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The IETF Flies to South America

Carlos Martinez

For only the second time in its history and on the event of its 30th anniversary, the IETF’s next meeting will be held south of the equator in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

For the technical community in Latin America this is an important milestone: the Buenos Aires meeting will provide visibility to the technical work in the region that keeps the Internet humming. Many also anticipate that a meeting in the region will motivate a new generation of Latin American engineers to take up protocol engineering.

Development asymmetries are abundant in Latin America. While the region as a whole is classified as developing, some of its countries are nearing developed status by having been accepted in or applying for membership at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; others are lagging behind. 

These asymmetries also manifest in Internet access. The region has countries with Internet penetration percentage rates in the low 20s or even less, while other countries have rates of 75–80%. 

In terms of infrastructure, the availability of fixed copper or fiber plant can vary widely. Some countries are focusing their efforts on growing mobile networks as a means to bridge the Internet penetration gap and deliver services to their populations.

Geography and population density also play roles. Although Latin America is home to some of the largest cities in the world (e.g., Sao Paulo and Mexico City), the overall population density of the region is low, with many small communities scattered throughout the continent. Distances can be long and natural barriers like the Andes mountains and the Amazon rainforest make traditional communications difficult.

Internet access in the region not only offers access to entertainment and social networking, it is routinely leveraged to deliver eMedicine, education, eGovernment, and disaster warning and relief services. Examples include electronic textbook delivery in the Peruvian Andes and video-conferenced medical appointments in Central America. Information and communications technology (ICT)-related and knowledge-related industries are booming in several countries, in some cases quickly catching up with the primary, commodities-based sectors of the economy.

What It Means for the IETF

Protocol engineering is critical to ensuring that the Internet remains a useful tool that developing regions can use to cope with the many challenges imposed by geography, population distribution, and asymmetric economic development.

In technical terms, this means taking into consideration the following factors and challenging the following assumptions:

  • Power efficiency can be critical. Some communities might have access to power during certain hours during the day or could suffer power outages due to weather or other natural events.
  • Permanent, “always-on” connectivity is not always present, particularly in rural areas.
  • Error rates do not always go down over time. Radio links spanning long distances can be part of any path.
  • Bandwidth goes up over time, but not as quickly as in other regions. Efficiency in the wire should be considered in new protocol work.
  • Efficient spectrum usage is critical. Many countries deploy mobile networks as a faster method for bridging the connectivity divide.
  • Security is a priority for all protocol work. However, in regions where the Internet is still making its first inroads, it is critical to get security right and to build trust among users and applications in order to avoid the victimization of users. 
  • Pure client/server applications could behave poorly in mobile, radio, high-delay, or intermittent communication environments, and natural events could render large territories disconnected. Peer-to-peer protocols could provide solutions for certain niche problems.
  • Operational practices can be very different than those in other regions, particularly in routing, peering, and ISP interconnection.
  • IPv6 adoption is a must in a region that still needs to connect a significant portion of its population.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and the IETF has been working on several related topics, including whitespaces, Global Access to the Internet for All (GAIA), low-power protocols, and constrained environments. This work also will benefit from increased involvement by the local technical communities in the developing regions themselves, which could make the Buenos Aires meeting a very pivotal moment.