By Gerard Best
WILLEMSTAD, Curacao—Much ink has been spilt and many hands wrung over how slow and expensive the Internet is in the Caribbean.
The latest snapshot from ICT Pulse, for example, is a reminder of the price paid and pain felt by those subscribing to regional service providers’ fixed Internet broadband packages.
But Internet woes are much more than just a personal inconvenience to individual citizens. In fact, strengthening the Caribbean’s critical telecommunications infrastructure is a first step to growing the region’s digital economy. And an upcoming meeting of minds in the southern Caribbean could bring one important piece to the region’s Internet economy puzzle.
Surprisingly, the event focuses not on handsets or SIM cards but handshakes and smiles. And perhaps predictably, the key is something called Peering.
“Peering is an arrangement between two or more networks to exchange Internet traffic between their networks without cost, typically at an Internet exchange point,” explained Bevil Wooding, one of the key architects behind the event.
“Peering arrangements are key to the growth and development of the global Internet. The relationships between content providers and network operators are a critical link determining network performance as well as content delivery costs,” added Wooding, who serves as the Caribbean Outreach Manager for the US-based non-profit Packet Clearing House (PCH).
PCH has played an active role in the establishment of over two-thirds of the world’s Internet exchange points. It has worked closely with the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, an inter-governmental body and with the Caribbean Network Operators Group, CaribNOG, to actively promote peering throughout the region.
Yet, although more than 300 IXPs exist in eighty countries around the world, some 80 countries with developing economies do not yet have IXPs of their own and depend on imported Internet bandwidth.
So, why isn’t there more peering in the Caribbean, a region that can hardly afford to haemorrhage scarce foreign reserves?
Wooding says when it comes to peering, the Caribbean has made significant strides over the past five years, but there is still a long way to go.
“Only 20 per cent of what needs to get done to make peering possible is technical. About 80 per cent of it is more about social engineering. In the Caribbean, as in other parts of the world, the notion of collaborating with competitors for mutual benefit is not always reflexively embraced.”
Tackling the problem head-on, Wooding, working with his counterpart Shernon Osepa, the manager of Regional Affairs for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Internet Society, created the Caribbean Peering and Internet Connection Forum specifically to bring service providers, telecommunication regulators, policy makers, researchers and other key stakeholders from across the region together with international content providers and Internet organisations, such as Facebook, Google and Akamai.
The result was the first Caribbean Peering and Interconnection Forum, or CarPIF, held in May 2015 at the Hilton Hotel, Barbados.
“The aim of the forum is to bring major service providers from across the spectrum of the regional and international Internet ecosystem into one space to build relationships and explore opportunities to strengthen the Caribbean Internet economy,” Wooding said.
For CarPIF’s second edition, major international content providers, regional telecom regulators and Internet services providers, will again meet, this time in Willemstad, Curacao.
CarPIF is an initiative of PCH and the Internet Society , with the support of the Caribbean Network Operators Group and the Caribbean Telecommunications Union. The Amsterdam Internet Exchange is co-host of this year’s event.
The immediate goal is to explore ways for Caribbean states to improve regional connectivity and strengthen digital infrastructure. But the more long-term aim is to drive technology-based innovation and economic growth in the developing region.
The timing couldn’t be better. The restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the USA has deepened interest in the Caribbean, and several global technology service providers are now turning fresh eyes toward the region.
Wooding and other event organisers will be hoping that regional Internet service providers will be willing to take a fresh look at service innovation and explore opportunities to continue advancing the Caribbean Internet.