With the official commissioning of the Internet Exchange Point of Nigeria (IXPN) by the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Dr. Eugene Juwah on 14th February, 2011, it becomes clear that we have finally overcome the barriers of establishing a functional Internet exchange Point. In his remark at the commissioning, the EVC, said that the event marks a major starting point for realizing the desire to achieve speedy spread of Internet services across the country, and the quest to reduce cost of Internet connectivity, improved quality of Internet services and above all, keeping the nation’s local Internet traffic local.
The economic, social and political significance of IXPN have motivated me to examine in this article the role of an IXP and the need to support IXPN.I will at this point say kudos to everyone who has contributed to the establishment of IXPN!
As an Internet Marketing Consultant, understanding the technology of the Internet makes it possible to appreciate the fact that the Internet is not a single entity. It is rather a large group of independent networks that agree to share traffic with each others’ customers using a common Internet protocol (TCP/IP). Without this agreement, it would be impossible for users of two different networks to send each other email. The job of an Internet service provider is to ensure that its users are able to most cost-effectively connect to any point in the world that is connected to the Internet, be it a web site on the local network or a user connected to another network in the same city or in a distant part of the world.
What are Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)?
Internet exchange points (IXPs) are a vital part of Internet Infrastructure. Without them, the Internet could not function because the different networks that make up the Internet would not be able to exchange traffic with each other. The simplest form of an exchange point is a direct connection between two Internet Service Providers (ISPs). When more than two providers operate in the same area, an independent switch operates more efficiently as a common interconnection point at which to exchange traffic between the local networks. This is similar to the development of regional airport hubs where many different airlines are served. At these locations, airlines exchange passengers between their flights in much the same way that networks exchange traffic across the IXP.
Simply put, An Internet exchange point (IXP) is a physical infrastructure that allows several Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and network operators to exchange traffic between their networks, generally referred to as autonomous systems, by means of mutual peering agreements. (This exchange of traffic between networks at an IXP is known as ‘peering’.), which allow traffic to be exchanged at no cost.
Organisations that connect their networks to an IXP benefits from reduced reliance on expensive international transit for exchanging local traffic between themselves, and improved efficiency of their operations and communications. Not only will this reduce transport costs and network latency, but will also ensure faster access to local content because local traffic is exchanged locally, rather than through one or more 3rd party networks including international links.
The primary purpose of an IXP is to allow networks to interconnect directly, via the exchange, rather than through one or more 3rd party networks. The advantages of the direct interconnection are numerous, but the primary reasons are cost, latency, and bandwidth.
Traffic passing through an exchange is typically not billed by any party, whereas traffic to an ISP’s upstream provider is.
The direct interconnection, often located in the same city as both networks, avoids the need for data to travel to other cities (potentially on other continents) to get from one network to another, thus reducing latency.
Speed, is most noticeable in areas that have poorly developed long-distance connections. ISPs in these regions might have to pay between 10 or 100 times more for data transport than ISPs in North America, Europe or Japan. Therefore, these ISPs typically have slower, more limited connections to the rest of the internet. However, a connection to a local IXP may allow them to transfer data without limit, and without cost, vastly improving the bandwidth between customers of the two adjacent ISPs
Clearly stated, with an IXP:
• Substantial cost-savings are made by eliminating the need to put all traffic through the more expensive long-distance links to the rest of the world.
• More bandwidth becomes available for local users because of the lower costs of local capacity.
• Local links are often up to 10 times faster because of the reduced latency in traffic, which makes fewer hops to get to its destination.
• New local content providers and services, which rely on high-speed low-cost connections become available, further benefiting from the broader user-base available via the IXP.
• More choices for Internet providers become available on which to send upstream traffic to the rest of the Internet—contributing to a smoother and more competitive wholesale transit market.
The Internet Society report on this shows that developing countries have generally lagged behind the rest of the world in establishing IXPs. Africa has the fewest IXPs.Due to the limited amount of local online content and services in many developing countries, most of the Internet traffic generated by users is international; resulting in large capital outflows paid to foreign Internet providers. Local content providers in these countries tend to operate offshore, where it is cheaper to host them due to the lack of low-cost local infrastructure of which an IXP is an integral part. Thus, the presence of an IXP helps to encourage more local content development and creates an incentive for local hosting of services. This is both because of the lower cost and the larger pool of local users, who are able to access online services faster and more cost effectively.
It ensures online services are equally accessible to all local users, enhances competitive opportunities, and improves the quality and affordability of Internet services.
The Role of Internet Exchange Points
Commercially, the Internet consists of a hierarchy of global, regional, national, and local providers. These either sell transit services to other operators for traffic they pass through their networks or, when two networks of similar market position exchange roughly equal amounts of traffic, they enter into a settlement-free arrangement called peering. Peering and transit take place directly between two networks or via an independent exchange point.
