SANOG 39, held in May this year in Dhaka, Bangladesh, welcomed over 270 participants to discuss a range of topics relating to Internet operations in Bangladesh and its context within South Asia.
One particularly lively topic was the panel discussion ‘Priorities, Challenges and Action plans for Internet Landscape of Bangladesh and South Asia‘. The panellists were Roopinder Singh Perhar (APNIC Executive Council), Matt Jansen (Meta), Faisal Mobarak (Grameenphone), Mostofa Al Mahmud (BTCL), and Aftab Siddiqui (Internet Society).
As moderator, Gaurab Raj Upadhaya (AWS) noted at the session’s opening: “We have a very broad topic”. This post will highlight the discussions held during that panel.
After introductions, Gaurab sought opinions on the most pressing challenge currently facing Bangladesh’s Internet. Mirroring Gaurab’s opening statement, the responses were broad.
Faisal nominated cooperation among service providers as a challenge. Mostofa suggested multiple issues in cybersecurity, misinformation, privacy, and addressing the digital divide.
Perhar used the example of neighbouring India, highlighting the need to ‘digitally evolve’ in three key areas:
- Infrastructure — There’s scope to implement regulations that will allow sharing of infrastructure and resources.
- IPv6 transition — Big operators are deploying IPv6, while smaller operators are struggling with the resources to deploy. The government is monitoring industry adoption.
- Regulation — Technology develops faster than the law, and regulation does not keep up.
Matt addressed Bangladesh’s issues within the entire South Asia context, saying the development of peering infrastructure with neutral co-location is a challenge across the region.
Citing India as an example, 10 years ago, neutral co-location did not exist, but now it is thriving. He suggested that Bangladesh and other economies in South Asia could pursue policy and regulation that encourages interconnection and development, advances commercial expertise, and facilitates domestic competition. As an example, Matt highlighted how Kolkata, just 10ms away, was at one point only serviced by two operators on congested links; most international connections were terminating in Singapore. However, Meta now sees multiple 100G links from more Bangladeshi operators in Kolkata. He cited enabling favourable conditions for neutral peering infrastructure, and in turn, competition, as the reason for growth along this route.
Aftab stressed the major problem of developing last-mile infrastructure. While visitors are often surprised by the ‘fibre on pole’ conditions seen across Asia, Aftab made the very important point that this solution is fast and cost-effective. For last-mile connectivity, quick progress is required for development, and while it may not be pretty, fibre on poles works.
Following up, Faisal noted that more collaboration on infrastructure is needed in Bangladesh — high quality, fixed line service is required as mobile is not always the answer. He also appealed to providers to focus on a better user experience and regional service provision.
The next all-panel question from Gaurab was to suggest the biggest technical challenge facing Bangladesh using a one-word headline and having one minute to explain.
Matt named ‘policy’ related to asymmetric routing with inconsistent route advertisements as a major technical hurdle. He said the asymmetric routing seen in Bangladesh is very much driven by a fragmented framework where there’s always a middleman. Network operators need a full table, not just the default route in multi-homing.
Perhar stated when last-mile connectivity was lacking in India, the government allowed power poles to be used at a regulated rental price. However, the technical problem in India was sourcing ‘trusted’ equipment at scale.
Aftab suggested the problem is ‘realization’, discussing how some problems are not actually seen as problems by some stakeholders. For example, in other parts of the world, infrastructure sharing is considered a noble pursuit but locally some stakeholders dismiss it as ‘not a problem’. Recognizing a problem as a problem is also an issue in last-mile connectivity and even policy.
Faisal was optimistic, suggesting the most pressing technical problems are already being solved by NAT and IPv6 deployments, though slowly.
Mostofa suggested one technical problem is IPv6 adoption resulting from perception. IPv4 is regarded as ‘easy’ while IPv6 is not, so the challenge becomes awareness and training for engineers and technicians.
However, Gaurab highlighted the passion for Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) throughout the subregion and instead noted three current technical challenges:
- The need for training.
- Sharing of resources.
- Infrastructure and last-mile connectivity.
Further exploring the context, Gaurab then prompted the panel to discuss notable changes within the Bangladesh and South Asia Internet landscape in the last 10 to 15 years and observed that both fibre on pole and mobile connectivity have scaling issues.
Perhar noted that in India user numbers went from 1M to 825M in 10 years. With that kind of growth comes a lot of change and while network development has now plateaued, the following issues remain — quality of service, digital divide, and regional access development.
