Why SDN will be at the Centre of African Telecoms Infrastructure Development

Jun 16, 2015

As featured in Developing Telecoms

By Charlie Reed and Arsene Baliki

Over the past decade, the use of Information Communication and Technology (ICT) has grown rapidly in Africa, with Africans using mobile phones, the Internet and email for both work and entertainment. The ramp up in activity is causing exponential increases in demand for bandwidth and putting pressure on networks. As a result, telecom operators are adding equipment to their networks to boost capacity, efficiency and coverage. Even so, growing bandwidth demand is pushing existing network architectures to their technical limitations.

Currently, African telecom operators are faced with both high costs of operating their networks and shortages of people capable of managing them. With the market demanding more agile and customizable topology, Software Defined Networking (SDN) has emerged as a focal point of next-generation network architecture management. In SDN networks, control and forwarding are decoupled and a centralized software-managed controller makes forwarding decisions. This approach may prove a boon to operators across Africa, helping them to achieve their goals for connectivity, efficiency and service improvements.

SDN and Africa’s Wireless Networks

Wireless connectivity has long been the preferred method of delivering communications in developing markets by virtue of its scalability and speed of deployment. Africa is no exception to this rule. The region has been the fastest growing globally, leaping from six mobile connections per 100 inhabitants in 2003 to 77 per 100 in 2013, according to ITU Data Metrics. Another study, GSMA’s “The Mobile Economy”, published in 2014, forecasts that Africa’s mobile subscriber base will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 31% over the next decade, reaching more than a half a billion subscribers by the close of 2020.

The phenomenal uptake of mobile services has had – and will continue to have – far-reaching impacts on the region both economically and culturally. Despite Africa’s average income of less than US$100 per month per inhabitant, mobile phone – and even smartphone – ownership is common. This is especially true among younger generations, which make up a large portion of the population; 57% of African inhabitants are under 25, compared to just 25% in Europe. With limited wireline connectivity, mobile devices represent the key resource for information access, business transactions, and access to basic services that were previously out of reach for most Africans. Note the following:

  • Mobile Payments: Mobile payment services deliver financial services to millions of previously unbanked citizens across the region, driving economic growth and promoting financial inclusion. In Kenya, for example, nearly 60% of the adult population used mobile banking services at the end or 2013.
  • Internet connectivity via mobile phones is important in enabling students to access information and for localized educational content creation.
  • Mobile connectivity facilitates information access to farmers so they can stay abreast of weather and climatic conditions and rapidly find markets for their goods.
  • Mobile is essential in making it easier for people to speak with healthcare professionals and access information. For example, Hello Doctor, a paid mobile health service launched by MTN in South Africa, gives users access to advice and assistance from doctors. Mobile networks can play vital roles in disaster response and crisis management, such as the mHealth service that helps to raise awareness of Ebola within West Africa and plays a key role in facilitating fast, effective responses to outbreaks.

Wireless networks in Africa are in earlier development stages than the rest of the world. According to the GSM association, 85% of connections in Sub Saharan Africa still use 2G networks as 3G and 4G networks are in early stages of deployment. At the same time, those early-stage networks are experiencing faster growth than other parts of the world. Hence, forward-thinking network design is extremely important. SDN solutions can cut costs, increase efficiency and provide other advantages. Consider this scenario: as network traffic increases, mobile operators multiply cell towers, which often creates interference among cells. SDN, however, holds the potential to adjust radio resource management based on the dynamic power and subcarrier allocation profile of base substations. Since end-users are constantly changing their locations, the more agile the approach to scaling capacity, the better it will be for optimizing the use of Africa’s limited radio access network (RAN) capacity. SDN can play a key role here, facilitating more intelligent decision-making and seamlessly offloading traffic from cellular networks to Wi-Fi networks, which supports optimal RAN use.

