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Development 14 June 2017

Tajikistan Internet Exchange Point Environment Assessment

Executive Summary

Internet use in Tajikistan is below average for the region, partly contributing to the low levels of economic growth and efficiency in the country. The number of Internet users is estimated at between 15-40%[1] of the population, broadband services are costly, and areas outside the main cities do not have good access to broadband. Internet uptake and use has been constrained by a variety of different factors, some of which are related to the specific historical, demographic and geographic conditions (such as the landlocked mountainous nature of the country). These have led to high prices for international capacity, high cost of services and equipment for the public, lack of carrier-neutral local-hosting facilities and limited local content development.

The establishment of an efficient Internet exchange point (IXP) in Tajikistan is a key part of improving the overall Internet ecosystem in the country, not only at a technical level to immediately improve local network interconnection, but also at a strategic level. As the health of an IXP is a reflection of how well a variety of different factors are functioning in the local Internet environment, achieving an effective IXP will also help to build additional technical expertise, and the necessary institutional relationships between all of the stakeholders so that the other constraints can be addressed. The most important of these are outlined further below.

One of the most immediate and potentially solvable problems with the Tajikistan Internet ecosystem is constrained local interconnection and access to international content. This can be fixed by establishing an IXP with broad participation from domestic and regional networks, and international Content Distribution Networks (CDNs), such as Akamai, Alibaba, Yandex, mail.ru and Google. This will not only save costs on international traffic for operators but will also reduce network latency, substantially improving performance for local end-users and stimulating higher demand. This in turn helps to justify investment in expansion of network infrastructure, especially as equality of access to content also creates a much more attractive environment for local content developers – for both egovernment and commercial applications.

The lack of an IXP is not a technical problem and requires few resources to set up, but it does require the major competing operators to agree on a suitable, and preferably neutral, location to interconnect as soon as possible, and to work together with all stakeholders to establish the operating modalities for the facility.

A non-profit association of network operators and ISPs is likely to be the most appropriate operating entity for the IXP. As has been found in other countries, these associations can also have an important role to play in raising awareness in government about other issues that need to be addressed to create a better enabling environment for growth of the Internet and information and communication technology (ICT) sector, and the impact this can have on the economy more generally.

Roadmap for Establishing An IXP

Accelerating the development of a strong and sustainable IXP in Tajikistan will likely require the following sequence of actions:

  1. Community building – stakeholders should continue to hold regular meetings of all the local network operators and technical advisers to build relationships between the networks that will participate at the exchange.
  2. Situation analysis – The meetings above would identify any potential relationship issues, policy problems or market barriers to setting up an IXP.
  3. Strategy formulation – The results of the situation analysis will provide the basis for the stakeholders to formulate the short-term strategic objectives of the project to ensure smooth establishment of the IXP.
  4. Core group formation – A small team could then be selected by the stakeholders to carry the project forward on a day to day basis.
  5. Policy engagement – Meetings with government policy and regulatory officials would then be held to obtain their support and understanding of the benefits and strategy of the IXP, and to minimise any potential barriers to its establishment, such as taxation or requiring a license.
  6. Location identification – In parallel with policy engagement, a systematic and objective assessment of the options already identified for the IXP premises should be carried out, looking at both short and mediumterm needs. This would also include examination of other options for using existing data centres or server rooms in which the IXP could be hosted if acceptable to all potential participants, as well as identifying possibilities for converting a facility to carrier neutral status, or setting up a new carrier neutral data centre combined with the IXP.
  7. Institutional development – Once the location has been identified, setting up the IXP and installing the equipment can begin, along with defining the details of the shared services to be provided, the institutional model for the IXP and cost recovery plan for its sustainable operation. This would benefit from management and technical assistance from teams that have set up and run similar IXPs in other countries.
  8. Services marketing – To build the value of participation at the IXP, a marketing and membership development strategy would then need to be executed to encourage domestic networks to connect to the exchange and to work with international content distribution networks (CDNs) to ensure they are present at the IXP.
  9. Capacity building – With participation at the IXP expected to grow as new networks are established, ongoing capacity building mechanisms need to be established to help facilitate this growth.
Actions for Improving Sector Efficiency

The IXP can be seen as one of the key components required to ensure efficient, universal and affordable access to the Internet in Tajikistan. There are other components that are also required to function efficiently to achieve this goal, and thereby to leverage the benefits of the IXP to the full. The following section lists the main actions that are required grouped by the different stakeholders.

