Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)

IXPs: Why Is the Middle East Lagging Behind?

On October 2nd, the Internet Society was happy to support the ITU in organizing the IXP Workshop on Peering and Interconnection in the Arab World “Towards unlocking regional interconnection opportunities” It was held in Manama-Bahrain, and kindly hosted by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of Bahrain. This workshop was held on the eve of the Annual Meeting of the Arab ICT Regulators Network (AREGNET), and 30 regulators and 10 operators attended from all over the Arab region.

The workshop started with an overview of the Arab peering landscape given by Christine Arida, Director for Telecom Services and Planning at National Telecom Regulatory Authority of Egypt. Christine showed that the region is well served by undersea cables, with the oldest IXP established 20 years ago. However, all countries have either an underperforming IXP or do not have one at all. Regionally, cross-border interconnection is almost non-existent – with very few exceptions and most of the traffic is exchanged in London and Marseilles.

The debate started with an acknowledgement that strong and vibrant IXPs are needed in the Arab region. IXPs are a means and not the end… They are the enablers of digital transformation and a means to attract investment. Cheaper operating cost, better user experience, resiliency of the national networks in the face of Internet blackout, and national security are few of the known benefits of IXPs. So why is a region that has material and human capital lagging behind?

It turns out that regulatory restrictions are imposed on peering and networks development. Incumbent operators are not interested in peering due to their dominant market positions. Competition is weak and smaller operators are few. There is no incentive for collaboration or for optimizing costs and traffic flows.

Ian Cleary (Google) showed that successful IXPs are those that engage the community and are able to leverage the network effect to grow and attract investments. As a matter of fact, the money is not “in the switch,” but rather in the entire the ecosystem that is built around the switch such as technical expertise, concentration of content, data centers, better flow of information, etc. The IXP is nothing but a switch that galvanizes around it a digital ecosystem.

Martine Levy (Cloudflare) pointed out a few other best practices, including commercial incentives, neutrality of the location, and convenience of the location. Other success factors have nothing to do with technical know-how or expensive gear. These are the good governance of the IXP based on collaboration and agreements, transparency in the operations, and again community engagement. Unlike transient, peering agreements have zero cost associated with them, they are the result of trust and collaboration, the stuff the Internet was built on.

Kyle Spenser of the Uganda IXP showcased the African region success in building IXPs and explained how East African countries were able to collaborate on interconnection and services to achieve efficiency of the scarce bandwidth and resiliency of national networks.

Ossama Al-Dosary, advisor to MCIT KSA, explained that the role of government is not to regulate by default, but only to regulate when needing to solve a certain problem. In KSA, the current IXP regulation aims at breaking the cycle of operators not wanting to peer with each other. The role of the regulator, the panel agreed, is to facilitate, convene, and incentivize.

Aftab Siddiqui of the Internet Society led the discussion about the role of governments and challenged the audience to come up with actionable “next steps.” Here are the recommendations received:

    • Compile IXP data from the region into a one-page document brief
    • Implement “meet me at the border” interconnection between the networks of two adjacent countries
    • Use TRAs to convene communities and showcase the gains that will be achieved by all from joining an IXP
    • Attend the Middle East Network Operators Group (MENOG), where network operators meet to exchange best practices and bridge their knowledge gap in Internet operations

Additionally, someone pointed out that there are two distinct groups of people: the governments represented by LAS and ITU on the one hand, and the operators on the other hand. There was a recommendation well received by the ITU and LAS to attend the next MENOG to break the silos and nurture the culture of collaboration.

I have a sense of urgency to do something and act quick. My region deserves the best and is in dire need of digitization which can give us the kind of value-add only a knowledge economy can. My culture is one based on cautiousness. We like to start when all pieces of the puzzle are known and identified. Unfortunately, we are losing too much time in trying to maintain control and predict the exact future. We should build it first and solve the problems as they arise. Isn’t this how the Internet grew from 3 to 64,000 networks in 25 years? We have to have faith in best practices, and understand that success is not dependent on purchasing state-of-the-art, expensive equipment. It is dependent on our ability to collaborate and empower the community to work hand in hand with governments to shape tomorrow. My region has many blessings, and I just realized that the most difficult thing we need to do is to start the culture of collaboration.

Read the Internet Society’s policy brief on IXPs.