In the last 15 years, Aftab has seen similar growth and solid early technology adoption throughout the region, citing the example of how the Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) was deployed first in South Asia. However, he expressed concern that policy makers from 15 years ago are still making policy today and they are not familiar with the changing technical environment.
Faisal talked about the changes to the market brought about by submarine cable deployments. He shared the example of how consumers are willing to pay for high bandwidth services with devices like 4K smart TVs as part of the demand profile now. He noted how regional coverage is a focus of the Internet industry as part of an effort to deliver lower latency and fast page loads and how users are actually benchmarking their experience with greater levels of knowledge and higher quality of service requirements.
When Gaurab took questions from the floor at this point, I asked about the need for more or less regulation and talk turned to defining ‘the edge’ when referring to data centres. One questioner praised the work of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) and asked when India’s Extreme IX and other large carrier- and data centre-neutral IXPs would come to Bangladesh. Anurag Bhatia queried the panel on the movement of the content cache further away from consumers into the International Internet Gateway (IIG) networks. Then, there was the last and timely question — is the current infrastructure future-proof?
Perhar responded to the regulation question by stating that it is important to have regulation combating disruptive influences, upholding the interests of the public, and maintaining quality standards. However, he was of the firm belief the profits from using public assets, such as spectrum licences, should benefit every citizen of the economy.
Aftab responded to this as well. Using Australia’s model as an example, he suggested this model of general rules at the top level allows the industry to create industrial guidelines that are actively updated. This creates a situation where slow-moving regulation handles the big issues and the industry can swiftly update practices in line with technological advancement. Gaurab referred to this approach as ‘smart regulation’.
Faisal addressed the edge data centre definition from the mobile perspective, stating that in his experience, those issues would be resolved with 5G. Regional deployment is more likely to be classified as ‘edge’ in Bangladesh and 5G is still in planning. Matt added that the edge can mean many different things, but caches tend to be near eyeballs, installed deep into the provider’s network.
Aftab addressed the IXP question with examples from Australia and Pakistan. Australia, with a population of 25M, has all cities covered with multiple exchanges. Pakistan has a populous of 250M served by only one IXP. Bangladesh has 1,200 active Autonomous System Numbers (ASNs) but not all of them are present on the current exchange points. Aftab noted that when everyone is peering, you don’t need more exchange points.
Mostofa responded to the ‘future-proof’ question in Bangladesh from a regulation perspective. He explained that the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) will not approve the deployment of old equipment or out-of-date technology, which makes it difficult to procure equipment during rapid technological change.
Gaurab posed a final question to the panel — what should be done next in Bangladesh and the region?
Faisal raised the issue of Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming development, and how local IXP traffic is not growing primarily because OTT content is not local. Perhar mentioned capacity issues on National Long Distance (NLD) routes. Low NLD routes can create intra-economy bandwidth issues; Perhar encouraged more companies to provide these routes, noting work is underway with the government to perhaps provide incentives. Naturally, more services being provided will bring customer costs down.
Mostofa stated that the Internet is now an essential service, and the digital divide is a major problem. Aftab spoke about the resiliency and consolidation of Internet infrastructure. His thoughts were that a political and commercial framework is needed to incentivize building infrastructure. This infrastructure and services need to be robust across ISPs and economies to provide resilience and avoid single-operator failures. Similarly, Matt discussed the need for a political and commercial framework that incentivizes connecting people by building infrastructure.
Gaurab closed the panel session with a summary of what the panel thought was needed in Bangladesh and the region — smarter and simpler regulation that addresses resource sharing, right of way, privacy, law and order, facilitation vs control, and resilience while promoting growth and expansion. Positively, he noted that there’s been a lot of progress in the last 10 years and the panel didn’t highlight any technology issues that weren’t easy to overcome.
I found the panel to be informative about the context of several South Asian economies. There are striking similarities across the region and when compared to other markets, particularly the issues of infrastructure sharing and the digital divide. These are issues that every economy faces in some way. Developing networks in different parts of the region differ only in timing — some economies have solved some issues and others are still dealing with them.
There were two commonly held opinions on the panel. Firstly, the social issues around the digital divide and competitive environments. Regulatory reforms are sought in the competitive landscape, particularly with infrastructure sharing, right of way, and facilitation of development.
Secondly, the panel highlighted infrastructure development outside major cities as one of the preferred options for addressing the digital divide. Like all such situations, there’s a need for both market interventions and competitive freedoms in balance.
The recording of this panel session is available to view:
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