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Thursday, March 23, 2006

ISPs should make use of IXPs - Ajayi


Interview:

Lanre Ajayi, is the president Nigeria Internet Group (NIG) and chief executive of Pinet Informatics, one of the first Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Nigeria. He spoke recently to Remmy Nweke and Nnaemeka Meribe, on his plans for the future of the group and optimizing local Internet Exchange Points (IXPs).

As president of NIG, what is your action plan?
Let me start by giving some historical reflections on NIG. In 1995 when the group was formed, the focus at that time was creating awareness about internet and administering the dot ng (.ng) top level domain. These were the two major mandates we set out to achieve.

In respect of the first mandate, on creating awareness, I will want to say that NIG recorded a great success. Today, we have in schools, we have internet in almost all universities and we have internet in some homes and offices.

Various technologies are being used today to deploy internet ranging from dial up to wireless to Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). It is now possible for people to browse the internet, using their mobile phones. These have been happening due to efforts of NIG at inception. Particularly, one could recall that at the time NIG was formed, the military was in power and they were aversed to the idea of the internet because they thought it was a medium that could be used against the military government then.

But we were so strategic to get some government officials then on the board of NIG as a way of convincing them that the internet is good for the populace and even for the government. It gives the government opportunity to air its views and of course, it offers the citizens the opportunity to air their views too. So it is good for both sides. And it is in the respect of that effort that internet was sustained and ISP licences were moved out to some business concerns.

I want to say that we have recorded some success to that effect. But in respect of the top level domain, it was not as much successful. That may be due to political intrigues and unwanted distractions. But all the same, I will want to say generally that we have made some remarkable progress.

That was first 10 years of formation of NIG. After 10 years, we need to shift focus. The awareness is these and so, there must be a shift in paradigm. The paradigm shift will be discussing essentially on another stage of awareness; awareness about what to do about the internet. Now that we have the access, we have the pipe, what do we do with the pipe? We put content into the pipe. Content must flow in the pipe.

So, instead of people downloading information from the internet, we must also create our own information resources for other people to download. In other words, we must focus on uploading, not necessarily downloading. Therefore, we want to focus on the awareness for the need to create information content. Local information need to be digitized and put into the internet. There are people around the world that are in need of the information. And some people are even willing to pay for this information. So why are we keeping them away. We need to digitise that information and put them online. That is the area we want to campaign for.

Another area we think is worth looking at is the creation of jobs using the internet. So we are commencing a programme that we branded internet for job creation (I4JC). It is so disturbing to see many Nigerian graduates roaming the streets when there are lots of opportunities in the internet to create jobs for themselves and for other people.

So we want to educate Nigerians especially young graduates, we want to empower them with the opportunities that exist in the internet and hopefully turn them into entrepreneurs who will in turn become employees of labour.

By that we will be taking some unemployed off the streets and turning them into wealth creators.

You did say that there is now internet in schools but do you think the students have access to them?

Having indicated that there is internet in schools does not mean that there is no room for improvement. Certainly, the level of internet access is not optimal, we recognise that. All we are just saying is that the little access we have we should put content in it. It does not necessarily mean that we should stop giving access to people.

There is no doubt that there is need for access improvement. It is just a fraction of Nigerians that has access to the internet, we recognize that.

So, we are not canvassing that we should rest on our oars as regards provision of internet access. What we are saying is that while we are putting effort on the access, we should also start looking at the content because content is king.

Most big companies of today, the Yahoo of this world, the Googles of this world, they are content providers. And they make more money even more this the companies that provide access.

Nigerians therefore should start thinking in that direction, start developing content because there are more opportunities in that direction.

You are talking about developing the content so that Nigerians could leverage on that to create wealth. How does NIG intend going about it?

The most important point in achieving that is empowerment. This is a knowledge based business. The idea is turn Nigeria into a knowledge based economy. So what is most important for people is to have the knowledge and we think we can facilitate the empowerment of people.
To do this is not too difficult. It is a matter of identifying appropriate resource persons around the world, identifying people that have entrepreneurial spirit and are willing to learn, put the trainer and the trainee together.

And then, we intend to commission a number of feasibility studies so that people will have an idea of what could be done. We intend also to commission this part in our website so that people can go there, see what is written and take some ideas from there. That will ginger people to start thinking of possibilities. From little feasibility, we are able to do; people can extend that, thinking further and come up with even better ideas.

And when we have people that indicated interest in the programme, we bring them together, and bring resource person around the world, get sponsors for the peogramme, corporate bodies that can sponsor the travels of the resource persons and their hotel accommodation, and if we have to give honorarium to the resource persons we seek sponsorship for that.

Then we train these Nigerians in various aspects of internet that they can use for job creation and possibly we even link them to financial institutions for loan if there is need for it.

In using internet for job creation, is having access not a prerequisite and how does NIG hope to tackle it?
I agree that access is a prerequisite. But we have enough access to start thinking of content. We do not have enough for everybody; no doubt, there is still room for development of more access, in fact lots of room. But what we are saying is that the little access we have, we should start putting content in it.

And let me assure you that the way the country is going; access will soon be readily available to Nigerian households and businesses. This is because we anticipate that the deployment of WiMax which will start making impact towards the end of the year.

