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So far most of the discussion about internet exchange points has been about setting them up and getting ISPs to use them at a local level. However the discussion took a step forward at a workshop in Kinshasa at the beginning of this month. A project to connect local IXPs through a regional internet exchange was discussed. Nico Tshintu reports on that workshop and talks to two of the key movers, Brian Longwe of AfrISPA and Auban Kashoba of the DRC ISPA.

The African IX Research project looks forward to the time when five African cities might be inter-connected regionally: Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Kampala (Uganda), Kinshasa (DRC), Nairobi (Kenya) and Ibadan (Nigeria). The project is sponsored by IDRC’s Connectivity Africa. It is looking at creating a proof of concept lasting for one year. One of the important steps the project hopes to achieve is the inter-connection of local internet exchange points.

These points emerged from a workshop held by the Centre de Formation d’Afrinet at the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa at the beginning of July. The workshop took place the same time as Kinshasa’s IXP installed a Sun server and began to connect local ISPs. The workshop was led by Brian Longwe of AfrISPA and Bill Woodcock of Packet Clearing House. It was attended by ISPs, telcos, the University of Kinshasa and interested NGOs.

The participants were given a clear idea of how local internet exchange points worked technically and of the advantages of keeping local traffic local. Brian Longwe stressed the different advantages local ISPs might gain if they signed up to the IXP: financial savings, service improvements and added business opportunities.

After the event, Brian Longwe and Aubin Kashoba, President of the DRC ISPA spoke to our correspondent about the future of internet in Africa. Brian Longwe said its future depended on the will of its leaders and of those involved:
- to put in place an infrastructure that covered the continent.
- the gaining of technological knowledge by its peoples.
- the lowering of the cost of access to the internet.

It was essential that Africans could communicate using the internet at local, national and regional levels as well as with the rest of the world and that the infrastructure to achieve this cost-effectively was put in place. On the point about the technological skills, much rested on raising the skill level of African technicians. In this area, he acknowledged the work of continental initiatives like AFNOG and others that worked to achive this and looked forward to seeing more initiatives of this kind. Internet exchange points that mean that traffic stays within the continent have the ability to lower costs, both for ISPs and users: the solution was to create exchange points at both national and regional levels. The success of the internet in the future will be a function of its integration into the exchange of information on the continent and the transfer of knowledge it brings about. This is most likely to happen in the areas of education, research, medicine, business, culture, the exploitation of natural resources and the environment.

Aubin Kashoba, President of DRC’s ISPA said that at present the internet was being taken up and integrated slowly into the life and culture of the DRC. More than 70% of cities now had internet infrastructure. Much rests on rolling it out to the rural areas. The use of the internet as a medium of exchange and the transfer of knowledge posed several problems. The current time and costs of international bandwidth was a serious handicap. The existence of a local IXP in the DRC contributes considerably to the lowering of these costs. The story of the IXP began as long ago as 2001. There were two tentative attempts that did not last long. There were now three ISPs (Interconnect, roffe Hitech and Afrinet) who were connected through a "box" using linux Zebra. The launch of the IXP in May 2003 was enabled by the acquisition of routers and a switch from the internet NGO National Start-Up Resource Centre (NSRC). A fourth ISP Microcom will join the exchange once it has activated its routers.

There are still various technical problems to be overcome at a local level but Aubin Kashoba was optimistic that these would be overcome in due course. The internet in Africa will not be an effective tool for government, the private sector and science if they did not make use of it for whatever reasons. ISPA in the DRC exists to make sure that it can be.