Lendon Telesford • May 11, 2020feature
On April 23, 2020, Bevil Wooding - Director of Caribbean Affairs, ARIN, posted an article re-enforcing the call for the development of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) within the Caribbean Region. In his article, he further highlighted the need to build out local online services as a matter of priority; especially in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Given the shifting operating dynamics as a result of this crisis, individuals, private entities and Governments are to rethink strategies to facilitate the transition of local economies to become digitally enabled. As the construction industry would have taught us, a house cannot be built without first setting the foundation. Similarly too, to build a digital ecosystem requires that complementary infrastructural elements be laid to facilitate transformation. While traditional telecommunication infrastructure and models would have connected and carried us - individual islands - to the present, in many cases we have not leveraged the hidden opportunities to pivot our economies.
In developed countries, IXPs have been known to yield many benefits for internet communities, both economic and otherwise. Notably though, although the establishment of this type of network/infrastructure resource represents some degree of commitment towards strengthening the digital fabric of a community or country, its operation as a mutually independent cog cannot guarantee digital transformation. This reality became apparent to us at the Grenada Internet Exchange Point (GREX) in our efforts to continually develop our exchange. This article serves to echo Bevil’s call for further development of IXPs in the region by highlighting the Grenada case.
By virtue of Grenada’s designation as a Small Island Developing State, there is an aligned expectation of dependence on developed countries relative to matters of economic development. While this holds true for pure economic activities such as trade, to a large extent this also reflects truth when considered in the context of technology usage and adoption. For years, Grenada has been and continues to be a huge consumer of content and services such as email and online enterprise services originating from outside of the country. Though these services have adequately satisfied both functional and operational requirements, they have led to an unconscious reliance on external entities for the provision of technological solutions at the infrastructure and service layers. This served to restrict local innovation efforts, inadvertently slowing the advancement of Grenada's digital economy.
Without speaking for my predecessors, I can only imagine that before the commission of the Grenada Internet Exchange Point, if technology shifts were used as a measurable indicator of sustainable digital development, Grenada would have received a failing grade. Recognising this threat, the Government of Grenada, through the National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (NTRC) sought to develop a local Internet Exchange Point, with guidance and support from organisations such as the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU), Internet Society (ISOC), Packet Clearing House (PCH), the Caribbean Network Operators Group (CaribNOG), and Brent Mc Intosh.
In 2011, with support of the Cabinet, Grenada officially commissioned its Internet Exchange Point. While the journey has not been without its challenges, since that time, efforts have been continuous to ensure further development of the exchange. There are varying operating models for IXPs. The model followed by Grenada allowed the regulator to become the sponsor and absorbed the technical and financial (expense ) issues to focus on the potential social and economic benefits to come.
To date, all local Telecommunication Providers peer at the IXP. Additionally, three international content providers namely Akamai, Cloudflare and CentralNIC have nodes deployed at the exchange to service local content requests. Recognising that the success of the IXP was dependent on Grenada's ability to deploy local content related services, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission developed a micro-datacenter initiative with the sole intent of promoting local content and development of services around the Exchange.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the benefits of having content providers and services locally have become more visible as individuals have been asked to self-quarantine. The average traffic exchange has moved from a utilization peak rate of 1.5Gbps to 3Gbps. While the face value of these numbers may seem insignificant to some, it represents proof that opportunities exist for local content development and traffic exchange. Retrospectively, this would not have been possible without the commitment from the Regulator and support from local champions, in particular Brent Mc Intosh, who remains committed in support of sustainable digital development.
While the statistics suggest that most Caribbean islands have been able to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, in my view the real impact is yet to be felt. Without discounting the devastation as a result of COVID-19, this presents an opportunity for Caribbean islands to build out resilient digital layers to bolster digital service development and delivery, to realise the promise of digital transformation. In recent days the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, through the Governor, predicted an economic contraction of between 10 - 20% for ECCU members for 2020. From a purely economic perspective, this represents a significant loss, however, if as Caribbean nations we do not take the opportunity to deploy resilient infrastructure and develop local capacity, we would have lost more.