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Growing the Internet 6 October 2021

Pandemic and Digital Transformation—The Middle East and North Africa Are Ready to Level Up

Nermine El Saadany
By Nermine El SaadanyRegional Vice President - Middle East

Demand for the Internet has been on the rise since the advent of COVID-19, and it’s a trend likely to stay with us for long afterwards.

Even before the pandemic, we heard about the fourth industrial revolution—how it was beginning to transform governance, management, and production systems across the globe. Mitigating climate change and fostering socioeconomic development, artificial intelligence, machine learning, smart cities, and the like, rely heavily on having good connectivity.

With such big stakes, policy development has focused on digital transformation. Decision-makers are thinking about how to deploy more inclusive policies, use data in an open and secure manner, and raise the skills and capacity of their communities to absorb such changes.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is striving to catch up. Many countries have committed to set up thriving digital economies by 2030. Their plans to develop an Internet-based economy could benefit key sectors, such as education, health, transport, and even employment.

By setting up digital economy strategies, MENA countries show they know the opportunities the Internet can offer. But challenges remain.

ICT Infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa

In some places in the region, without huge investments, ICT infrastructure isn’t capable of leap frogging into the fourth industrial revolution. Many ministerial cabinets face a dilemma. How do they distribute limited resources between basic needs and developing networks and broadband?

We must use new, innovative ways of thinking to develop proper infrastructure at reasonable cost for governments. The public-private partnerships prevalent in the early 90s are no longer enough. The Internet community has an essential role that can be better applied in MENA.

Regulatory Frameworks

There is a pressing need to revisit regulatory frameworks in the region, making sure they are mature enough and up-to-date to match the present needs and challenges.

The progress has been slow in the region for different reasons. It’s likely to pick up over the next few years, with major reforms in the pipeline in a number of Arab States, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This is in addition to the pressure stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerate implementation of investment-friendly and consumer-focused regulations. Collaboration among everyone will be key for the success of any regulatory development.

Collaboration and Harmonization

A holistic and harmonized approach to regulations across utility sectors in MENA countries will ensure consistent implementation of policy frameworks. This will strengthen interaction between digital infrastructure, services, and content across sectors and national borders. Collaboration will also advance the process of connecting the unconnected.

For years, Internet Society initiatives have taken the lead through community networks. We support collaboration among different stakeholders to equip the communities who need it the most with the right tools to build and maintain their own networks. These networks are a complementary access solution built by the community and for the community with the support of the government and the private sector.

Community networks need to operate within relevant regulations in their countries. It’s important that policymakers and regulators recognize the benefits of community networks and adopt policies, where feasible, to enable them.

The benefits of community networks are significant. They provide access for communities where commercial deployments are not yet available. This allows people to realize the full benefits of the Internet for work, education, government services, entertainment, and communications, among many other uses. And since community networks are developed by community members, they foster skills that are essential in a digital economy.

Since the beginning of 2021, the Internet Society has been engaged in serious discussions with a number of countries in MENA about community networks. We’re looking forward to the birth of the first community network in the region in Hadramout, Yemen. Witnessing the vivid discussions and collaboration between our colleagues from Yemen and the Internet Society makes one feel optimistic about how this new community network might change the face of life for people. It’s not easy, and still needs focus on many details, but with good will and sound collaboration, we can do it.

We must also look at the overall ecosystem of Internet infrastructure, where Internet exchange points (IXPs) are a key component.

Since the early days in the 90s, when the  London Internet Exchange (LINX) and other exchanges were founded, the role of IXPs has expanded. They’re now an efficient way to access content and services.  This enables faster and cheaper access to the Internet and its applications, reducing pressure on international links, and increasing the resilience of local Internet infrastructure.

In some cases, there may be policy barriers to the development of IXPs, while in others, governments are mobilizing support to help launch successful IXPs. Jordan and Oman, for example, issued calls for proposals for granting IXP licenses. It resulted in increased interest by local companies to compete and become an IXP operator.

In the last two decades, Internet Society studies on MENA’s regional Internet infrastructure have concluded with a set of policy recommendations for better connectivity. In the Middle East & North Africa Internet Infrastructure Report, we developed recommendations for countries without IXPs, discussed how to help level up existing IXPs, and how to connect more people to close the digital divide. While governments may help establish IXPs, the best practice is for an IXP to be owned and operated by an association of members on a nonprofit basis.

Here are our recommendations to advance the peering ecosystem in the Middle East and North Africa:

  • IXPs are impacted by investment and tax constraints, high costs of accessing local fiber, and network deployment regulations. Encourage these telecom sector reforms to help keep costs of accessing IXPs reasonable:
    • Governments can provide location and other resources to establish IXPs.
    • Governments can serve on a board of advisors or act as observers to IXPs vs being involved in day-to-day management.
    • To increase the incentive to connect to IXPs, governments can connect its own e-government services, so ISPs have to connect to enable their customers to reach government services.
  • Avoid constraints through licensing or regulation on operators’ ability to connect and peer at IXPs.
  • Promote usage. A content delivery network can help distribute content from caches, resulting in significant savings to and better performance by ISPs.
  • Level up IXPs to increase capacity to enable more interconnection: attract DNS root server mirrors, in order to increase the speed of resolving domain names, and ensure a sustainable funding and governance model. As demand in the country grows, IXPs can expand via nodes in multiple data centers.
  • Separate the ability to exchange traffic from the ability to sell services in a country. Allow the maximum traffic exchange within the four walls of IXPs, without the requirement for licenses that allow operators or content providers to fully operate in a country.

Infrastructure development is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But it requires a level of investment governments can’t achieve alone. Contributions from the private sector are critical—and engaging communities is key.

Read the full list of recommendations in Middle East & North Africa Internet Infrastructure Report.

Image by Euan Cameron via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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