented. For some other projects, there was no indication whether they were undertaken or not; an example is the development of county management information system. All these projects were allocated KES 250B under NBS I. The NOFBI’s current performance and availability is far below the closest competitors offering. The government should leave telecom infrastructure development space to capable private sector hands. Government can aid the private sector with incentives and tax breaks on equipment and other costs associated with broadband roll-out and creating a level playing field through proper policy and sector regulation.

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