Ghana’s forthcoming Internet Exchange Point

I’ve been hanging out at Geekhalla, ancestral home of Geekcorps, and home to the volunteers working on Geekcorps’ Ghana program. It’s been a great chance to catch up with Jess Mitchell, one of the longest-serving, most successful (and coolest) of the geeks. She’s been working with GISPA, the Ghana ISP Association, helping the group become an effective lobbying force and helping organize the Ghana Internet Exchange point – the GIX.

The GIX is a cool, and critically important, project for the Ghana internet community. Ghana’s got dozens of Internet Service Providers, each of which provision their own Internet connectivity. Most do so via VSATs – very small aperature satellite terminals. This leads to an odd phenomenon: people sitting in adjoining offices in Accra, sending email to each other – if they’re using different ISPs – are likely to have their email routed through the United States. There’s no route from one ISP to another except through the Internet in the US, since each ISP connects to the outside world through a satellite, which then connects to the Internet in the US.

There’s several reasons why this is a bad thing. One, it means that websites for Ghanaians by Ghanaians are difficult to use if hosted in Ghana – it requires two satellite hops – each with a minimum latency of half a second – to request a page from a server. For performance reasons, most companies running web services oriented towards Ghanaians run their servers in the US. Second, satellite connectivity is very expensive, and is basically billed on a usage basis. When emails need to travel through the US to go from one part of Accra to another, both ISPs pay money to foreign satellite companies.

The solution to this is really simple, but also really hard – you need all the ISPs in the country to agree to connect directly to one another. While the concept is simple, the implementation is hard, both technically and socially. Jess has been helping shepherd the human part of the equation, working with Packet Clearinghouse, an NGO which helps set up IXPs around the world, on the technical side.

And the IXP is almost ready to go! It will be located in the Kofi Annan Center, a beautiful new technology training center co-built by the Ghanaian and Indian governments. Because the local phone system is so poor, most of the ISPs are connecting to the IXP via wireless. They’ve settled on a point to multipoint radio solution which uses 6 radio antennas to cover the city of Accra, allowing participating ISPs to joing the IXP for an equipment cost of under $600 for their transmitter. The point to multipoint solution uses 5.2Ghz, a licensed frequency in Ghana, but it looks like the government of Ghana will issue a license to the IXP to allow them to operate.

When it’s up, as many as 24 Ghanaian ISPs will be able to share traffic, reduce their bandwidth bills to the outside world and local hosting of websites will suddenly become a reasonable possibility. Jess has her fingers crossed and will be watching closely from Duke, where she’s returning after seven months of absence. My fingers are crossed, too – Ghana’s internet industry has been one of the most interesting on the continent, and while this won’t be the first African IXP, it has the potential to be one of the largest and one of the most technically innovative.

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