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Mohammed: How to reduce Internet cost in Nigeria

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Mohammed: How to reduce Internet cost in Nigeria

Mr Rudman Mohammed is the Chief Executive Officer of Internet Exchange Point of Nigeria (IXPN), an organisation connecting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and network operators to exchange traffic between their networks. In this interview with SAMSON AKINTARO, he speaks on the recipes for achieving lower Internet cost in Nigeria and other industry issues

 

What are the roles being played by IXPN in the Internet ecosystem in Nigeria and what has been your achievements so far?

The core role we are playing is to interconnect all Internet service providers, all telecommunications companies, educational institutions and in fact, all organisations that are IP-centric. All organisations that are moving Internet traffic can connect to the Internet Exchange Point. So, the role is to ensure that Internet traffic that is being exchanged within Nigeria remains within Nigeria to keep internet traffic local.

We have connected all the major telecommunications companies and ISPs in Nigeria. Substantial parts of them are connected to the exchange. Secondly, we have attracted international players who are coming to Nigeria to connect to the exchange. Again, local Internet traffic has increased from 0.01 per cent to almost 30 per cent right now. Substantial part of what was going out of the country is now residing in the country.

That increase is quite huge, so for every service provider that is connected to the exchange, they save 30 per cent of their traffic locally and that amounts to costs saving. Furthermore, the service providers connected to the exchange are getting Internet at cheaper cost than what is obtainable in the market.

But they have not passed the saved cost to the end users because cost of Internet is still high, why?

Yes, the cost is attributed to multiple factors because for an ISP, apart from the capital expenditure in setting up the infrastructure on ground, they have high operational cost. The high operational cost as you know, include the cost of running generators, because as an ISP, you have to run 24/7 and therefore you need to spend a lot of money on power. You have to lay fibre, in which you pay a lot of money to get Right of Way.

And then we have the issue of multiple taxes that has to be paid. Recently, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) and the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) complained that there are about 38 categories of taxes that their members usually pay.

That makes it so complicated and difficult for them to operate. If you also look at office rent, staff salary and other cost components and then you add the cost of bandwidth that they buy, you will see why cost has not gone down for the end users.

This is because the bandwidth cost is just 10 to 15 per cent of their operating cost, so even if you drop the cost to zero for them, they cannot really pass significant amount of cost reduction to the consumers. So, if we can succeed in reducing other costs like the government taxes and the rest, then the cost will go down to end users.

Having talked about challenges facing operators, what are those facing IXPN as the exchange point?

We all share the same challenges but ours is lack of enough content providers in the country, we need more local content because the exchange in Nigeria takes place between the eyeball network and content networks, eyeball networks include all the big telecommunications networks and ISPs while the content networks, are the networks that have all the information that resides on the Internet, like the Yahoo, Google, Facebook Twitter and all the rest and all the individual hosting companies that host various websites. So, we need more of that in Nigeria for Nigeria’s traffic to increase and thrive.

For us, we are trying to see how content can reside in Nigeria, especially the government content, educational content and all that. When we started operating in 2006, there were very few reliable data centres in Nigeria. But now you can see the evolvement of big data centres, tier 3 data centres that will be able to handle the hosting of whatever services you want to host in Nigeria and the have the reliability, which makes them have the global certification from Uptime Institute to ensure compliance to international standard.

But for them to flourish, we need to start migrating all our data hosted abroad to host it locally. If we can achieve that, the cost of Internet will drop. It means local connectivity will significantly improve.

The issue of cybercrime is affecting the image of Nigeria and many international users don’t want to trust Nigerians online for any legitimate business, what do you think can be done to change this?

Nigeria has an image that might not necessarily be true. We all know that the population of Nigeria is huge, so if a small percentage of the population are doing bad things, we shouldn’t see it as if the whole of the country is doing it. But because Nigeria as a country has not done anything about it, the issue is being amplified on the Internet. In reality, there are many other countries whose citizens are doing worse on the Internet. We also need government to engage the youths so that instead of doing yahoo yahoo, they can have something viable to do and government should even identify some of the talents to see how they can develop their talents through capacity building and trainings so that they can empower them to do legitimate businesses online. In terms of general cyber security issue and the fear of doing business online, the risk can be minimised if you do the right things. Right things in that you don’t open unknown attachments, you don’t go to websites that are fraudulent and you update your operating system regularly and you are using anti-virus. These are ways to protect yourself online and this is more about awareness. The government needs to provide more awareness for the people on how to be safe online.

Are we really generating enough contents in Nigeria to be able to attract more traffic from outside the country?

Not really for now. Because all the huge content that we are currently generating in terms of all the Nollywood movies, music industry, websites for the government and private companies such as websites of newspapers and television stations, are all not local.

If we can succeed in hosting all these sites locally, it will significantly improve exchange of traffic locally and that would now be used to attract even other countries to Nigeria because they now know that we have something that is needed and then the data centres would flourish because everybody is bringing in contents. Imagine if the Nollywood videos and Nigerian music are hosted on servers that are in Nigeria, the multiplier effects would be quite high in terms of economically empowering people.

We have not reached there yet, but that is what we are doing right now through advocacy, ensuring that we keep pushing and keep talking about it, so that people can understand that the Internet has two aspects. One is that you are browsing, the other is that you are browsing contents that are on physical servers and we need to find a way to host those servers locally.

What is IXPN doing to get better at achieving its mission?

One, we are ensuring that our services are constantly available by providing reliable services all the time to ensure customers’ satisfaction. And then to ensure that our cost is always cheaper, relative to the general cost internationally. We always review our pricing to ensure that the cost of ports at IXPN keeps dropping. In summary, we always ensure that what we are doing is affordable and reliable with good uptime to all our members.

