Internet Exchange in Developing Countries

This post is for Nara – wherever you might be.


In early 2000 I visited some of my friends and industry colleagues in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia whom I’d worked with for a few years on various Internet-related projects. In those days Mongolia only had 5 Internet service providers (ISPs), and 100% of Internet traffic was connected via low capacity satellite connections.

Each ISP had a separate connection, some to California, one to Hong Kong, one to Germany – there was really no planning other than to get the cheapest bandwidth possible to meet the needs of a rapidly growing Internet community. Mongolians use a Cyrillic-based written language, and Mongolians began to see the benefit of having a local economy that could function within the culture and language of the people.

The only problem was that each ISP had an independent upstream Internet connection, and for the most part the links were saturated. The interesting thing is that much of the saturation was due to Mongolian language or Mongolian interest traffic going out one ISP, to say an upstream connection in Stockton, Calfornia – and returning to another ISP’s user through an international connection based in Germany.

The result is as you would expect – very poor performance and user experience at a very high cost.

So hosting companies started to get smart. Rather than host web sites in Mongolia, companies began to find hosting platforms in North America and Europe to host Mongolian content. While not perfect, it did remove about one half of the performance bottleneck between users of different ISPs. Of course the bad thing is the revenue produced by hosting went to American and European companies, removed from the Mongolian economy forever.

So in early 2000 I met with friends and colleagues from several different ISPs in Ulaanbaatar, and brought up the idea of building a neutral Internet Exchange Point/IXP in Ulaanbaatar to facilitate local interconnection between ISPs. Intially there was a bit of reluctance to the idea of cooperating with competitors, but in the end the ISP owners relaized the customer performance and cost savings of taking local traffic off the international links made a tremendous amount of sense. A small Mongolian company called Infocon was chosen to manage the project.

Problem – no money to build the IXP. Solution – I used my credit card and bought a pile of Cisco switching and transmission hardware and donated it to the Mongolian ISP community. Another friend (Raphael Ho) came to Ulaanbaatar, configured, and connected the ISPs to what became known as the Mongolian Internet Exchange/MIX. The impact was immediate, and all of the reasons for building an IXP in a developing country met the model and image of how it should be done.

A few years later the original MIX was replaced by a high performance platform donated by another international group, and the MIX grew to support current robust Internet community thriving in Mongolia today.

The moral? The MIX represents a success story for remote locations and developing countries to use in ensuring their own economy and user community has the best possible tools available to reduce international transmission cost, increase end user and network performance and provide a positive experience. Why should a developing country pay a surcharge to the international community for developing a local economy? No reason at all.

For us who enjoy relative opulence in our worlds, consider the value we can bring to a developing country or company with our experience, and the way we can enable those developing countries to have a better chance to get up to global economy speed – often with very little effort of our own.

Some days it is fun to be an engineer.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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