Building the Caribbean Internet Economy

One IXP at a Time

Barbados has joined the growing list of Caribbean countries actively pursuing implementation of a vital component in developing the local technology sector – a domestic Internet exchange Point (IXP). The move signals a critical shift as Governments and Internet service providers alike take steps to address some critical and costly Internet infrastructure gaps in the region.

Internet access across much of the Caribbean is heavily and unnecessarily dependent upon foreign infrastructure, especially U.S. infrastructure. In several Caribbean territories, local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are paying overseas carriers to exchange local traffic between their local networks. This is an unnecessarily costly and inefficient way of handling in-country exchange of Internet traffic. This is equivalent to a Trinidad bus service paying American Airlines to fly passengers from Port-of-Spain to San Fernando, via Miami!

This dependence imposes significant burdens upon Internet users in the Caribbean. Network access speed is slower than would be the case if networks were interconnected at the local level. The longer the route between networks, the longer a transmission will take; data latency will increase and websites will be slower to load. Service prices are higher for providers and consumers who must to pay for the longer, more expensive, international Internet traffic routes. There are also security and privacy risks when data en route from one local network to another has to pass through other countries. Once Internet traffic leaves one national jurisdiction and enters another, the data is subject to examination by companies and government authorities in those countries. Local data-protection laws will not protect data as it passes through other countries.

Any one of these issues would be cause for concern.  However, all apply when there is no local facility to keep local Internet traffic local.

Fortunately, there is a proven solution - a local Internet exchange point (IXP). With a local IXP, for example, the portion of network traffic that travels from one point in Trinidad, through the United States or other nations, and back to another point in Trinidad can be reduced. This brings four key benefits to Internet users and businesses.

  • Local IXPs reduce networks’ ongoing operational costs by reducing reliance on costly international data transit,. These cost savings will flow to local Internet users, and unnecessary export of capital will be reduced.
  • A local IXP increases the amount of bandwidth available to local users by providing high-speed domestic links. This mitigates networks’ bandwidth shortages and reduces networks’ incentives to impose bandwidth throttling and usage caps.,
  • Local IXPs reduce network latency by favoring shorter and more direct routes. This improves the performance of services like video, gaming, data backup and cloud-based applications and creates an incentive for local business to provide these services to their customers.
  • A local IXP reduces the risk of data becoming subject to foreign laws and practices, by allowing local Internet traffic to remain in country as much as possible and as often as possible.

Ongoing efforts by the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU), the Caribbean Network Operators Group (CaribNOG), Packet Clearing House (PCH), the Internet Society (ISOC) and other regional and international organizations to raise awareness of the role of IXPs, are slowly bearing fruit.

National IXPs are now active in Curacao, the British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Haiti and St. Maarten. Dominica and the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis are close to launching their own exchanges. Meanwhile Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Suriname and now, Barbados, have set up working groups to advance the process in those countries.

This is welcome news for Internet development in the Caribbean. It is also consistent with recent moves in other developing and developed regions to proliferate Internet exchange points.

Last August, the African Union (AU) and the European Internet Exchange Association announced a partnership with ISOC to support exchange points and other projects in Africa.  The African Union estimates that African countries spend US$600 million every year in transit costs for content that goes from one African country to another. Whereas Miami and New York are major exchange points for Caribbean traffic, London, Amsterdam and Sweden are the main Internet hubs for African content.

Closer to home, the Canadian government has embarked on an initiative to increase the number of IXPs within Canada.  In support of the move, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, noted with concern that there are about 350 IXPs around the world, and some 85 in the U.S. - all integral to the Internet infrastructure – but in Canada, there are only two.  The organization stated that the integrity of the local Internet is about the overall health of the Canadian economy.

The linkage between strengthening Internet infrastructure and overall economic well-being is no different in the Caribbean.  At the technical level, increasing the number of Internet exchange points is about improving security, speed and network resilience, while maximizing the amount of traffic that stays within country. From a development standpoint, however, local IXPs are about creating new opportunities for Caribbean business and entrepreneurs and delivering new local services for the benefit of all local Internet users.

Still, IXPs are not a panacea. Other components like root servers, ubiquitous mobile broadband, lower access costs and supporting policies to encourage local Internet activity are still needed.  So while we celebrate the progress, the work of building out the Caribbean Internet is far from done.