For more than two decades, the Internet Society has worked to expand the Internet globally – not simply creating new users, but establishing a path for those users to evolve into creators and innovators. As a non-governmental organisation, it is our mission to help facilitate the development of a reliable and ubiquitous Internet, to train people and build human capacity, and to encourage open dialogue among about key Internet issues.
One of the most common misconceptions around Internet development globally is “if you build it, they will come”. Thriving Internet communities don’t just light up once enough routers and switches have been turned on. Instead, these communities must be nurtured, and trust among participants must be developed. Our experience has shown that the Internet’s power as an open platform for economic and human development can only truly be unleashed when three foundational pillars are present and balanced:
- Human infrastructure, in the form of people educated and empowered by technology
- Technical infrastructure, as seen, for example, in the success stories emerging from the implementation of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in places as diverse as Lesotho, Brazil, and Nepal; and
- Governance infrastructure, a range of simple, but meaningful parameters designed to spur investment, deployment and public engagement
We call this Smart Development.
The human infrastructure component is the easiest for some to overlook, but it is the most critical in determining the success or failure of a development effort. For development to become self-sustainable, it must draw on a local community of technologists, innovators and early-adopters who can build, maintain and ultimately grow and sustain networks to their full potential.
We have found that everywhere the Internet has flourished, it has done so thanks to the existence of a robust technical class of engineers, technicians and users who not only ensure the network keeps running, but also create the tools, forums and services that create local demand.
Creating local demand, however, depends on a reliable local infrastructure. From our experience, we know that IXPs are at the center of a more robust and reliable Internet ecosytem, and a key part in driving local content.
IXPs at the most basic level are switches, routers, and servers that allow local IP-based network providers (e.g., Internet service providers, national research and engineering networks, government networks, and mobile networks) to interconnect with each other and exchange traffic. In other words, network providers in a single country can share data traffic directly, instead of having to connect through an exchange point in a foreign country. In theory at least, this means that any country that establishes an IXP, or improves the network of IXPs it has in place, will have faster and lower-cost Internet service. It often means that more of the population will be online, and more mobile operators, content companies and other network service providers will invest. IXPs keep local traffic local.
The great thing about IXPs is that all this can start from a pretty modest technical base. IXPs don’t have to be elaborate when they get going. The London Internet Exchange, to take one example, began in 1994 with a single donated piece of networking equipment and five local Internet Services Providers as members. Today, London has 400 members and is one of the biggest IXPs in the world.
The Internet Society and other organizations around the world (EuroIX, the African Union, LAC-IX) can help countries obtain equipment. The really important part is what comes next. At the Internet Society, we have seen plenty of countries plan to implement an IXP—including picking a location and accepting shipment of equipment—only to have the process stall.
When things like this happen, it’s a reminder that the technical infrastructure—routers and switches—is only a part of Smart Internet Development, and not the most important. It cannot stand on its own.
The third component is figuring out the right approach to governance. For ministries and regulators, this usually means resisting the temptation to regulate too tightly, and allowing experts from the technical and commercial sectors to manage much of the development process. For many government officials, giving up control in this way can be difficult. For IXP managers, it can mean creating a board to oversee the technical management and business plan.
If there is one shared theme across all the components of Smart Internet Development – physical, human and governance infrastructure – it’s that small-scale efforts can yield massive dividends. We have seen the impact an IXP can make on a local community: faster traffic delivery, better quality of service, lower costs, and greater uptake by users of services. Smart Development is as much about developing and cultivating the resources already at hand as it is about creating new ones.
Lynn St. Amour is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Internet Society.