IMAGINE you lived in Suva and wanted to travel to Labasa and you were told the only way such a trip would be permitted is if you travelled by air or seaâ€¦via New Zealand or Australia! This would be expensive and inefficient. It would also be ridiculous. Yet this is exactly what happens to local internet traffic between domestic Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
Consider a typical scenario for Fiji internet users. Selina, a Kidanet customer living in Suva decides to send an email to her boyfriend Timothy, a Connect customer who lives in Labasa. The email journeys as data packets that must travel out of Fiji, to a switching point in a foreign country, just to be returned to Fiji. Such routing comes at a high cost to local ISPs. It also subjects local data to possible inspection in foreign countries. Further, it results in unnecessary hemorrhage of local capital as local ISPs pay to send traffic out only to bring it back in to the country over costly international links. Fortunately, there is a solution to this madness. It is called an Internet Exchange Point (IXP). Stakeholders in the private and public sectors as well as general internet users should move with alacrity to ensure that Fiji can bring the proven benefits of exchange points to the domestic internet economy.
Internet Exchange Points — Building the local net
The primary role of an IXP is to keep local internet traffic within local infrastructure. IXPs also allow ISPs to reduce the costs associated with traffic exchange between their networks. Within the internet community, IXPs are considered to be essential to facilitating internet-based economic growth. The absence of IXPs compromises our ability to build a robust domestic internet ecosystem and economy. According to a 2012 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled 'Internet Traffic Exchange: Market Developments and Policy Challenges':
"A country that lacks IXPs must import internet bandwidth from other countries that do possess them. Like factories and farms, they are a primary means of producing a commodity that's potentially quite expensive to import. As a result, IXPs proliferate in areas where internet service providers, users, and policy makers are well-informed on matters of telecommunication economics. A corollary is that a region which has many functioning IXPs and produces more bandwidth than it consumes can export bandwidth to other regions at a profit."
By reducing reliance on costly international data transit, additional IXPs reduce networks' ongoing operational costs. By providing high-speed domestic links, additional IXPs will increase the amount of bandwidth available to Fijian users, mitigating networks' bandwidth shortages and removing networks' incentives to impose bandwidth throttling and usage caps. This will fuel innovation, commerce, trade and efficiency in virtually all sectors that rely on the internet.
By favouring shorter and more direct routes for internet traffic, IXPs improve the performance of bandwidth-intensive services like video and cloud-based applications. By allowing Fijian data to remain in Fiji, as much as possible and as often as possible, a local IXP can reduce the risk of Fijian data becoming subject to foreign interrogation.
By increasing the richness and density of connections between Fijian networks, a local IXP can increase the reliability of internet access in Fiji and its resilience to disaster and attack.
Already IXPs have provided tangible benefits in other island-states like Haiti, St. Maarten, Curacao, Grenada and the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Major content providers like Akamai and Google are also taking advantage of the IXPs and are now locating content caches in emerging markets to give users of their service a better experience. The responsibility now rests on local ISPs, governments, businesses, and consumers. Collectively we must press for faster roll out of domestic ICT infrastructure and take tangible steps to achieving our dreams of building a knowledge-based society.
* Bevil Wooding is an internet strategist with the US-based research firm, Packet Clearing House.