It is going to be revolutionary, something close to the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) revolution.

WiMax terminal devices are very reasonable compared to the cost of the Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) that is being used largely today. WiMax will bring broadband, just the way VSAT is bringing broadband, at an affordable cost. A WiMax terminal equipment is bought less than $400 compares to over US$4,000 for VSAT. So, that will make access available to those who generally require broadband within their homes.

Another constraint to access is the transmission link, but fortunately, today, a lot of transmission links are being laid around the country; there are lots of fibre optics that are being laid around. But they are predominantly used now for voice. We anticipate that when the WiMax is there, some of these transmission links would be used for internet access.

So we expect that with the progress made in deploying fibres around the country, and with the coming of WiMax, we are very confident that internet access will be readily available. However, while we are expecting a deeper penetration of internet, we should start planning into those accesses, should we just be using the access to download email or to download content from abroad? My answer is no. We must provide for the rest of the world. We must provide content for all, by Nigerians for Nigerians and by Nigerians for the rest of the world.

Nigeria stands to make a lot of money through content. We have cultural content forklores, our music can be put online, we have very thriving home video industry, and some of them can be put online. And people are willing to pay premium for these services. So content in this area is exactly what NIG wants to do.

Is there anything NIG will do about affordable bandwidth so as to increase internet penetration?

The cost of bandwidth today is quite exorbitant, and that is the cost of international bandwidth. But with this new campaign for the local content, there would be lesser emphasis on the use of international bandwidth. If the local contents are hosted locally, it means we have to access those contents from local transmission links, so there will be less demand for international bandwidth.

And for the local transmission, for example, if you are in Lagos and the site you are accessing is also in Lagos, it will cost you just a fraction of what you would pay if that content is hosted abroad. So, the solution of content will also lead to the reduction in prices of bandwidth.

We need to first develop our content and also localize the content; make it resident within Nigeria. When we have that, internet exchange will thrive. Today, Internet Exchange Point (IXP) is not thriving in Nigeria because most of the contents are abroad.

Internet exchange is to keep local contents local but when the local contents are resident abroad most of the emails, Yahoo and Hotmails that Nigerians use are resident abroad. Most of the websites of Nigerians, even those that are using the .ng top level domain are resident abroad, so where is the local content?

That is why the internet exchange is not thriving because whoever wants to host a website is doing it and of the motivation that he is going to save money by keeping local content, there is no incentive.

How do you intend convincing some companies that have their websites hosted abroad to patronize the internet exchange locally so that their cost of hosting is cheaper, and even the upload will be optimized?

That is a big challenge I must confess. Today it is much cheaper to host your website abroad. In United States (US) and in Europe, they are hosting it locally and the reason is that if you are hosting it locally, you have to pay for the bandwidth for people abroad to access that content.
If you host your content on Nigeria for example, and even next door neighbour wants to access that content, he will have to use international bandwidth and come back again. So, he is paying for the international bandwidth and the ISP that is hosting it is also paying for the international bandwidth because internet exchange is not there. But if the Internet exchange is there, the hosting in Nigeria will become cheaper.

So it has become a chicken and egg situation. Without local hosting, there cannot be effective Internet exchange. And without Internet exchange, there cannot be local hosting. It is a vicious circle and it has to be broken. So convincing somebody to come and host locally when there is no Internet exchange is a very difficult thing. People will ask for Internet Exchange Point (IXP) before they can host their content locally.

What is NIG doing about it?
It is an industry driven subject. It is the ISPs that will see the benefit in up Internet exchange. We have to come together and do that. However, efforts have been directed towards that. In fact, the exchange is there but ISPs are very reluctant to link up to it because they cannot see the visible benefit for it. And the visible benefit occurs when there are local contents.

We must find a way of first, generating the content; second, encouraging people to host locally so as to encourage internet exchange point.

What of the internet exchange in Ibadan?
The one in Ibadan is there. There are just two ISPs funding it. The traffic on that exchange, however, is very minimal because most of the traffic is generated from Lagos. So it is Lagos Internet exchange that will make much impact.

We just need to persuade much impact. We just need to persuade the ISPs yes we recognize that there is no sufficient motivation for them to connect to the Lagos exchange but at least in the interest of the country and in the interest of their future business, they should just expand the necessary energy, effort or finances to connect to the exchange. And hopefully, that will be an incentive for people to host their content locally. That will also be to the benefit of those ISPs in the long run.

So, we will encourage the ISPs not to look at the immediate gains or immediate loss of linking up to the exchange. They should look at the long term benefits for the ISPs themselves and for the country in general.

What of the affordable bandwidth issue?
The bandwidth is pretty expensive. It is above the income of an average Nigerian. We must address the issue. As I said earlier, the practical way of doing that is to canvass for local hosting, except government will want to subsidize the access. And in a free economy, I can’t see the government doing that.

But government can assist in promoting local access; creating awareness about it and creating incentives for people to host locally, which is where I think National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) has a responsibility.

NITDA has to take up this challenge and educate people on why they should create local content, the opportunities to the generality of Nigerians, the potentials of creating employment and reducing the cost of the bandwidth that we are paying today, and also the benefit of generating enormous foreign exchange for the country.

But without waiting for NITDA, NIG has taken it as part of its mandate to carry out the assignment.

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