By BEVIL WOODING, May 2011
Caribbean countries are accelerating investment in Internet-based applications and services. Yet in a region with over 20 million potential Internet users and great ambitions to create a “knowledge-based society” and develop “technology-driven economies”, the cost of access remains prohibitively high and there is a glaring absence of critical Internet infrastructure.
It is widely acknowledged that reaping the benefits of technology is dependent on several factors. These include, increasing Internet connectivity, reducing broadband access costs, improving infrastructure, and enhancing quality of service to all Internet users.
An Internet Exchange Point (IXP) is an internationally recognized mechanism for achieving cost and service gains and expanding the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector. IXPs allow for the free exchange, or peering, of domestic Internet traffic between Internet Service Providers (ISPs). ISPs that take advantage of interconnection to deliver local traffic can reduce the portion of their Internet traffic that must be delivered via their out-of-country transit providers. Within the Internet community, IXPs are considered to be essential to facilitating Internet-based economic growth.
Building an IXP is a trivial exercise technically; however, building the level of trust and collaboration between the stakeholders requires new levels of cooperation and trust.
In the English-speaking Caribbean, true competition in the telecommunications markets is still very much a work in progress. Furthermore, regional service providers do not have a strong history of collaborating for mutual benefit. The launch of Grenada Internet Exchange Point, GREX, on 17 May 2011, was therefore received as a major achievement for the region. Two of the region’s largest ISPs – LIME (formally known as Cable and Wireless) and FLOW (a subsidiary of Columbus Communications) – are now exchanging traffic and, perhaps more significantly, have established a precedent that can be replicated throughout the Caribbean.
Plans are afoot to take advantage of the new IXP with local video and audio streaming, VoIP, domestic data backup, new e-government services, distance learning, e-health, and other high-bandwidth, low-latency applications that depend on local traffic exchange.
The GREX milestone was achieved as a direct result of the joint promotion and support for domestic peering in the Caribbean by the Caribbean Telecommunication Union (CTU), a regional ICT policy development agency, and Packet Clearing House (PCH), a U.S.-based research nonprofit. Through a regional outreach initiative, branded the Caribbean ICT Roadshow, the CTU and PCH are raising awareness of the purpose of IXPs and their benefits to development in the region.
The notion of Caribbean IXP proliferation has found ready support from regional governments and ISPs, which are recognizing that exchange points must be deployed across the region. They now appreciate that this is critical for developing the kind of domestic Internet economy necessary to spark new levels of indigenous innovation, local content creation, and industry growth.
The government of Grenada and the Grenada National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (NTRC) both played central roles in guiding the GREX implementation, from conceptualization to launch. The CTU and PCH aided the process with technical and policy recommendations and interventions to bring Grenadian service providers into agreement.
This collaborative approach represents a model other Caribbean countries are already seeking to adopt.
PCH is working to strengthen existing peering facilities with the Caribbean Network Operators Group (CaribNOG), a loose nonprofit association of network engineers and technical specialists. PCH has already provided hardware and technical training. CaribNOG has declared its intention to work with regional ISPs and governments to place hardware and software services such as time servers, looking glass services, and file servers with open source, cultural, and educational content at regional IXPs. The CTU, under the umbrella of the Caribbean ICT Roadshow, plans to continue working with regulators in the region to ensure that the regulatory environment evolves to support the emerging Internet economy.
The vision of being able to deploy local Internet-based applications and services properly is now a reality for Grenada. It is now also within closer reach for other Caribbean territories. Already IXPs have provided tangible benefits in Haiti, St. Maarten, and Curaçao. Within the next few weeks, the British Virgin Islands is also expected to launch its own exchange. St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and Dominica have also taken active steps toward establishing exchanges. It remains to be seen whether the stakeholders in the larger, more complex and fiercely competitive markets of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago and can overcome issues that have thus far impeded collaboration for mutual benefit.
It’s not that far-fetched. With LIME and FLOW having already established their willingness and capacity to participate in exchanges in the Caribbean, the onus is now on ISPs, governments, businesses, and consumers to continue pressing to transform the region. In this regard, we can look at the GREX launch as one small step for Grenada, one giant leap for Caribbean Internet infrastructure development.
—Bevil Wooding is an Internet Strategist with Packet Clearing House, a US-based nonprofit research organization.