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TESPOK’s Kenya Internet Exchange Point (KIXP) Data Traffic Scenario During The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

As we sit in the thick of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Kenya, one thing that has been racking my brain is what have been the Internet data traffic trends for the last couple weeks when everything started to really go pear-shaped? Naturally, the biggest consequence from this perspective is that everyone is working from home, children included in terms of attending classes online, and everything else in between. 

All this has obviously put a major strain on all Internet infrastructure with various Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Mobile Networks as usage skyrockets unexpectedly. The closest analogy I can think of is that everyone knows water comes from a tap but the majority of us to not understand how the plumping works to get the water to the tap. I wanted to know what was currently happening within Kenya’s Intenet plumbing during our coronavirus moment.

The common denominator for most of the ISPs and mobile networks in Kenya is that the majority of them at members of the Technology Service Providers of Kenya (TESPOK). TESPOK is a professional, non-profit organization representing the interests of Technology service providers in Kenya. TESPOK also happens to be behind the Kenya Internet Exchange Point or KIXP which it established in 2000. To understand what the significance is of the KIXP where Internet data traffic in Kenya is concerned, it’s important to understand what an internet exchange point or IXP is first.

What Is An Internet Exchange Point or IXP & Why Do They Matter?

An Internet exchange point (IX or IXP) is a physical infrastructure through which Internet service providers (ISPs) and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) can exchange Internet traffic between their networks. An IXP acts as a peering point where there is data traffic exchange between Internet service providers (ISPs), content providers, government institutions, banks and other companies that are willing to exchange with another. As of this writing, 68 service providers are connected to the KIXP.

The benefit of an IXP like the KIXP is that Internet data traffic is kept local and does not have to travel internationally to move data packets back and forth. This makes the Internet much faster and less expensive for all stakeholders in Kenya. It’s a good thing. The significance of the KIXP is that it acts as a central point where local Internet data traffic is consolidated and therefore can provide insights on what is happening across the Internet in Kenya. 

I reached out to Fiona Asonga who is the CEO of TESPOK this weekend to share with me some of the insights of what they were seeing at the KIXP. The following are key points I picked up from our conversation: 

Why Is Internet Usage Is Exploding In Kenya & Straining Our Internet Infrastructure?

According to Fiona, home internet usage in Kenya is the main culprit for the massive rise in Internet traffic in Kenya. This has led to some of their ISPS increasing their KIXP capacity by 200% during the last couple of weeks. The rationale for this is that typically Internet usage in Kenya would be concentrated within offices where employees use a single shared connection. However, in the current coronavirus scenario where everyone is working from home, you have fewer but highly dispersed users per Internet connection who using bandwidth at extraordinary levels, for work and play.

Fiona also noted that they are seeing a massive spike in video-based data traffic that includes video-conferencing (as expected?) as well as popular consumer platforms like YouTube, Netflix, etc. To put this into context, in January 2020, regular Internet data traffic on the KIXP was in the region of 7.50 Gbps, before jumping to 22.6 Gbps in early March 2020. This then jumped to 27 Gbps recently and they have seen spikes as high 57.80 Gbps as per screen grab below:

How Is TESPOK and the KIXP Dealing With Internet Traffic Challenges During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

I spoke to Fiona about the steps that TESPOK is taking through its members as well as the KIXP to deal with the massive increases in data traffic. She told me that they have had to increase the number of ports as well as their port capacity for ISPs, CDNs and other stakeholders to function optimally. This involves using load balancing by moving data around networks so as to ensure smoother and less erratic traffic flow. Many stakeholders have also had to increase capacity on their Internet backbones so as to ensure that their Internet is reliable.

I will not mention the names of any specific service providers in Kenya but going by the many customer complaints I am seeing recently on social media, it seems to me a few of them cannot cope with the unexpected demand for increased internet traffic. Naturally, customers have a right to complain but there are other factors at play. According to Fiona, increased capacity also means acquiring additional hardware, which is not a straightforward process. Many TESPOK members have expansion plans that run many months ahead of schedule due to the significant financial investments required.

It also means equipment has to be ordered well in advance. Thanks to the coronavirus, all this planning is in tatters and the logistical hurdles of speeding up these processes up is a massive challenge since global supply chains are struggling. Getting things here is no longer as fast as it used to be. Period. Then you have type approval that has to be done by the Communications Authority before you can install it which takes around a month. You, do the math. It’s a pickle.

Fiona also mentioned to me that many of their members are doing weekly upgrades to their capacity at the KIXP. Capacity can be increased by taking a larger port (current either 1 Gbps or 10 Gbps) or taking more ports as required. As expected, the larger the service providers in terms of customers served would tend to take more ports whereas smaller service providers would tend to increase port capacity to accommodate the spike in traffic. Major Internet companies connected to the KIXP include Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others.

What Sort of Interventions Are Needed To Alleviate The Coronavirus Influenced Scenario At The KIXP?

In discussing matters coronavirus and Internet data traffic at the KIXP with Fiona, she expressed there are other challenges that broader participation to resolve. For instance, the Internet in all its myriad forms has become an essential service to keep Kenya’s economic engine humming so it needs to be prioritized by Government and all stakeholders.

Policies are done well but the execution does not always follow through as well. There is a need for closer collaboration between the Industry and Government, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. One area that will help is getting type approval waived so as to speed up the process for ISPs to upgrade their network capacity in-line with current and future demands brought on by the coronavirus.

One glaring example that needs urgent intervention is that since all schools are closed, what is the situation in rural Kenya where e-learning is concerned? If the Internet is not available there in the right quality and educational content is not connected to the KIXP how will it be delivered to over 2 million children who need it? There is clearly a scenario where at the moment that the Internet needs to be anywhere and everywhere to ensure no one is left behind, across the board. 

 

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