It has been a long time coming. The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) won a tender way back in September 2015 to build a a regional Internet Exchange Point (IXP). Originally the IXP was supposed to be established by December 2016 which became May 2017 until it finally happened in November 2017.
It wasn’t all POTRAZ’s fault that the project got delayed as they say funding was delayed.
So the new IXP being called the Zimbabwe Internet Exchange (ZIX) was launched on the 7th of November.
What is an Internet Exchange Point?
It is a physical network access point through which major network providers connect their networks and exchange traffic. This allows network interconnection through the exchange access point instead of third-party networks. So this means all our internet traffic would now pass through the IXP.
As Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and others utilise the IXP they reduce the traffic which must be delivered via their upstream transit providers which in turn leads to cost savings.
An example would be the CDNs that Econet Media is building across Africa being connected through the ZIX which would lead to faster Netflix for users in this country regardless of their ISP and cost savings for all involved in bringing that content to the consumer.
In short IXPs lead to higher data transfer speeds, reduced latency, improved routing efficiency and lower costs.
Is the Zimbabwe Internet Exchange Point the first IXP in Zimbabwe?
No, and here is where it gets confusing. There already was an IXP in Zimbabwe called, erm, the Zimbabwe Internet Exchange or ZINX. This ZINX is operated by the non governmental Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association (ZISPA.) Why did POTRAZ decide to call it the Zimbabwe Internet Exchange when there already was an IXP with that name? We’ll never know.
So if there was ZINX why was there need for another IXP? It’s complicated. IXPs by their nature rely on cooperation of the ISPs and CDNs. At ZINX certain incidences occurred and some ISPs allegedly managed to use other ISPs’ bandwidth. This led to lack of trust and the kicking out of some ISPs, it was a mess.
Why did we not see the cost benefits that are supposed to come with IXPs? Well the we here refers to end users and not the ISPs. The ISPs enjoyed some cost reduction but that was not passed on to the consumer. That’s how business is done in Zimbabwe.
Will this new ZIX succeed?
We hope it does and the early signs indicate it might succeed. The big ISPs are already on board, TelOne, Liquid Telecom, Africom, Dandemutande, Powertel and Telecontract. So are we saying the government run IXP is likely to succeed where the independent IXP failed? Uh, we kind of are.
The question then becomes, what would be considered success? We would think faster and cheaper internet access for consumers brought about by reduced costs for ISPs. For the government though that is secondary.
Why are we not thrilled about this government operated IXP?
The government version of success is gaining the power to control internet traffic. They recently commissioned a Cyber Security Ministry focused on social media regulation (read suppression of free expression.) Their end goal is to control which platforms we can use.
We heard the President say they are looking at China and Russia for blueprints on how to deal with the threat posed by the freedom of speech on social media. China recently blocked WhatsApp in the Asian country and now Zimbabwe with its new IXP is closer to being able to do the same.
That is the problem when all the internet traffic in the country goes through a central point that is managed by the government.
Well, what if ISPs just choose to pass on ZIX? We know that the government said it will not force or compel ISPs to be a part of the ZIX Association but we’ll let you decide if you think that word counts for anything. The ISPs do not even need to wait for coercion because they know that if they want to operate in this country without problems they have to be a part of the ZIXA and already we see many on board.
We will be following Zimbabwe Internet Exchange’s progress closely, ZIX and not ZINX. It is rather convenient for the government that it was finally established before the elections and so we are keen to see what they do with the IXP.