Wikipedia also describes the Internet as a “network of networks”. While this is nothing new to a bunch of DNS experts it is important: The whole benefits when each part is made stronger and the whole is made worse when one piece is made weaker, or is cut off. It's why so many people keep fighting on so many fronts for a free and open Internet.
So why are we making the case for creating a “national” Internet? Doesn't this cut off the Internet in some way?
The answer is no.National (meaning within a border) does not mean nationalized (meaning taken over). When we talk about a national Internet for Canada, we're talking about country-focused local peering, local infrastructure such as the authoritative DNS servers and transit and the adoption of technology standards that will benefit the entire Internet. When these work together it helps to make the national network stronger, corporate networks stronger, and personal networks stronger. In doing so, it makes the whole Internet stronger.
This is part one of a three part article intended to describe where Canada's Internet is at, and what stakeholders are doing to help make it stronger.
Canada is a special case
Canada is in a special situation in relation to the global Internet because of our relatively small population and proximity to the culturally and linguistically similar United States. Living next door to the giant has the one-two punch – we have 1. the biggest content producer and cloud application provider in the world right next door, and 2. producing material in a language that most Canadians speak. Moreover, analysis of .CA websites using the Dataprovider tool shows that approximately 70 per cent of .CA domain websites are physically hosted outside of Canada. Other than a blow to national pride, even we have to admit that this is probably not a big deal for many small business websites. In situations where the audience is primarily intended to be Canadian or where data sovereignty is an issue this situation poses a problem of perception and customer service.
If we focus on big bandwidth activities such as content consumption, with the exception of the local newspaper, the US has been king for Canada. Our TV providers came late to online video streaming and gaming offering Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, Steam, Playstation, and others to come out on top in providing high bandwidth content. The same is true for blogging, online stores, e-zines and, yes, even cat videos. Sure, many of the largest US-centered content producers have some Canadian peering, but it tends to be in our largest cities and doesn't benefit every citizen equally.
So, Canada is special because unlike countries in other parts of the world, we don't have a built-in language or cultural border to our Internet.
This leads to three really good reasons for a strong Canadian Internet and for strong local peering -- good reasons which apply, in many other countries around the world.
First – It's about business
Entertainment aside, what about the (arguably) more useful parts of the Internet? CIRA research shows more than 70 per cent of Canadians prefer doing business with Canadian companies and over half of Canadians prefer doing business with Canadian websites. In any other western country these percentages would probably be considered low. But remember, we're up against a 320 million population juggernaut with (often) lower prices and (often) free shipping. Moreover, online business is more than shopping. If you include employees logging into the corporate servers, online banking, government services and other applications where trust and privacy matters, Canadian preferences are clear.
Second - The Internet is important to Canadians
In 2014 Canada ranked second among G8 countries in Internet penetration and in the top 20 globally. Our citizens are highly connected and our networks should be too. As individuals, whether we're having a Skype conversation, hosting our own Minecraft server, or technology luddites getting technical support from our 11-year-old children, we want a fast and secure home network. As businesses, we're investing in powerful network technology to serve our employees in the office and using VPN from home. If consumers and enterprises are building strong local networks, the networks that connect them should match that strategy and be strong, and local.
Third – Protect your data sovereignty
Okay, this argument has the potential to derail the entire article so we will keep it short: The U.S. National Security Agency. If you need to know more, you can read about it in Wikipedia here.
There is a fourth good reason, but we'll save that one for later.
What is happening today
First off, we want to be fair to Canadian ISP's. They give us services that we could only dream of just five years ago. These services are expensive to deliver across our vast geographies, so investment in the networks can only grow based on sound business cases and even then slowly over time. So while the networks get better and better, as a nation we need continue to hold ISPs accountable (and rely on them!) to ensure that they are always building national networks that benefit all citizens. We also need to make sure that everyone understands the importance of keeping traffic local.
A typical trace route of traffic from you to, for instance, your online tax software or your banks services may show how the data passes through America to come back to Canada. The same holds true for remote employees logging into your corporate servers. A bank that is well peered in a Toronto IXP serving customers in the Toronto market should not have this problem, but for the rest of Canadians, the potential is there. The fact is that the big transit pipes are located in the US.
IX Maps (www.ixmaps.ca) traceroute from Vancouver to Halifax. An extreme example to be sure, but it shows how the most efficient path in this case is through the US. The most efficient is not necessarily the one you want.
Let's all be friends
The role of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) is to maintain the .CA registry while also promoting a better Internet and helping to represent Canada on the global governance stage. In this role we have a relatively large number of different stakeholder groups for what is ostensibly a small organization. Sure, it would be great if we could sit on the desk of every ISP, politician, and corporate CEO, and refuse to leave their office until they all peer - but our staffing levels, travel budget, and reputation as polite Canadians just don't allow for that. Therefore, we do several activities to encourage local peering including promoting the benefits with articles and blogs, at industry events, workshops, in governance bodies, and in funding Canadian IXPs.
CIRA has helped to fund and grow Internet Exchange Points (IXP) throughout Canada to allow ISPs and content providers to keep local traffic local and reduce the need to exchange traffic with the US. This improves latency and speed for Canadian Internet users while also helping to reduce transit costs. It also creates a scenario where traffic can be localized to wall off the servers against a DDoS attack that comes from an international location(s) to keep peered queries in Canada being answered. In short, it provides a better user experience for all Canadians using the Internet.
Peering is straightforward by exchanging traffic over a shared Layer 2 switch facilitated by BGP. To become a member of an IXP you require an Autonomous System Number (ASN) and a network connection from a router to an IXP switch. IXPs typically charge a monthly or annual port fee to connect. Because a single IX port supports multiple peering sessions this gives direct access to content, cloud applications, and network providers. The IXPs we have supported are not-for-profit, participant run exchanges.
With the IXP program, Canada has a coast-to-coast network of exchanges close to population centers, and including:
- Vancouver (vanix.ca)
- Calgary (yycix.ca)
- Winnipeg (mbix.ca)
- Toronto (torix.ca)
- Ottawa (ottix.ca)
- Montreal (qix.ca)
- Halifax (hfxix.ca)
We continue to support and encourage peering among ISPs and content providers through these IXPs and welcome anyone interested in learning more to contact us.
Part two will be a look at the value and importance of a strong national DNS and part three will be a review of Canada's experience in the adoption of a couple of the latest Internet standards.