What Will It Take to Get the Internet Access We Need in The Gambia?
September 9, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted most aspects of our life in The Gambia, and the demand for internet usage has skyrocketed. During the Spring, the Gambian government quickly instituted a lockdown that forced schools, markets and places of worship to close in order to stop the spread of the virus. Learning and work have been moved online and now people depend heavily on the internet to carry out their daily business.
Internet usage has grown exponentially in The Gambia over the past decade. Smartphone usage has increased tremendously, and the demand for mobile data has more than doubled, by some reports. Most local users today access the internet through their phone data. However, affordable internet access remains out of reach for many Gambians. In The Gambia, many people live from hand-to-mouth, earning below the poverty line. Thus, the average monthly cost to purchase mobile data or broadband packages can cost more than the entire salary of a lot of full-time workers. Even those running successful businesses complain about how expensive internet access is.
When the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) project was launched in 2012 to bring fiber optic cable to connect hundreds of millions of people, many hoped the internet would become more affordable and accessible to all Gambians regardless of where they lived. Unfortunately, little has changed in terms of the cost or quality of the internet. For instance, during the lockdown, college students have applauded online classes instituted by the University of The Gambia, but struggled with a weak network that halted their progress.
“If we have a better internet connection it is a very good idea and project,” said University of The Gambia student Modou Lamin Jang “We have been having some breakdown due to poor Internet connection since we started.”
In front-page editorials, Foroyaa Newspaper has been questioning why the internet is so expensive and wondering when Gambia’s service be up to the same standard as the rest of the World. It seems these questions have gone unanswered for the time-being.
Students and other internet users and business people are paying the price daily. Interestingly, The Gambia is a competitive market with four telecom providers and yet, people’s expectations of affordable and quality internet service go unmet. Yet, The Gambia has just one Internet Exchange Point.
Localizing Internet access with IXPs could save millions of dollars while providing cheaper and more reliable internet to some 2.5 million people in The Gambia. A recent report from the Internet Society highlighted the benefits of IXP development in Nigeria and Kenya:
“The growth of the IXPs in each country was exponential, as were the cost savings from exchanging traffic locally rather than using expensive international transit. In Kenya, KIXP grew from carrying peak traffic of 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) in 2012 to 19 Gbps in 2020, with cost savings quadrupling to USD six million per year. In Nigeria, IXPN grew from carrying just 300 Megabits per second (Mbps) to peak traffic of 125 Gbps in 2020, and the cost savings increased forty times to USD 40 million per year.”
Localizing the IXP can ensure countries are better prepared for unseen scenarios such as COVID-19. “Kenya and Nigeria are in a better position than ever before to cope with – and contribute to – the digital revolution that COVID-19 has accelerated as the internet becomes a lifeline for many people,” said Michuki Mwangi, senior director of Internet Technology and Development for the Internet Society, in a statement. “It’s clear Africa is ready to embrace the digital revolution to spur economic development. But reaching this goal will depend on our community of passionate people on the ground, policymakers, regulators and businesses embracing IXPs and working in collaboration to create these essential local traffic anchors.”
While Nigeria and Kenya did not transform its internet ecosystem overnight, it was a collective effort from the government, business leaders and other stakeholders who worked together for the success of the project.
“This history of positive steps in Kenya and Nigeria and the set of future actions should act as a blueprint for other countries to develop their internet ecosystems and move through the stages of development,” concludes a Internet Society report“Together, as countries began to localize increasing amounts of content, the 80/20 goal of the Internet Society and African Internet community can be realized.”
It will take similar collaboration across regulators, telecom companies, advocates and the government of The Gambia to implement localized IXPs or other solutions if they are serious about ensuring affordability, reliability and accessibility of the internet to people across The Gambia.