In terms of local content in ICT, do you think the government has done enough and how much of government data are being hosted in the country?

Honestly, the governments have good data and part of it is hosted locally, but I believe substantial part of that is still hosted outside the country. But to stem the tide on foreign hosting, the government has gone ahead to create the local content guideline through NITDA. I believe it is the implementation that will now facilitate local hosting by the government, because they need to ensure that it is implemented.

Do you think this will eventually be implemented as we have heard of series of such policies in the past without implementation?

I agree with you and that is why I said that all what we are doing now is advocacy. We hope that the government will wake up to their own responsibility. You can see that NITDA is now saying that for any purchase of computer, software or any IT product, MDAs have to seek approval. So, eventually, things will start to fall in place. We are already seeing improvements.

In the next five years, where do you see IXPN?

From current 30 per cent we will see local traffic grow to 60 per cent in the next five years, which will directly translate to lower cost of Internet access. We will also have additional branches to ensure that we are across Nigeria and we will try to reach the unserved and underserved areas. We will like to have our branch in each of the geopolitical zones of the country.

With the diversity of Nigeria, we will also ensure that all the various cultures across the country will start hosting their contents locally. And then, we anticipate interconnectivity of more of educational institutions so that we can contribute towards promotion of the national research and educational network, which is a Federal Government initiative. Right now, most of the federal universities are connected to the NGREN, but we still have state and private universities.

So, the idea is to complement what the government is doing in that regard because if we spread our branches, we will like to see educational institutions connected and we hope that eventually, all the key networks across Nigeria will be connected. Again, we want to consolidate on the achievements we have recorded so far in terms of hosting critical Internet infrastructure. Right now, we are hosting critical services for root servers that do Internet translation from names to numbers.

We have signed agreement with various organisations such as Verisign, the owners of .com, .net and all that, so that they can run their secondary servers in Nigeria. We have signed some of the big global players and we hope to see a lot of that critical infrastructure hosted in Nigeria.

Lastly, we would want to push and see adoption of IP version 6 (IPV6) across Nigerian networks because IPV4 is getting exhausted so that we can reach the number of end users that we want to reach. And with the evolvement of Internet of Things (IoT), for Nigeria to embrace it properly, we need to have IPV6 running on our networks.

As a critical stakeholder in the Internet ecosystem, do you see Nigeria achieving the 30 percent broadband target this year?

I doubt, but things can change fast, as it all depends on the government. It is sad that at point in time that we are trying to achieve this target, all these taxes are coming and some of the state governments are even shutting down base stations.

With such things happening, I don’t see us achieving the target. But as I said it is all about the government policy, they can quickly reverse this and ensure that there is enabling environment where service providers can flourish, then within a very short period, you will see massive roll out across the country.

If all the state governments come out today and say look we are giving you right of way for free, that will make huge impact. If you give the right condition, the deployment processes can be be fast-tracked. They have to mean it, because sometimes the government say things that they don’t really mean.

Do you think Right of Way can be offered free in Nigeria when states are seriously looking for ways of shoring up their Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) and has it been offered free in any country?

Of course, usually in some countries, when the governments are building roads, they put that as additional infrastructure, so to them, to run a fibre is really not difficult because there is an existing duct.

Therefore, cost of fibre, in Europe, for instance, is extremely cheap, even between countries, you will be shocked at the amount of dark fibre that is available out there at a very cheap rate. And it is because their governments are not using it as opportunity to make money, it is given out and you see a lot of roll out.

Earlier, you talked about connecting higher institutions, how many have you connected so far?

So far, we are still looking at connecting a number of them. We have the National Research and Educational Network connected. Right now, they are exchanging good traffic. Initially, we had University of Lagos, Pan Atalantic University and others connected, but due to challenges and issues as we move our locations, some of them are no longer connected but we are trying to bring them back in all the locations where we are in.

One of the reasons some of them are not connected is because some do not have their own internal networks. So, you see a University where there is no Local Area Network (LAN), where the Physics, Mathematics, Biology Departments are interconnected.

That’s one. Two, some of them even if they have LAN, they don’t have the resources to connect to the exchange point. These resources are IP address and Autonomous SystemNumbers (ASN).

For each of network in the world that wants to participate in Internet exchange points must have these resources as prerequisite. But because most of them have not reached that maturity level, they can’t really connect. So, we are doing a lot of homework in trying to guide universities towards having their own IP block and AS Number so that they can participate in the exchange point.

Talking about universities and higher institutions in Nigeria, are they really producing the human capacity that Nigeria needs to develop technologically?

No, I don’t think so because one, they have not really embraced the technology and bandwidth in those university is still expensive. Universities are places of learning, and if you recall, Internet itself evolved from universities.

The first two interconnections in the world happened in 1969 between two universities, Stanford Research Institute and University of California. So, the Internet began from universities for research.

Right now, Universities should not be deprived of high speed Internet access for the students because learning is now moving into the cloud. There is so much information out there to improve oneself.

So, if you leave yourself to the old library system, where there is no Internet access, of course. you will be left behind on the cutting edge technology that is happening across the world. So, for that to happen in Nigeria, the universities must embrace high speed Internet access and make the access readily available to all their students. But because of the high cost, they cannot afford it even if they want to do it.

And that has led to their students lagging behind in global competitiveness in terms of the relevant skills to get employed after their graduation. Looking at the issue of multiple taxation in the telecom sector, it seems regulatory efforts have failed to address the challenge and the operators and even subscribers are suffering for it.

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