A group of several dozen prominent IT figures from across Canada gathered for the Calgary Internet Exchange Town Hall on Sept. 15, hosted by the City of Calgary to discuss a big question: does Calgary need an Internet exchange?
An Internet exchange, already dubbed the CIX, would be similar to the one that exists already in Toronto, known as TorIX. It couldreduce latency for local Internet users by up to 30 per cent, according to Jean-Francois Amiot, technical operations manager for Cybera Inc., a non-profit Alberta Internet connectivity group that facilitated the meeting.
Internet exchanges cut down latency by avoiding the problem of having to route the local traffic to a faraway location, particularly to places in the United States. They’re generally set up under the principle that even competing ISPs and providers of Internet services can benefit from operating in neutral territory.
“We think that a neutral exchange is very important, said Amiot. “It’s part of what Cybera does. We’re a very neutral organization. We try to be really flat and fair.”
But discussion centred on whether a non-profit Internet exchange would appeal to the for-profit businesses that would use it.
Representatives from several Alberta IT companies said it would. Bernard Parkinson, president and CEO of Platinum Communications, bemoaned the fact this his company “had to go cap in hand to Toronto to buy a less expensive IP gateway and then pay a premium back to Calgary.”
Leonard Hendricks, CEO of Blackbridge Networks, a data centre in Lethbridge, Alberta, meanwhile, said he was in favour of the proposal because while his own city simply wasn’t big enough to support anything equivalent, an nearby exchange could benefit his company. “If we have a connection I think there is a for profit motive for me to do it,” he said.
Others, like Sylvie LaPerriere, program manager for network content distribution at Google in Montreal, cautioned that excitement about a possible exchange should not overshadow the cold, hard calculations about its viability. The first question that should be asked, she said, was simply: do people really want it?
“The reason why Internet exchanges happen is that there’s a need,” she said. “There has to be a need to connect — not a mandate to connect. That’s a very important distinction.”
“Do people want their bits to be exchanged locally?”
Bill Sandiford, president of Oshawa-based Telnet Communications and president of the Canadian Network Operators Consortium, an advocacy group for network communications companies who was involved in the TorIX project, echoed LaPerriere’s words about determining a real community need. He added that the “make or break items” for a potential CIX will be governance and location.
Both the City of Calgary and University of Calgary have proposed locations for the exchange due to their fibre optic connectivity. The “dark fibre” available at both venues would attract very large companies that wouldn’t be keen on leasing connectivity from Shaw Communications, said Amiot.
On the governance front, Sandiford suggested the formation of a steering committee that would discuss the serious questions of building and maintaining the data centre privately.
Jason George, a project engineer at Grizzly Oil Sands and volunteer with the OpenBSD project, said he had not heard enough discussion about costs at the meeting.
“This is a large scale engineering exercise…these things are not cheap,” he said. To determine the true cost of building the exchange, those involved shouldn’t look only at service costs, but rather the cost of “steel-toed boots” needed to build it.
Asked for a show of hands in favour of the CIX, the room was unanimous in its support, with the exception of representatives from Cisco Systems Inc. and the Government of Alberta, who abstained. A smaller but significant number volunteered to be part of the new steering committee.