SDN also can improve User Data Repository (UDR) management. UDR is a critical control-plane network element because subscriber growth creates dimensioning and provisioning challenges for mobile operators. SDN solutions introduce virtualization for improved agility and intelligent resource orchestration in order to achieve scalable wireless network management. With SDN, UDR can run on virtual machines but it also can have auto-elastic capability.

Decreasing equipment and network development costs is extremely important in Africa given the low subscriber revenues, large geographic area, and high equipment import expenses. SDN can help mobile operators reduce equipment costs by allowing them to place standard, low-spec “white box” devices, both in the network and in data centers. These low-cost switch devices, combined with the control-plane SDN software (which may be running locally in the box or remotely in industry-standard servers), tend to have lower cost profiles than proprietary routers that meet the same function. More importantly, SDN empowers wireless carriers to remove physical appliances altogether and run a multitude of network operations on virtual servers in datacenters or at the edge.

Additionally, the flexibility derived from virtualizing pieces of the network removes the need for full support from the equipment vendors and allows operators to manage and configure their cell sites remotely without the costs of site visits.

All in, SDN architecture delivers greater agility, flexibility, responsiveness and productivity gains, which can help mobile operators stay competitive and adaptive to changing demand, market conditions and network needs.

SDN and Africa’s Wireline Networks

Although the availability of wireline consumer and business broadband services has increased in Africa, it has not grown at nearly the same pace as wireless services because of the lack of infrastructure. In fact, wireline growth barely has kept pace with population growth; studies show 3 subs per 100 inhabitants in 2003 and 2013. This number is boosted somewhat by public access points and Internet cafés, but overall wireline penetration is thwarted by the rural nature of African populations; nearly two thirds (63%) of Sub-Saharan Africans live in rural areas with growth of 1.7% annually, according to 2010 data from World Bank. In order to develop better coverage, wireline operators need to develop methods of quickly deploying and managing infrastructure at lower costs. SDN can assist with these efforts, helping to keep overall network costs down as well as improve network performance in areas like optimization for video and overall network responsiveness.

To keep up with demand, African network operators constantly add new fiber links and other network elements, such as sub-sea cables. Google, for example, has kicked off a Ugandan fiber-optic network project to help ISPs and mobile operators connect their customers to existing high-speed undersea cables that carry traffic to and from the continent. Huawei and MTN recently announced the successful live trial of a transport SDN and 2.4 Tbit/s wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) system in South Africa. In backhaul scenarios, SDN empowers carriers to consider flexible network-sharing arrangements in order to drive down deployment and operational costs. Furthermore, since SDN improves interoperability and internetworking for easier end-to-end provisioning, service delivery monitoring and planning in the carrier network, it allows network operators to provide more advanced priority service delivery and support as well as security services for business customers.

The benefits of SDN on wireline segment, as with many others, include leveraging the cloud for service delivery, building more programmable and customized networks and transforming traditional networks into high value-added service delivery platforms.

Business Communications

In many developing and underdeveloped nations, a lack of reliable communications infrastructure often has been cited by official sources, such as the U.S. CIA’s World Factbook, as a chief obstacle to economic growth in the modern world economy. Such is the case with many nations in Africa, where companies have suffered from poor connections, interoperability issues and outages – all of which have hindered their ability to grow their businesses. This simple reality means that secure, affordable, fast and reliable data and voice connections to small and large businesses are essential to future economic development.

In playing catch-up, telecoms operators in Africa can use SDN, network functions virtualization (NFV, which relocates network functions from dedicated hardware to non-specialized servers) and cloud delivery to enhance efficiency, service availability optimization and reliability. Certainly, demand exists.

Even though reliable, affordable and secure connectivity remains challenging, enterprises in Africa are migrating their IT infrastructure to the cloud. However, the lack of existing infrastructure is not allowing Africa to keep pace with the rest of the world in terms of cloud adoption. In a recent study by IDC, 39% of respondents across all five regions of Africa identified the lack of infrastructure as a significant barrier to cloud adoption. SDN is often used to manage data center networks that power the cloud and can play a role in helping Africa close the cloud-adoption gap.