If two networks that are independently connected to the Internet are close to each other—e.g., in the same city or country—it may be faster and cheaper to use a separate connection to send local traffic directly between the two networks.
When there are more than two local networks, which need to exchange traffic, it becomes more efficient to establish a switch (IXP) to which each network can connect
An IXP can thus be viewed as the centre of a star network that makes it possible for local traffic from any local network to traverse through a single connection to the switch. This decreases the telecommunication and management costs of multiple direct links between each network and increases the speed of local traffic by minimizing the number of network hops required to reach any other local network.
Once an IXP is established, it becomes a natural location to host a variety of other services that reduce bandwidth requirements and improve the speed and reliability of Internet access for local users. The most important of these include domain name servers, root server
addition, a variety of administrative facilities for network operators are often hosted at an IXP, such as looking glass and traffic measurement facilities. While some IXPs may only allow access providers to be members, in many cases content providers are permitted to connect to IXPs.
The presence of an IXP can attract telecommunication operators that may establish a point of presence at an IXP in order to easier sell services to potential customers located at the exchange, as all parties are reachable at low cost. In this respect, IXPs help to encourage the development of telecom infrastructure (such as national and international fibre cables).
Some Threats to Its Success
The establishment of a local IXP is often seen as a threat by competing commercial providers who may not be aware of the full advantages of collaboration and local traffic exchange. There can be lack of trust and a fear of making business cheaper for (or even subsidizing) competitors, and concerns that interconnection means stealing customers. These issues may need some time to be discussed and supported by awareness raising on the role of IXPs before all relevant parties are in full support of the IXP.This is one tool I have observed the youthful CEO of IXPN, Muhammed Rudman explore at Internet related events where he explains the need for service providers to get on the exchange.
No doubt, there may also be outstanding issues regarding participation in the IXP when there is a dominant commercial Internet service provider in the market. Such providers may be resistant to participation or they may participate but severely under-provision the link to the IXP. This is known as the Thin Pipe Stratagem. Here, the customers of competitors encounter slow connections to dominant provider’s customers and, understandably, they fault the competitor for the poor connection. This creates a strong incentive for users to switch to the dominant service provider. If unsolvable by other means, this problem may be cause for regulatory intervention.
Some network providers may be concerned that IXPs are overly complicated for their needs. This is frequently the case for small ISPs with only one connection to the rest of the Internet and without sufficient technical expertise to implement multipath routing. This may be amplified by contact with large, developed-country IXPs, which have more sophisticated switches and powerful routers. Equipment vendors can contribute to this view by trying to sell sophisticated equipment that may not be appropriate for the needs of a small IXP. To address these issues, awareness raising and training activities may be necessary.
Further research shows that in most markets, exchange points are not regulated by government policy and, as most activity within an exchange is considered entirely private between the parties, should be free from government regulatory oversight. However, in many developing countries, government policies can restrain the establishment of an IXP in a variety of direct and indirect ways.
Because IXPs only exist where there are multiple providers needing to exchange domestic traffic, in many countries the presence of a monopoly service provider is probably the major reason for the lack of an IXP. Alternatively, the lack of an IXP may indicate the existence of a single player with monopoly power over certain infrastructures or rights of way, such as international gateways. If low levels of competition exist, networks may have little choice but to exchange domestic traffic via the dominant player rather than directly between themselves. In the immediate term, there may be little that can be done by potential IXP members to address this problem. Continued lobbying of government policy makers and regulators should ultimately help to open markets and relax restrictions on new entrants.
Even where the market is more open, incumbent telecom operators may still resist the growth of an IXP. The incumbent operators’ views often carry great weight with regulatory authorities, for a variety of reasons ranging from close personal relationships to corruption. They also reflect the concerns of developing-country policy makers whose governments are often heavily dependent on revenues from the state-owned telecom operator and are reluctant to sanction activities which are thought to limit profits. Some policy makers may even see IXPs as a form of anti-competitiveness on the part of industry. Often, statutory or other licensing requirements exist which can arguably be applied to IXPs and, in most cases, the regulatory authority is, at least initially, unfamiliar with the technical and economic aspects of Internet facilities and ISP traffic exchange.
IXP founders need to ensure that policy makers, regulators, and incumbent operators appreciate that reducing the cost of Internet connectivity for domestic consumers will generate much greater investment, more users, and thus greater internationally leased line revenues. In fact, a strong case can be made that increased domestic use of the Internet, leads to even greater use of international direct-dial telephony to foster commercial and personal international relationships that are supported through the Internet.