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Infrastructure as 'public good': The Limits of Local Governance in a Global Internet
by Fernanda R. RosaSince its creation in 1998, the first Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in Brazil, located in São Paulo, was under the auspices of FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation), a state foundation that had a key role in the first steps of internet development and governance in Brazil. An IXP is generally known as a physical facility that helps internet service providers to interconnect and exchange traffic, optimizing their costs to send and receive data packets over the internet. In 2002, understanding that forthcoming investments in such infrastructure should come from the private sector, FAPESP signed a statement of cooperation with Terremark, an American data center company, incorporated years later by Verizon, and the operation of the first Brazilian IXP was transferred to it.
Terremark was already an important player on the scene for operating the most important IXP for internet service providers in Latin America, the NAP of the Americas, located in Miami. In view of the lack of national IXPs within the region and restrictive interconnection dynamics led by national telecommunication incumbents, internet service providers from Latin America would depend highly on that internet node in Miami to interconnect and exchange traffic, even when the traffic was local and such an international path undesirable due to higher round-trip time in data traffic, latency and costs. Figure 2 illustrates regional communication between Mexico and Argentina passing first at the NAP of the Americas Miami. This is the kind of undesirable traffic that IXPs, as the São Paulo one, commonly aim to avoid.
Influential internet pioneers within the country would not see the Terremark’s commercial orientation as an ideal course for developing internet interconnection infrastructure in Brazil. In a public post, one of them, would argue that an IXP should be treated as a “public good,” meaning not a business—especially if a foreign company would be involved. As nodes on the internet, IXPs concentrate lots of data that traverses its infrastructure before reaching its destination. NAP of the Americas and NAP do Brasil, as the first IXP in the country came to be known later, were the most geographically strategic locations for Brazilian internet service providers to exchange data traffic at that point, and were both now administered by Terremark.
Conducting the history of the internet in Brazil in another direction, the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br) was in parallel building a not-for-profit model of interconnection. CGI.br is a multistakeholder organization founded in 1995 by the Ministry of Communications to envision the quality of the internet services, coordinate and integrate internet initiatives, and among other tasks, help ensure free competition among internet service providers and make recommendations on network interconnection. Representatives from academia, social organizations, the public and private sector have historically formed its body, and the Brazilian Center for Information and Coordination of dot-BR (NIC.br) is its executive office.
In 2004, CGI.br launched a national project known as IX.br, investing in building an IXP in São Paulo as a not-for-profit facility. Today, it connects numerous private datacenters operators—the Verizon one (once Terremark) included—that serve as points of interconnection to the IXP along a large metropolitan area. Funded mainly by the money raised from the administration of the country code top-level domain .br—, referred to by some as the Brazilian “cyber-flag,"—CGI.br also invested in building more than 30 IXPs over the Brazilian territory in the following years, as depicted in Figure 3, leading it to become the world's largest public IXP ecosystem. Having IXPs distributed along the national territory, internet service providers based in other than São Paulo state could potentially benefit from nearby IXPs by reducing undesirable and longer traffic paths to São Paulo, and improving the costs and the quality of the internet as a result.
While the interconnection infrastructure has been ready and spread along the Brazilian territory, if content demanded by end users is not available at the closest IXP, internet service providers will still need to go further to reach such content. It is important to understand that, as companies, content providers have discretionary power to store (cache) their data in the facilities that fit their business strategies. As a result, there is an unequal availability of content throughout the country, and IX.br São Paulo has become the largest Brazilian node for hosting big content providers and content delivery networks such as Akamai, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix. Currently, 64.6% of the networks that interconnect to it come from other than São Paulo states, despite the IXPs nearby them, showing the challenges of avoiding concentration and having a distributed IXP ecosystem in a country as Brazil. Also, the average traffic of IXP.br São Paulo is much higher than the traffic of the second largest IXP within the country based in Rio de Janeiro (4.13 Terabits per second vs. 747 Gigabits per second, respectively). Private dynamics in the level of content, highly concentrated among a small number of companies, leads to concentration effects on the level of interconnection infrastructure.
Similarly, if the content demanded by end users is abroad, internet service providers will still need to depend on international traffic despite the existence of local IXPs. An experiment focusing on resolution of the most popular domain names in Brazil and other countries has shown that only 17% of the Brazilian paths terminate in Brazil, while 77% terminate in the U.S. And even when they do not terminate in the U.S., 84% of the Brazilian paths traverse the U.S. In view of this scenario, local internet service providers may decide to participate in IXPs in other countries—commonly giant internet nodes in the global North—where content is mostly present. Networks are autonomous to interconnect where they consider better to optimize their costs and their private goods, generating concentrations in a transnational scenario as well.
The internet interconnection infrastructure is a privileged standpoint from which to see the limits of local internet governance focused on regional development and the “public good” narrative. While the Brazilian IXP initiative is considered a crucial infrastructure to support local internet service providers’ competition, the pivotal role of content providers in shaping flows of information, and the effects of that on internet service providers’ decisions guided by profit optimization impose limits to the full realization of a national distributed IXP ecosystem. When infrastructure is taken into consideration, discussions that associate technology and national borders, digital dynamics and sovereignty become more intricate. The better the public understanding of technology, the more revealing these discussions tend to be.