Growing the Internet Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)

Stakeholder Workshop Held to Discuss Tajikistan IXP

The Internet Society in conjunction with the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation – Tajikistan and the CAREN3 project organised an IXP workshop on 25 October 2018 at the Center of Written Heritage of the Tajik Academy of Sciences, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This followed on from a previous workshop held in 2017, and brought together nearly 30 stakeholders from local ISPs, civil society, and academia to discuss progress on the establishment of an Internet Exchange Point in Tajikistan.

I opened the workshop by summarising the IXP Environment Assessment report for Tajikistan that was commissioned by the Internet Society in 2017. This highlighted that Internet usage was below average for the region, and partly contributed to the low levels of economic growth in the country. The number of Internet users is estimated at between 15-40% of the population, Internet services are costly, and areas outside of the main cities do not have good access to broadband.

Internet uptake and use has been constrained by a variety of different factors, some of which are related to the geographic conditions (such as the landlocked mountainous nature of the country), and these have led to high prices for international capacity, high cost of services for the public, and lack of carrier-neutral local hosting.

Other constraints include limited competition amongst transit providers, high taxes imposed on ISPs, but in particular the requirement to use a single international gateway operated by Tajiktelecom. However, there has previously also been a reluctance for local ISPs to cooperate, as this was viewed as damaging to their business models, even though there is substantial evidence from other countries around the world that IXPs reduce costs and lead to growth of the local Internet.

There was further input from Robert Janz (University of Groningen & CAREN) who highlighted how the expense and technical constraints imposed upon CAREN and the National Research and Education Network TARENA was significantly hampering some of the excellent research that was happening in Tajikistan, but which also relied on international cooperation.

Tarik Sahovic (World Bank) then outlined the Digital CASA project which aims to implement cross-border connections to improve broadband internet connectivity in the landlocked countries of Central Asia and parts of South Asia by encouraging private sector investment in infrastructure. The implementation of IXPs are seen as a key aspect of this to reduce transit costs, improve transmission latencies, and encourage local content provision, but the regulatory regime within Tajikistan was currently hampering the opportunities this offered.

The keynote speaker was Aziz Soltobaev (ISOC Kyrgyzstan) who discussed the challenges of setting-up the KG-IX Internet Exchange in Bishkek, but also the soon-to-be deployed Ferghana Valley Internet Exchange Point (FVIXP) that will be based in Osh and will improve connectivity in the south of Kyrgyzstan. He explained there had been inflexible regulatory regime within their country as well, but a collective and sustained lobbying effort from the Internet community had encouraged changes that had achieved substantially improved connectivity and much cheaper prices.

This was followed by round table discussions amongst the IXPs and other stakeholders present, who agreed that an IXP was needed in Tajikistan, and felt the location and technical implementation would be quickly agreed if the regulatory environments were conducive to this. It was recognised there were significant issues with the regulatory regime and incumbent operator, but there are officials sympathetic to improving the Internet connectivity issues, and there were also government targets with respect to this and implementation of e-government initiatives.

There was enthusiasm amongst the stakeholders for putting together a unified and coherent plan for the IXP, followed by some collective lobbying to explain that Tajikistan is falling behind the rest of Central Asia, how costs are inhibiting growth of its Internet, and how an IXP could dramatically improve the situation. The Internet Society was also asked whether it could help through provision of fact and figures illustrating this, along with some case studies on how IXPs have facilitated growth of the Internet in countries.

The 3rd CAREN Regional Networking Conference (CRNC2018) was also held during the preceding two days at the Tajik Academy of Sciences. This is the annual conference of the Central Asian research and education networking community, supported by the EU-funded CAREN3 project, and I took the opportunity to give a presentation on why DNS Security and Privacy is important.

The Internet Society would like to thank the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation – Tajikistan, the CAREN3 project, and the Internet Society Kyrgyzstan Chapter for supporting this workshop, and would also like to thank the Tajik Academy of Sciences for hosting it.

Growing the Internet

Strategic Vision and Local Stakeholders Needed to Keep Tajikistan IXP on Track

Today, we released an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) Environment Assessment for Tajikistan. This report was carried out in the framework of Internet Society’s partnership agreement with GÉANT with a view to support regional Internet development in Central Asia.