When looking at factors impacting business adoption of enterprise network technology, it becomes clear that enterprises are reluctant to use single-supplier solutions. Fortunately, many of the SDN benefits in larger networks carry through to smaller networks as well. The ability to avoid the high maintenance costs of dedicated proprietary hardware and leverage independently developed software solutions with standard, low-spec “white box” devices in networks and data centers that are not closed and proprietary applies here as well. In addition, SDN offers the potential to decrease equipment costs by replacing on-premise, physical appliances (e.g., firewalls, routers, session border controllers, etc.) with solutions in the cloud through Network Function Virtualization (NFV). As an example, Ziyaad Munshi, Infrastructure Operations Manager at Internet Solutions a sub-division of NTT reported that the common practice of delivering customer premise equipment (CPE) to a VPN site comes with very high delivery, installation and on the ground management cost, leading them to actively explore ways to dumb down edge client components and centralize management and configuration.

Another NFV-dependent SDN advantage for enterprises is the possibility of creating simpler network designs and delayering the network. This can deliver greater savings on an enterprise WAN by using bandwidth more efficiently and prioritizing certain applications. While traditional routing protocols route all flows toward a given destination along the same route, SDN solutions have the flexibility to differentiate between multiple traffic flows addressed to the same destination and route them along different networks paths.

Finally, SDN makes it easy for provisioning systems to configure networks to support various types of services such as VPNs and data centers, with fine-grained control over SLA and traffic engineering parameters.

Network Security

Network security is an especially important topic in Africa because of the history of nefarious activities such as email scams out of Nigeria and the diversity of regulations and stability in the different countries. SDN can help to improve security by providing a centralized network view, making it more difficult for hackers or other malicious players to wreak havoc. This centralized view boosts network monitoring, making it easier to identify and resolve intrusions. Furthermore, as new security applications evolve, SDN can enable them to be quickly integrated into the entire network.

Knowing which countries data travels through is an important security question in Africa as organizations do not want sensitive data to be obtained or hacked due to exposure to countries with limited data protection. In this regard, SDN’s ability to control data flow from a central interface offers a compelling value proposition. Countries could better address border control regulation and data-piracy fears via legislation directly addressing security and data sovereignty – both issues especially important to multinational corporations doing business on the continent.

The Bottom Line

Across Africa, mobile networks are developing rapidly even as solutions are sought to make up lost ground in wireline infrastructure. In both cases, SDN can play a key role in network development, management and optimization. That said, SDN is in its early stages, so the transition may be a long one. Mr. Munshi mentioned that no providers in Africa that have displayed tangible benefits of SDN at this point, although Internet Solutions and other providers are undergoing pilot projects.

And, despite its promise, there are several pitfalls service providers can encounter if they don’t have strong planning and qualified personnel. As with any network change, upfront costs can be substantial, especially if the current network complexity is high, or if the SDN solution becomes highly specialized without standard configuration protocols. Another concern is forming an alliance with a vendor without agnostic systems leading to limited flexibility moving forward. Finally, although SDN can provide better security control, the potential exists to give outside users’ destructive access to the network if the northbound API (the one that communicates between SDN Controller and the services and applications running over the network) is not well designed.

The best time to implement SDN is when adding network, creating new services or when current equipment is at the end of its lifecycle. Africa in particular is in a unique position to benefit from SDN because a considerable portion of network development (particularly wireline) is from scratch. In addition, limited competition in Africa benefits firms investing in advanced technologies, and the ongoing need for economic opportunity promises a boost in exports as access to reliable connectivity grows. While SDN deployment requires initial investments, it provides many long-term benefits that network operators and Internet service providers can leverage for greater agility and the ability to readily introduce new services. All in, network operators that embrace SDN (and NFV, for that matter) will find themselves in far better competitive positions.

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