By Brian Longwe
Excerpt from "African CSOs Speak on the World Summit on the Information Society"
© Economic Commission for Africa November 2005
"Wait and see, we will shut you down!" These ominous words came from a senior Telkom Kenya manager to the Chairman of the Telecommunications Service Providers of Kenya (TESPOK) regarding the Kenya Internet Exchange Point (KIXP). TESPOK had just launched KIXP amidst much acclaim and fanfare, but the events that followed clearly showed that some people were far from happy with this positive development in Kenya's Internet growth.
The warning was carried out and within hours. Telkom had disconnected all ISPs links into KIXP on the basis of a hastily made decision by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) that KIXP was operating illegally. These events, which took place in November 2000, marked the beginning of what will probably be remembered as the biggest regulatory battle in Kenya's history and a key defining moment for Kenya's Internet industry.
Simply put, an Internet exchange point is like a clearing-house, where local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) bring their correspondent traffic and exchange it; in essence keeping local traffic local. Before KIXP, an email between two people who had different ISPs would leave the country, go via the USA, Europe and sometimes Asia before coming back into the country to the intended recipient – even when that person was across the road.
TESPOK fought hard and fought well, engaging a strategy that covered multiple fronts. There was a legal approach, where the CCK's decision was appealed against before the communications Appeals Tribunal. This was accompanied by a sustained public campaign through press releases, interviews, press conferences and news articles via the local and international media. There was also a well-focused awareness approach, which targeted key government individuals including ministers, permanent secretaries and members of parliament amongst others.
A year and a half later, KIXP was reactivated with an official launch on the 14th of February 2002, presided over by none other than the Director-General of CCK himself.
In his speech, he lauded the efforts of the ISPs who bravely weathered the odds and doggedly pursued what they knew to be a critically essential part of Kenya's Internet infrastructure.
KIXP's story has never been fully told, and there isn't enough space here to write it all – maybe one day, while penning our memoirs, we will capture all the elements that went into creating the core that drives Kenya's Internet today. What we can do here, however, is try to capture some of the lessons learnt and hope that someone somewhere may draw strength, courage, motivation or simply learn a slightly different approach.
As mentioned, the first thing we did was look at the law – what rights did we have? What could we or couldn't we do? Were there any legal grounds for KIXP to operate as it had? Where could our cause be heard? Was there anyone who acted as a check and balance over CCK?
We were very glad to find our answers in the Kenya Communications Act '98 in the form of the Communications Appeals Tribunal. TESPOK rallied its members together and called for contributions towards the legal fees and other expenses that would be required to wage the battle. Out of the then 15 odd members, 7 responded energetically, throwing their time, energy and money into the cause.
Over a period of seven to eight months, the concerted efforts of these ISPs, coupled with growing support from the rest of private sector, public, government and civil society brought about a drastic shift of opinions. All of a sudden the right people were asking the right questions, and demanding answers. Most importantly the single strongest argument against KIXP - that it would pose a threat to national security - was debunked and thrown out of the window. This particular argument, it seems, had been one of KPTC's and later Telkom Kenya's best "secret weapon" against anyone and anything which they felt threatened by. Once the individuals and agencies responsible for national security were enlightened to the true function that an Internet exchange point performs in a country and realized the risks and hazards that we faced without KIXP, they gave the initiative their full support and played a key role in demystifying KIXP.
Quelling the rumours and lies that had been spread was only one part of the problem. A strong legal and regulatory case had to be made to justify the existence of KIXP. We decided to take a technical approach, and presented KIXP in its constituent parts. By breaking it down this way we were able to demonstrate that in it's purest form KIXP was nothing more than an Ethernet hub (also called a switch). Similar to thousands that existed at the time in every single computer network in the country. We argued that if KIXP was illegal and needed a license, then so did every single Local Area Network (LAN) in the country. The case was watertight and unquestionable. Long before the tribunal held the hearing, CCK informally made contact with us and indicated that it would be best to settle the matter out of court and avoid a long, messy legal tussle. We complied and after much discussion and negotiation, opted to eat humble pie, save the regulator face and apply for a license for KIXP. At the time it was the quickest way to get what we wanted, a functional and efficient Internet exchange which had the support of the local authorities. Within a matter of months, the license had been issued and the exchange was at work keeping local traffic local.
The single most important lesson learnt from our experience with KIXP is probably the importance of having a dream and a vision – pushing forward and reaching for that dream against all odds and not backing down no matter who stands in the way. For a long time the ISPs had been the underdogs, manhandled and mistreated. Our experience with KIXP redefined us, gave us a new boldness and courage to stand up for what we felt was right. To challenge the thinking that had kept Kenya in the darker reaches of the Information age and to push the country closer towards the beginnings of a digital economy. There is still a lot of work to be done. We still need champions who will hold forth and patiently overcome ignorance, fear and indecision to take the country forward in the global information revolution.
When this was published Brian Longwe served as the Chief Technology Officer for ISP Kenya and also served as General Manger for the African Internet Service Providers Association, which among other things aims to help African ISPs establish Internet Exchange Points in their countries as part of their national development goals.