The release of this report coincides with the 2nd Central Asian Internet Governance Forum (CAIGF), which takes place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This event gathers a wide range of stakeholders from Tajikistan as well as from the Central Asian region at large and provides an excellent opportunity to receive wider feedback from the community on our findings and conclusions.

Stakeholder Cooperation Is Key

While the benefits of IXPs are well-established, some 80 countries worldwide, including the five Central Asian Republics, still do not have a local IXP. Developing an IXP in Tajikistan is a vital step in cementing the nation’s Internet sector, making the exchange of traffic between Internet providers much more efficient, reducing costs for providers, and increasing the performance of Internet-based services for the end user.

While some of the Internet challenges Tajikistan faces are geographic – it is a landlocked country with mountainous and earthquake-prone territory – others are linked issues such as telecommunications market conditions, policy environment, and skills levels. This latter group of challenges can be addressed if local stakeholders can agree on common goals and an action plan.

Building a Roadmap

In addition to longer term recommendations to improve the Internet environment in Tajikistan, our report proposes an immediate roadmap to develop an IXP. This roadmap suggests a step-by-step approach starting from strategy formulation and core group formation to IXP services marketing and capacity building. Based on our previous discussions with local stakeholders, the key elements of the IXP development process are likely to be clarification of the policy environment and creation of a neutral institutional framework between the different network operators. These issues need to be tackled locally by the Tajik stakeholders, as any quick fixes or outside pressure will most likely produce an unsustainable result.

Reaping the Benefits

Despite the challenges and the potentially lengthy process, an IXP may open important economic and social opportunities for Tajikistan. Tajikistan could become an Internet transit country, if the planned optical fibre projects linking Central Asia to the nearest submarine cable landing stations in Pakistan are realised. An IXP also encourages the presence of local hosting services, which typically helps increase the amount of global and local content. Locally developed services, for example in the area of e-government and e-commerce, bring value to the local economy and promote inclusiveness for all. The full benefits of an IXP only become apparent over a longer term, so a strategic vision is a must to keep the IXP on track.

Read the full Tajikistan IXP Environment Assessment in English or Russian.

Development Growing the Internet

Connecting with the Community in Tajikistan

The 2nd Central Asia Internet Symposium organised by the European Regional Bureau of the Internet Society took place on 2 March in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The discussion was focused on how to increase the Internet penetration in Tajikistan from the current level of just under 20%[1].

A lively, at times heated debate continued between the speakers and the audience throughout the day addressing the opportunities and challenges related to connectivity and access:

Getting Connected

Given that Tajikistan is a land-locked country, international connectivity is key to reduce price and improve quality. International organisations such as the World Bank group and the European Commission are active in Central Asia supporting regional connectivity through specific projects, namely Digital CASA and CAREN. Tajikistan was the first country in Central Asia to deploy 4G in 2012, and mobile Internet is likely to continue as the “technology of choice” due to price and difficult terrain. A representative from a local mobile operator made a poignant remark emphasising that a laissez-faire commercial approach should be the greatest accelerator of connectivity in the domestic market, but at the moment the regulatory environment can be a slowing factor.

Getting People Online

Many Tajik Internet users benefit from the available online sources and services in Russian, but local content in Tajik language is lagging far behind. However, the presentations of several speakers demonstrated the innovative mind-set of the local Internet community. One motivator is the economic opportunity. A young entrepreneur concluded that despite the sometimes challenging regulatory environment, it is still worth his while being a web entrepreneur in Tajikistan – the market is growing fast and the competition is still relatively low. Second, people look for opportunities to facilitate their everyday life. The Tajik e-government programme and bottom-up initiative called the TajikMama are good examples of socially engaging online content.

Getting Results

Many stakeholders, both international and local, make significant efforts to accelerate Internet development in Tajikistan and the wider region. While this is positive, a representative from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) asked a critical question during our session: who will do the follow-up and make it happen after this event? Indeed, the global and regional (Internet) development community can inject ideas, expertise and even funding, but this is not enough to introduce sustainable progress. The local stakeholders – government, businesses and civil society – will have to take the lead in implementing change. ISOC prides itself on bringing people together and building communities, and I believe we succeeded in doing exactly that in Dushanbe.

The presentations from the event are available here.

[1] ITU, 2015, World Telecommunications/ ICT indicators database