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India's 1st 'Net exchange' to be ready soon
Priya Ganapati in Bangalore | July 04, 2003
Ever tried finding out how Internet traffic in India is routed?
Even for the technologically savvy, it might come as a bit of a shock to know that nearly eight years after the gates of the Internet were thrown open to subscribers in India, domestic traffic still is bounced off via international bandwidth rather than routed through local ISP (Internet Service Provider) networks.
For instance, if packets have to be routed from Mumbai to Chennai, it is likely that they will first go from Mumbai to Singapore, then to US and then come to Chennai. All because the ISPs whose traffic is originating from Mumbai does not have a 'peering' agreement with an ISP who has a network in Chennai so the traffic can be routed via that.
World over, this routing of domestic traffic is done through 'peering'.
Peering is the arrangement of traffic exchange between ISPs where the participating ISPs allow traffic to ride on each other's network.
India is perhaps the only country in the world that does not have an Internet exchange. Indian ISPs route large chunks of their domestic traffic through international bandwidth, resulting in raised operational costs for service providers and surfing costs for users.
However, this is set to change. The National Internet Exchange of India or NIXI, the first of its kind in the country is expected to be operational anytime.
What NIXI will do is become the meeting point or in more technical terms, the 'peering point' of the ISPs. Its purpose will be to facilitate domestic Internet traffic by routing it through peering ISP members, which in turn will save the usage of international bandwidth and foreign exchange.
"Apart from obtaining operational efficiencies, the exchanges help deliver better quality of services to users by reducing latency and delays. So savings of foreign exchange as well as better quality are the major advantages that Internet exchanges bring," explains Amitabh Singhal, Secretary, Internet Service Providers Association of India, which is at the forefront of the project.
With NIXI, Singhal says that the quality of service for the customers of ISPs participating in the project is expected to significantly improve as multiple international hops will be avoided and there will be lower delays.
Currently delays are estimated to be in the range of 0.7 seconds to 2.0 seconds. This is likely to go down to 0.2 seconds to 0.4 seconds, which will lead to markedly improved browsing.
In the first phase, Internet exchanges will be set up across four locations: Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.
The first exchange at STPI (Software Technology Park of India), Noida, that will serve the Delhi region, is almost operational.
NIXI was stillborn a few times before it finally took off.
In 2001, a proposal to set up an Internet Exchange to be located in Mumbai was mooted. But despite efforts, the exchange never took off.
Soon, financial backing for the project died up and with it all plans for the exchange.
"Internet exchanges are tried and trusted systems within the Internet infrastructure all over the world and somehow we missed having one here in India," says Singhal.
A year later, ISPAI took up the task again. Along with the Tariff Regulatory Authority of India it prepared an Internet task force report, which strongly recommended setting up the Internet exchanges in India.
The report with all its recommendations was accepted by the government.
"The Internet exchanges coming up now have been restarted from scratch. After the task force report was picked up by the department of IT, ISPAI prepared a business plan for a non-profit, neutral Internet exchange. The department then approved a one-time grant to take care of the expenses to build the Internet exchanges," says Singhal.
The case for the exchange comes in the form of reduction in costs not only for the ISP, but also in increased browsing speeds for the consumer.
However, it is difficult to estimate the exact amount of reduction in operational costs because it will ultimately depend upon the individual ISP's scale of operations.
But even if the international bandwidth requirement was to come down by 20-2 percent it can translate into a huge saving for the ISP.
There are other benefits too.
"When peering at Internet exchange, an ISP saves in terms of not having to connect to other ISPs over long distance leased lines. The ISPs just connect at the exchange. The operational efficiency that it brings to ISPs first of all translate into better quality for customers and that's a value addition to what the customers are already paying," says Singhal.
Already about 12 ISPs have signed up. The list includes HCL Infinet, STPI, Net4 India, Dishnet, Estel Sprint, CJ Online, Bharti Broadband, Reach, Iserve, Ernet, MTNL and Data Access.
Right now, a few volunteers from the infotech industry, STPI and the department of IT are helping set up the exchange. Soon, Singhal hopes a board of directors will take over, since a company has been formed.
The STPI will house NIXI and will maintain it.
The fees for the ISPs have not been finalised yet.
"Since this will a not for profit, but self sustaining venture, the fee would be based on cost. Since the costs are not yet final, we are not finalising the fee, only an indicative fee structure has been made," says Singhal.
Though the Internet exchange has gotten off the ground, there are quite a few challenges it faces before it can take off.
NIXI has to yet prove that it will be truly neutral and will not be biased to any ISP, whether big or small.
The second is that all public and private sector ISPs need to embrace the exchange with enthusiasm and peer extensively with each other.
Peering can work successfully only with the complete participation of all the ISPs.
And that is where the exchange has run into its first road block.
India's largest ISPs have chosen to stay out of the Exchange. The Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and Sify have not yet signed on.
"I think once the first three or four ISPs begin peering, rest will follow suit fast. I believe that, post-NIXI, if an ISP wants happy customers, he will peer at the exchange. I also think that the way we have tried to structure the management and organisation of NIXI, no ISP will have reasons to feel that he's not part of the set-up," says Singhal.
Meanwhile, Sify says that it is 'in the process' of joining the exchange.
"Sify's role will be as a member of NIXI. The proposed model and structure seem workable and acceptable to all. Clarity in terms of commercial charges would help make it better. However, a beginning needs to be made and some of these details worked out and settled going forwards," says David Appasamy, head of corporate communication, Sify.
Right now, ISPAI is trying to fix a date for the inauguration of the first point of presence (PoP) at Noida. In the next one or two months, other PoPs at Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata should get ready.
"That's how close we are," says Singhal.