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Strengthening Caribbean Internet Capacity to Support Local Online Services

The Caribbean needs more robust infrastructure to support the delivery of local online services during the COVID-19 pandemic and for crises to come.

Public health and safety mandates, from social distancing and quarantines to stay-at-home orders and curfews, have confined an estimated one billion persons to their homes globally. The sudden restrictions on social movement have created a reliance on the Internet and technology-enabled services. This should come as no surprise. Society has been virtually forced to go online to shop, work, access education, keep in touch with family and friends, and to be entertained. The Internet is no longer optional for certain types of transactions and social interactions; it's the only option!

The surge in Internet usage is testing the capacity and resilience of local as well as regional networks. At the same time, online users are also now more sensitive to the quality of their Internet service and the reliability of their Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Kimano Barrow, a commissioner at the Belize Public Utilities Commission and regional IT expert, describes the situation in Belize:

"The COVID-19 crisis has definitely impacted Internet traffic patterns and changed data consumption behaviours, but it has not broken the net in Belize. Our investment over the past few years to boost Belize's network capacity and encourage domestic Internet traffic exchange has borne fruit. Now, we just have to get more local services online."

Wanted: More Local Internet Services

Getting more local services on the Internet is a priority for the entire Caribbean.

Many organizations and governments are now scrambling for shortcuts to keep operations going and to deliver online services to customers and citizens. However, obstructing the path is the complex mix of public-policy regulation, infrastructure, education, technical expertise, capital and social equity, necessary for digital transformation. There is no quick fix.

An Epiphany Is Dawning Upon Government & Business Leaders: The global Internet is most valuable when it connects local content, local communities and local economies.

This coronavirus crisis has exposed the need to have more local services available over the Internet, such as online delivery services, healthcare, education content, e-government, and digital payments solutions. It has also revealed inadequacies in national policies and preparedness to support such services.

There has never been a stronger case or better time for building out local internet infrastructure and creating local Internet content. There has also never been a more urgent need to ensure that local Internet traffic is handled efficiently and economically.

The Case for Local Internet Exchange Points

An Internet Exchange Point or IXP is a proven solution for increasing local network bandwidth and capacity. IXPs help reduce the cost of delivering domestic Internet traffic. They also improve transmission efficiencies and foster the development of the local Internet ecosystem and economy. Internet users trying to make the most of their time while social distancing are the primary beneficiaries of the domestic Internet traffic exchange that takes place at IXPs.

For years, Internet development-focused organizations, such as the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU), the Caribbean Network Operators Group (CaribNOG), Packet Clearing House (PCH) and the Internet Society (ISOC) have advocated for the proliferation of IXPs in the Caribbean.

Brent McIntosh, Peering Coordinator at the Grenada Internet Exchange Point, GREX, explains it like this:

"When government networks peer at the local IX, public servants can have fast and reliable connectivity to online government applications to ensure they can continue to do their jobs. For content developers and operators of business networks, peering can provide staff with more reliable access and better performance when using bandwidth-intensive applications like videoconferencing, telemedicine or distance learning. This is why it is so important that more autonomous networks and IXPs be set up across the region."

In the Caribbean, countries that have functional IXPs, such as Grenada, Belize, Curacao, Haiti and St Maarten, are reaping the benefits of cheap, reliable local bandwidth more than ever. In countries such as Barbados, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago quick steps need to be taken to ensure that all ISPs, government and education networks are connected to their respective local exchanges. To alleviate current local network bottlenecks, countries such as Antigua and Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Nevis and Suriname need to jumpstart stalled efforts to activate local IXPs. Additionally, local media houses and content providers, as well as major global content delivery networks like Google, Netflix, Akamai and Cloudflare, should also be encouraged to peer at local exchanges.

Cross-Sector Collaboration Needed

Thankfully, moves are afoot to help Caribbean countries rapidly expand local Internet capacity and improve the quality of Internet Services. ARIN, CaribNOG, and the CTU, in collaboration with PCH, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission, the Latin American Internet Registry (LACNIC), and the Internet Society (ISOC) are all committed to raising awareness and providing tangible support for IXP development throughout the Caribbean. The Internet community is mobilizing to provide training, advice and technical support to policymakers, ISPs and IX operators.

The world has hit both an economic and social inflection point. It is clear that COVID-19 is not likely to be the last pandemic or crisis to impact the region or the world. In the emerging new normal, investments in national technology infrastructure, as well as digital literacy, skills and services, are imperative. Public policy, critical internet infrastructure and digital services will have to be more deliberately optimized for local Internet users, businesses and economies. Such investments will help determine the extent to which societies are adequately prepared for the inevitable disruption of coming crises.

The current crisis presents an opportunity for governments, regulators, ISPs and content producers to learn important lessons and to work together on solutions for navigating the new normal. Only through such collaboration can countries ensure that they have the domestic Internet capacity necessary to support local online services, now and into the future.

By Bevil Wooding, Director of Caribbean Affairs, ARIN – Bevil provides strategic advice and operational support on cybersecurity, public policy and critical Internet infrastructure. Follow Wooding on Twitter: @bevilwooding and Facebook: facebook.com/bevilwooding or email  Visit Page

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