Expansion of the Internet Backbone in Ghana

Nii Quaynor <quaynor@ncs.com.gh>
William Tevie <tevie@ncs.com.gh>
Andrew Bulley <bulley@ncs.com.gh>
Network Computer Systems Accra


In 1995, Network Computer Systems (NCS) was the first organization to achieve full Internet connectivity in West Africa. The initial connection was through an analog leased line to the Internet backbone; however NCS is currently operating on a satellite gateway.

The host infrastructure has also seen a big enhancement: two new Sun UltraSPARCS and a DEC Alpha AXP have been added to the configuration. Dial-in lines have increased to 90, dedicated links have been provided for some customers at 64 kilobytes per second (Kbps), and Web hosting in Accra has started for companies wanting to advertise on the Web. Downstream providers have also been licensed to encourage and proliferate Internet growth through cheaper access rates.

Some of the major issues facing NCS as a pioneer in the region are to

  1. Design and develop the international and national connectivity system with adequate performance to meet the rapidly growing needs.
  2. Understand, install, and operate satellite links within Ghana. Satellites have proved to be the most effective method of rapid deployment of high-speed links given the lack of high-speed cable infrastructure.
  3. Characterize the performance of long-haul international satellite links and determine the effects of higher round trip times on Internet access, and do research into how to improve these delays.

Three regions in Ghana are currently being connected by satellite to the Accra node, which carries the international traffic.

Strategies are also planned for the introduction of the GARNET (Ghana Research and Academic Network), which will cater to universities, research institutions, and high schools. These nodes will also connect to the node in Accra.

There has been a lot of interest in Nigeria, Togo, and Liberia to feed traffic to the backbone in Accra. This paper will look at all the issues needed to expand within Ghana and set up the regional West African backbone using Ghana as a West African exchange and international hub.



Internet technology has come at an exciting time for Ghana. The country's strong economic growth over the past ten years, with a constant growth rate of over 5% a year, suggests that Ghana certainly has the need for information that the Internet brings. This growth, coupled with the strong demand for Internet services from companies and individuals in Ghana, would suggest that the Internet is poised for dynamic growth in Ghana and the West African subregion as a whole.

An exponential growth of the Internet is expected in Ghana and Network Computer Systems (NCS), an information technology company providing a variety of services in the country, believes that it has created the environment to make such growth possible. Graphs below reveal that the Internet is already growing exponentially in Ghana, but this will not continue unless certain actions are taken. These include expansion strategies for increased capacity on phone circuits and long-term planning initiatives for continued growth and sustenance of the Internet in Ghana and West Africa.

This paper will attempt to answer some of these questions through reviewing the infrastructure development initiatives that have been taken and also through charting the course of the development and uncovering dynamic patterns of Internet development and expansion.

We will look at the growth in numbers of users connected to the Ghana network over the past year, the introduction and licensing of other service providers in Ghana, thumbnail sketches of the Internet in Ghana's secondary cities, and regional and international initiatives aimed at fostering continued growth of Internet technology.

Figure 1: Ghana's first satellite gateway to the Internet.


In August 1995 Ghana became the second country in sub-Saharan Africa to have full Internet connectivity. This historic achievement was brought about by cooperation among several organizations, including NCS, UUNET Pipex International, the Ministry of Transport and Communication of Ghana, and Ghana Telecom. The enormous efforts to get Ghana fully connected were accomplished by Dr. Nii Quaynor and his strong technical team, composed of William Tevie, Joseph Annan, Andy Bulley, and others in NCS.

There have been quite a number of e-mail systems in Ghana over the years, based primarily on Fidonet and UUCP. With the structural adjustment program in Ghana and the open economic policy of the government, the telecommunications sector embarked on a program of privatization. NCS received approval from the Ministry of Transport and Communication to offer value-added e-mail and other services to subscribers in Ghana.

Backbone expansion in Ghana

The diagram shows an exponential growth in demand for Internet services in Ghana; the table shows reasons why this growth continues. The biggest reasons are the need to communicate and the fact that the Internet is becoming a cheaper and much more cost-effective way to communicate with colleagues and businesses overseas. There was pressure on NCS to get approval for expansion of its backbone, which was already hitting saturation. The 19.2 kb circuit could not handle the clientele's ever-expanding e-mail traffic and demand for more graphics and access to Web sites, which were getting more sophisticated with animation and Java as the medium for putting information across.

This had a heavy toll on the network. The local PTT could not provide more than 19.2 kb so we had to think of a circuit that could be deployed fast enough and also stand the pressures of the Internet and be able to deliver Web pages and graphics in the expected response time.

