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A Climate of Change for the Caribbean Internet

Gerard Best

Spring storms with winter qualities clobbered North America this week, threatening Canada with slow-moving storms, and pounding the United States with near-record snowfall in the midwest, low temperatures in the south and tornadoes further east. You could say change was in the air.

And although the unseasonable weather didn't reach as far south as Florida, the climate of change still dominated the atmosphere at the fifteenth regional meeting of the Caribbean Network Operators Group (CaribNOG), held in downtown Miami from April 18 to 20.

Network operator groups, or NOGs, are forums where the professionals who design, build, maintain and secure computer networks get together to discuss matters of mutual interest. CaribNOG is a volunteer-based and fast-growing NOG serving the Caribbean region.

The group's latest meeting, CaribNOG 15, focused on improving the fundamental nature of the Caribbean Internet by strengthening the resilience of its infrastructure and harmonising the regional policies that determine its governance. Resilience refers to the ability of network to maintain acceptable levels of service in the face of a range of challenges, including cyber-attacks and natural disasters, and even user-errors.

The meeting was held at the Caribbean's de facto gateway to the global Internet. Miami acts as the major hub of hosting and transit services for network traffic from the region. It is also a virtual extension of the Caribbean, acting as the transit point for air and sea cargo entering the region, and as a major destination for migrants of Caribbean background. In 2014, an estimated four million migrants from the Caribbean resided in the United States, with heavy concentrations in Florida, and Miami-Dade County specifically.

But while Florida recovered quickly from the impacts of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Puerto Rico, Dominica, Tortola, BVI and other Caribbean islands are still reeling from the devastation. Now, with less than two months before the official start of the 2018 season, the Caribbean again faces a major threat to its already weakened infrastructure.

Deficiencies in the region's telecommunications infrastructure and preparedness were exposed with telling effect in 2017, as disaster response agencies struggled to coordinate relief efforts and citizens struggled to get information or communicate in the aftermath of the storms. The CaribNOG community took notice. Network disaster preparedness, risk mitigation, business continuity and recovery planning have taken top priority on the group's 2018 agenda.

"Resilient Caribbean communications infrastructure is foundational to the region's ability to effectively respond in time of crisis. Strengthening the technical capacity of the engineers and administrators who manage and safeguard networks in the Caribbean is, therefore, a major priority for CaribNOG," said Bevil Wooding, a co-Founder of CaribNOG and the Caribbean Liaison at the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), one of five registries that coordinate Internet number resources worldwide.

CaribNOG 15 was co-located with ARIN's public policy and members meeting, called ARIN 41, held from April 15 to 18. On April 19, ARIN launched a Caribbean Forum, with special symposia focused on Public Policy and Justice. The Public Policy group will focus on a coordinated approach to policy that supports development of the internet at the national and regional levels. The Justice group will support collaboration among law enforcement agencies tackling Internet-related incidents in North America and the Caribbean.

"With all the activity taking place at this event, in reality, only one thing is happening: the advance of the Caribbean Internet," said Wooding.

The co-location of CaribNOG 15 with ARIN 41 and the new Caribbean Forum created a lively environment for the discussion of a broad range of issues. One common theme was the need to support what is working and to help fix what is broken.

"Sometimes our meetings focus primarily on technical matters, but CaribNOG 15 was different," said Jamaican-born Stephen Lee, Program Director at CaribNOG and CEO of US-based technology services firm, Arkitechs.

"The resilience of the Internet in the Caribbean depends on and affects many other aspects of regional development. At CaribNOG 15, we set out to leverage the presence of a diverse range of stakeholders--including policymakers, law enforcement, and public sector--to create a special environment for technical discussions about the future of the Caribbean internet."

Melford Nicholas, Minister of Information, Broadcasting, Telecommunications and Information Technology for Antigua and Barbuda, and President of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU), delivered remarks at the event.

"We all share one goal," he said. "The region needs forums like CaribNOG to ensure that we are adequately prepared for the challenges of the digital era."

There are already some encouraging signs. The Internet Society is developing a Disaster Relief Fund as part of its Beyond The Net funding program. This new program will enable Internet Society Chapters in affected regions after a natural disaster to apply for funds for projects that restore Internet connectivity.

The recently formed Commission on Caribbean Communications Resilience is expected to release a report soon that includes specific recommendations for Caribbean governments, regulators and communications ministries to strengthen regional communication network resilience and improve policy, infrastructure, regulation, technologies and systems.

An upcoming Caribbean Peering and Interconnection Forum is set to bring together regional network operators to explore opportunities for strengthening Caribbean network resilience and Internet Exchange Point expansion.

Not least of all, the broad-based support for CaribNOG 15 also made a telling statement. The meeting was held with the support of ARIN, Arkitechs, CTU, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Internet Society, the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Registry and Packet Clearing House.

The worst of this year's hurricane season will have come and gone before the next CaribNOG regional meeting, which is set for November 14 to 16. But ongoing movements give reason to hope that the region will be better prepared for whatever this year's season brings.

By Gerard Best, Development Journalist
Related topics: Policy & Regulation
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