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Zimbabwe is reported to be amongst the countries with high Internet connectivity costs in the SADC region, and everywhere else. This has been attributed to a number of factors, both real and perceived. These high costs have been the major bottleneck in the development and uptake of all ICT driven initiatives in the country, most of which are pivotal drivers to the economy.
However, November has been a pivotal month in the ICTs Sector; actually I would dare say it was THE month! Earlier during the month there was much hype in the Internet circles as the first Internet eXchange Point (IXP) was launched by the Minister of ICT, Postal and courier Services. While we welcome this very noble development, we take a look at our own history, in ICT terms. We also take a look at the future as well as the doors that the IXP will open for Zimbabwe; the Communications environment and the economy.
Firstly, let’s start by understanding the IXP and what it does.
IXP is a hardware (a physical infrastructure), that allows a first-level internal interconnectivity between local Internet Service providers (ISPs). Basically, prior to this development, our ISPs had no direct link to each other and we all connected to the Internet via their upstream suppliers. This made traffic quite expensive and a bit tricky; for example, getting from one Zimbabwean ISP to another required routing via an external intermediary upstream ISP hence the joke that a letter sent within Zimbabwe can easily get to Nairobi and Europe before bouncing back to Zimbabwe!!
Other key implications that resulted from this are that for technical reasons, most of the domains are actually physically hosted out of Zimbabwe, yes including those with .zw extension.
And as you would expect, the above highlighted naturally made communications and bandwidth very expensive.
Nonetheless, the Internet eXchange Point is housed by TelOne and was set up with the participation of Liquid, PowerTel, Dandemutande and Africom. TelOne, Powertel, Liquid, Dandemutande (Utande), Africom, and TeleContract (Telco) have committed to interconnecting on the IXP infrastructure.
With the participation of almost all the players in the industry, all the stakeholders are confident in the success of this project. It only remains to be seen whether the success of the IXP initiative will translate to the reduction of connection costs and also be felt downstream as a benefit to the consumers.
Anyway, now back to our story of the day.
Now the IXP will facilitate for direct interconnectivity between ISPs in Zimbabwe. Given that most of the communications from corporate emails and website access from Zimbabwean systems are to sites and domains that are supposed to be .zw domains. Simply put, Zimbabweans use the internet to access mainly Zimbabwean sites and email recipients. It is estimated that, with the exception of public free emails (Yahoo, Gmail, MSN,), 86% of our traffic is within Zimbabwe. We also estimate that our Social media usage of the Internet accounts for 69% of the total external access.
An assessment of internet use by an Expert in the ISP sector came to the conclusion that about 64% of all internet use is to local (Zimbabwean) domains. Hence by having the IXP and interconnecting at national level, we are going to significantly cut the Forex Component off our Internet costs.
Value Added Services are also the key benefit of the Internet and connectivity. Currently we are excited about the advent of online banking, gaming, etc. It is pivotal that for this to work, we need dependable and affordable internet connectivity. The banking Sector, though appreciative of the uptake of the e-banking platforms, bemoans the high cost of connectivity as a major hindering factor to the success of this development, which to some countries comes as a basic service.
Some banks have even resorted to having the mobile devices in their banking Halls as “Self service Centres” to encourage the use of the platforms, while others have HotSpots in premises so that customers can access their platforms.
We anticipate that the development of the IXP will enable cheaper connectivity costs such that more banking will be done online, after all, these Banks are supposed to have local servers. This is not only limited to banking, but to a lot of other services as well that are offerd in the country, as we embrace e-Commerce.
The advent of Internet, from the days of Skype to the present Whatsapp, has always positioned the use of VoIP Platforms as the way to go. Admittedly, the high cost of internet had almost but blocked the wide use of this technology, and limiting it only to Corporate internal communications in the Corporate networks. This was directly related to the challenge of the upstream interconnectivity situation that we had before the IXP Commissioning. Now that we are in the era of our local IXP, with the “Big 5” of the ISPs involved and having signed up for interconnection, we anticipate much lower costs of connectivity, which would translate downstream to reduced costs of VoIP.
I have written a number of articles on the VoIP and ICT Industry in Zimbabwe, and I am convinced that this IXP commissioning will be a definite game changer here. We anticipate seeing a significant growth in the VoIP use in Zimbabwe, and also an opening of the market through sustainable partnership between the ISPs and the Telecoms Companies. However, there is still the factor of the legacy landlines, which have become so entrenched in our culture, both socially and commercially, and cannot be dropped overnight. In fact, I still believe in the role of the TelOne lines in our economy at least for the next decade.
We have had an unfortunate scenario on Infrastructure sharing on the Mobile networks Sector with some Players refusing to share, and some not having invested. Now, this is truly a remarkable experience in the ICT sector where the Players come together for the common good.
However, we must anticipate that the real benefits in terms of costs reduction on connectivity will take some time to reach the levels we desire. This is because the Investors would need to recoup their costs, and in Zimbabwe, price reductions are almost always a NO-NO. On the positive, we have the opportunity of an increase in VoIP lines and subsequently the use of voice connectivity. In the same vein, we also anticipate an increase in Internet Mobile banking, and e-Commerce.
On the Business to Business relationships, we have just witnessed a new era of what i would describe as Friendly and Collaborative competition. Our ICT Companies have matured to a level of realising the value of Inclusive competition as opposed to the cut-throat methods that we have witnessed of late.
We anticipate that this is a milestone and pace setter in terms of collaborations, and co-operation amongst competing entities towards the attainment of high level infrastructure in their sectors. One provided premises; others participated in the setup of the infrastructure of this communal asset. All said and done, one question still lags in my mind: POTRAZ may be the responsible authority on this initiative, but how level is the playing field? Food for thought.–techzim