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The prospect of a continent-wide regional internet exchange took another step forward with circulation of a draft Request for Service (RFS) from existing local IXPs. This draft RFS will be discussed by a Steering Committee set up after initial agreement was reached at a meeting held during iWeek in Johannesburg in September.

There are now nine IXPs in Africa: South Africa, Mozambique (opened May last year), Zimbabwe, Egypt (also May last year), Kenya, Nigeria (Ibadan with only 2 ISPs), Tanzania, Uganda and the DRC (set up December last year). An IXP in Lagos is due to open shortly.

Local internet exchange points were set up to cut down on the costs of local traffic going all the way to North America or Europe just to make its journey across one country. In some countries, their existence has already begun to encourage local internet services that would not simply be possible without the traffic exchanging more rapidly locally. The next logical step is to try and find a way to address keeping inter-continental traffic within the region rather than paying hard-earned money for its transfer.

A study carried out by Balancing Act (with Brian Longwe and William Stucke) and funded by Connectivity Africa presented a range of options to a meeting of IXPs, regulators, carriers and government representatives at iWeek in Johannesburg in September.

The participants were presented with two broad options: PAVIX or a regional carrier. The aim was to create a "proof of concept" that would all involved to test the level of demand and address the regulatory issues. In the absence of widespread linking fibre on the continent, both options were based on the use of a VSAT hub. The "proof of concept" idea was rejected in favour of asking for regional carriers to respond to a Request For Service.

There were heated discussions about the different satellite options that were available in the short to medium-term. Each of the options was discussed in detail with all participants wanting to know what each might mean in practical terms. There was some scepticism expressed about the level of inter-African traffic by some participants but a separate research exercise is being conducted by AfrISPA that will produce figures based on monitoring ISP traffic (with their agreement). Also a number of individual ISPs stood and gave estimates of their own inter-African traffic.

The participants agreed that the regional carrier option should be pursued and agreed:

"Participants in the Regional Exchange Workshop recognise that the solution to the problem of regional connectivity in Africa lies in having one or more Regional Carriers. To this end, the workshop participants have proposed that AfrISPA and the existing African IXPs will issue a Request For Service (RFS) to potential Regional Carriers for their consideration. The first draft of the RFS is to be released for comment by 15 October, with the final document published on 15 November. The launch of the this service, to be known as the African Internet Exchange is planned for January 2004. In order for such an African Internet Exchange to function the IXPs concerned will have to ensure that their policies allow third parties to peer for the purposes of transiting traffic between ISPs peering at IXPs."

The draft RFS "is to be circulated to all network operators who are interested in providing this service within Africa. With this RFS, we intend to obtain innovative and cost-effective proposals that meet the requirements of the African Internet community. Since this is a new opportunity opening up in Africa’s communications, it will provide the successful party (or parties) entry into a market that has huge suppressed demand with plenty of growth potential."

The RFS lays out the bandwidth and technical requirements to be met. The bandwidth requirements are focused on IXPs in six countries: South Africa. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Nigeria. Carriers interested in responding should obtain a copy of the draft RFS from