Safaricom has become the first mobile operator in Africa to open up its network for Internet Protocol version 6 testing through its partnership with iHub Nairobi, an initiative aimed at bringing together application and content developers.
Safaricom has been running IPv6 on its network for the last year but had not opened the technology up for public services because it needed to better prepare internally to provide the technology and there was no demand from organizations for the service. In addition, there were few IPv6 applications developed for local use.
IPv6 was designed to address the upcoming depletion of IPv4 addresses, and among other things allows for greater efficiency and flexibility in allocating addresses and routing traffic.
With growing awareness of the technology, however, the network feels it is ready for developers to start testing applications on its IPv6 platform.
"We chose to work with iHub because we believe that by offering IPv6 services here we help in opening a whole new world of possibilities for the community here," said Thibaud Rerolle, Safaricom's technology director. "The concept of iHub is to spur a revolution in the technology products and services space, give the tech community a facility where they can bring their ideas to life; our partnership will be more to enable the capabilities of this facility, which (iHub) gives Safaricom that perfect environment to test new services, too."
Offering an open, incubator-type space for the tech community in Kenya, iHub is hoping to encourage more application and Web developers to take advantage of the initiative and develop innovative products suited for the market.
"In the last two years, Safaricom has opened up to the tech community especially on the data side; IPv6 deployment is vital for the tech industry because of the immense business opportunities provided," said Erik Hersman, iHub founder.
The Africa Network Information Center (AfriNIC), Africa's regional Internet registry, has been working with governments, universities and corporations to drive up the rate of deployment. It was projected that the lack of legacy systems would lead to faster IPv6 deployment in the region, fueled by growing connectivity numbers and mobile network expansion.
"IPv6 allocations and assignments have grown by more than 200 percent during the past 12 months; this is a sign that the message has started bearing fruit; 33 countries in Africa have at least one IPv6 prefix, with the leading countries being South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Mauritius," said Adiel Akplogan, AfriNIC CEO.
While AfriNIC has been offering IPv6 training for the last four years, it has been hard for operators to see the business value of deploying IPv6 and the continuing availability of IPv4 has allowed some providers to wait until addresses based on the older technology are depleted. AfriNIC is projecting its IPv4 pool to last two or three years, depending on the rate of uptake.
For Safaricom, the deployment is driven by the desire for business continuity; growing data revenue to complement voice revenue, which is on the decline; support for its growing 3G deployment; and expanding the number of residential users who have multiple gadgets, all of which require connectivity and IP addresses.
"The issue of migration to IPv6 requires very high visibility; although stockpiles of IPv4 are still being held with AfriNIC, lack of IP addresses will pose a real threat to subscriber growth and this will become a real threat to business continuity," added Safaricom's Rerolle. "Looking at the low broadband penetration in the country and the need to grow numbers, (the issue of) IP addresses will come in sharp focus; migration to IPv6 will offer Safaricom an opportunity to tap into new business streams made possible by a potentially large community of connected devices that will use this protocol exclusively."
Given the extent of its network, Rerolle said IPv6 deployment will be gradual, and that the company will work closely with the developer teams at iHub to identify any issues that may arise before opening up the whole network to the public.
"As you have seen with other businesses in Africa, the fast movers have the ability to lead the market in terms of products and services; if iHub developers can provide Safaricom with new products and services, then they will win the market," said Hersman.
Apart from tackling new business opportunities, Safaricom is hoping to reduce capital expenditure through auto-configuration of its nodes, increased security and mobility. IPv6 will also eliminate the need for Carrier Grade Network Address Translation (CGNAT), further lowering the costs. CGNAT is a service provided by major equipment vendors, that allows operators to continue offering services on both IPv4 and IPv6 but if the network fully deploys IPv6, then the company will not invest in CGNAT.