NCS got approval from the Ministry of Communications to set up the first alternate international gateway in Ghana. This Gateway is an INTELSAT approved 3.8m F1 station with a capacity for 2 Mb data transfer. This is seen in Figure 1. The backbone for this circuit lands directly in Mae East where the core routers of the Internet are situated and with onward connection to UUNET.

NCS is also developing an alternate VSAT connection to the Internet backbone. This is a 2.4 m dish connecting to a Hughes VSAT hub using INTELSAT satellites and landing directly on the MCI backbone in Atlanta. This alternate VSAT is the smaller of the two dishes seen in Figure 2.



Figure 2: The alternate VSAT connection.

Another network that will invariably lead to the expansion of the Ghana network is the Ghana Academic and Research Network (GARNET), which is a network of all three major academic institutions in Ghana funded by joint efforts of UNESCO, ITU, and USAID. This network will interconnect all three universities to the backbone, making it easy for them to serve as champions of online connectivity and also expose students and lecturers to the Internet early. The bandwidth between GARNET and the backbone will be 64 kbps initially.

As a result of these developments, scientific and technological development will be enhanced and the ties between the universities will be further strengthened. Commercial networks, interconnected to the academic networks, will also benefit from this project because their regional traffic will flow without restrictions and without the delays caused by slow terrestrial links.

Patterns of growth

Ghana has about 3000 Internet users. Often, the Internet is introduced into a country by universities, but in Africa this has been by private-sector initiative. Growth has been fastest where there is a commercial push, aided by the availability of public access, as evidenced in Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Uganda. Often, this means that the major cities get access first. The pace of growth is dictated by history, culture, language and economics. African countries aim to use all media, including the Internet, for national development.

Why Ghanaians use the Internet

Ghanaians adopt a much more serious attitude toward the Internet than people in other countries. Pricing may have played a part in conveying the perception that Internet access is expensive and therefore more suited for "serious" purposes. A recent survey by NCS found that 38.4% of subscribers cited communication as the main reason for using the Internet. This was followed by the ability to access databases (32.9%) and research (16.6%). In other words, more than 85 percent of users gave these three functions as key reasons for their subscribing to the Internet.

From the above it could be suggested that it is more the "knowledge function" than the "entertainment function" of the Internet that has the ability to spur growth and lead to the expansion of the network in Ghana.

Regulatory issues

A major issue that many African countries are wrestling with is the regulatory environment. It is becoming increasingly clear to sector ministries and also the regulatory authorities and the telecom companies that the Internet has the potential to carve away at their already lucrative long distance business by offering Internet phone and Internet fax facilities. Ghana has been fortunate to have had a well-structured regulatory environment that has made it possible for the Internet to be considered as an engine for growth and accelerated development.

The Ghana Government has vowed to vigorously promote access to the information superhighway through the use of the Internet in all segments of society, particularly in our educational system, to help close the resource gap. The minister of finance in his 1997 budget statement made the following declaration: "In view of the positive effects of the application of information technology on development, Government will ensure that key institutions of state machinery are linked to the Internet. All the science resource centers will be connected to the network as and when they are commissioned. The program to link the Universities together and to the Internet will also be pursued." This underscores government commitment to the Internet and the information superhighway.

Barriers to growth

Besides cultural and linguistic barriers to the Internet, Ghana faces other problems. First, much of Africa lacks advanced infrastructure. NCS, the first service provider, has a 2Mb capacity satellite circuit to MAE-EAST in Virginia landing directly on the UUNET backbone. This circuit completely bypasses the existing Ghana Telecom infrastructure, which is limited in data capacity for Internet access. The granting of this special license to NCS has made it possible for higher speed access to the Internet.

Second, telecommunication charges are higher than in, say, the United States; a T1 line can cost 20 times as much as in the United States. This is attributable, in part, to monopolistic telecommunication entities.

There is also very low computer literacy and very low PC penetration. There is a low ratio of networked computers, unlike in the United States and Europe. These three barriers, however, are likely to be lowered over time as Ghana develops.

Corporate bodies have been very fortunate to have had the recommended PC penetration and the local area networks in place and so are more poised to take advantage of the infrastructure needed for full connectivity. The real explosion on the Internet is from personal use at home where the numbers in Ghana are very low, actually in the low percentage points, which is another barrier.


The Internet is an advanced technology with all the accompanying promises and threats to change society. Africa wants those promises fulfilled. Many African countries are promoting the Internet by establishing schemes to encourage educational institutions and businesses to connect, thus the backbone and bandwidth made available to the Internet has to grow and expand from year to year as enormous demands are made on the networks.