Connecting Africa – From Internet Access to the Cloud

From Internet access to the cloud, data centres are at the heart bridging the digital divide

November 1, 2012

By Paul McKibbin, Divisional MD of Jasco Networks

Connectivity is critical in today’s business world, and cloud computing solutions are heralded as the future of technology. These cloud solutions are particularly applicable in the African context as they offer the cost effectiveness and scalability businesses in the region need to speed up technology adoption. However, in order to be able to take advantage of the cloud, and even of hosted services, countries in Africa require affordable, stable bandwidth, which requires local hosting, which in turn requires local data centres. Added to this, certain regulations with regard to data storage require hosted or cloud data to be kept within country boundaries, and depending upon the application, international hosting of cloud services can negatively impact performance and the user experience. Data centres lie at the heart of effectively bridging the digital divide. In order to become competitive on a global stage, Africa not only needs data centres, but locally built and hosted data centres that will address challenges, enable skills transfer and provide sustainable access to technology for the future.

With the landing of several undersea cables, and significant investment into infrastructure, Africa is now more connected to the world than ever before. However, while some countries have made huge advancements, others are still far behind. Africa is a mixed bag when it comes to connectivity and infrastructure, and while some data centres have been built, the money, international links and skills are not always available to fully utilise them. Mobile telecommunications has become an effective force in many African countries, but fixed-line telecommunications and network infrastructure are not always prevalent. This fixed line connectivity is critical for applications such as cost-effective broadband, upon which applications such as cloud services hinge. In order to be effective, fixed line telecoms needs to have a global reach and presence to deliver on these vital services.

To address these issues, the telecommunication industry needs to be deregulated where this has not already been done, to enable a platform for privatisation and effective competition. This will in turn encourage the foreign investment that is required to create and upgrade infrastructure, and provide the partnerships and skills transfer necessary. The reality is that data centres are expensive, not only to build but to maintain, which means that partnership with global companies is the most intelligent way forward for the development of African infrastructure.

Bridging the digital divide is critical in helping countries in Africa to become more competitive, reducing the poverty gap and levelling economic playing fields, and the first step in achieving this is connectivity. Affordable, available and stable connectivity is the backbone of many modern technologies, including cloud and hosted services. While bandwidth may currently be available, it remains expensive and out of reach of the majority of small and medium sized business owners because of the distance this bandwidth has to travel at present.

Localised data centres enable the hosting of local Internet exchanges, which will help to bring down the cost of delivering bandwidth to users by minimising distance as well as other related access costs. Local data centres also enable carrier-neutral co-location services to be delivered, facilitating connectivity between any carrier in the data centre. Having a carrier neutral co-location hub encourages global providers to bring their connections into the data centre. This provides users with access to a bouquet of network providers, enabling them to select the best offers and the best pricing for their needs.

Data centres also enable the local hosting of cloud solutions, which enables better speeds and improved performance. Cloud solutions require high bandwidth connections which become expensive over long distance, and the latency or delay that can occur when transmitting data long distance with overseas hosting can cause interruptions in service and a poor user experience with cloud services. Using local data centres, telecoms providers can also offer storage and disaster recovery facilities, as well as network resiliency, which are important aspects of global competitiveness in terms of ICT and technology.

Africa needs local data centres, not only for housing content and providing local hosting and Internet services, but also to enable the delivery of effective cloud offerings, which in turn will lower the cost of entry of software, services and technology. The journey towards bringing technology in Africa on par with the global stage starts with global partnerships. These international companies have the critical mass to fund the capital to build data centres which are critical to bridging the digital divide and connecting Africa.