Private Operators:

a) Share infrastructure.
Increasing numbers of operators around the world are adopting approaches to infrastructure provision which involve sharing or outsourcing non-core aspects of their business, such as masts and ducts. This can considerably reduce the cost of service provision and allows operators to concentrate on their key business proposition. Such shared infrastructure can also extend to jointly establishing a wholesale operator for provision of more national fibre or wireless services in rural areas, potentially augmented by Universal Service Funds, or ownership of a metropolitan area fibre network, a domestic backbone or cross-border fibre cable.

b) Invest in incubator facilities.
To foster the development of local applications and content, network operators could sponsor the establishment of incubator facilities which nurture entrepreneurs and small enterprises by allowing them to share office space, exchange knowledge, and access low-cost high-speed Internet and hosting facilities.

c) Explore innovative solutions for providing last mile connectivity in rural and remote areas.
New technology developments for providing broadband continue apace, and a number of promising opportunities have emerged recently that could lower costs and provide more effective solutions for rural broadband. These include the use of high altitude platforms (e.g., Google’s Loons), dynamic spectrum access and shared spectrum systems such as TV White Space (TVWS), and new high bandwidth satellites and medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites which provide lower latency than traditional geostationary satellites. In addition, new business models can be explored which allow local communities to take more responsibility for the provisioning and management of their infrastructure.

Government:

a) Fast track the establishment of the independent regulator.
Government action is needed to implement the Post-WTO Action Plan[2] (scheduled for 2018), to ensure the establishment of the independent regulatory authority takes place as soon as possible in order to begin the process of establishing a conducive regulatory environment.

b) Restructure Tajiktelecom and split wholesale operations from retail.
Once the regulator has been established, this could be followed[3] by the restructuring of Tajiktelecom into functionally separate wholesale and retail operations. These could both be sold to the private sector to inject new capital into the industry. Ideally the wholesale operations (primarily backbone and cross-border capacity) should be structured as a special purpose vehicle (SPV) in which all local network operators could invest. Alternatively, a PPP model could be used in which a management company without retail operations in the country would take over operations while government retains a share. In any event a more detailed study of the options would be the first step.

c) Adopt a set of policies and regulations which provide a more enabling environment for Internet growth.

These are:

  • Not imposing any special licensing requirements, authorizations, or taxes on the proposed IXP
  • Allowing ISPs to self-provide infrastructure where needed, both domestically and internationally.
  • Allow ISPs and operators to lease dark fibre from the electricity provider Barqi Tojik
  • Adopting infrastructure sharing and dig once regulations which require operators to give access to their passive infrastructure assets (masts, cabinets, ducts, dark fibres), to require any operator that lays fibre to allow others to access the duct, and to require that ducts are included in the construction or refurbishment of any public utility (roads, rail, power grids, pipelines etc.) and public buildings.
  • Instituting price-caps on the leasing of passive infrastructure and rights of way from other operators and also from other utilities (e.g., electricity poles) and municipal buildings and way-leaves, including those on national and secondary roads.
  • Establishing a Universal Service Fund (USF) to support the deployment of infrastructure in areas that are not attractive to commercial operators.
  • Requiring publically available reference wholesale offers from wholesale providers.
  • Reviewing radio spectrum policy to come into line with new technology developments in spectrum management and shared/secondary use, such as TV Whitespace (TVWS).

d) Develop a national broadband plan.
As indicated above, currently no formal state strategy exists for promoting Internet access and use, and government department coordination and leadership is necessary to maximise the potential for Internet development in the country. A national broadband plan would aim to address issues such as provision of public access facilities, ensuring digital literacy training is available and the development of connectivity and applications/content development strategies for each of the sector ministries in an integrated egovernment strategy.

Of particular importance in the strategy is the setting of appropriate targets, especially for broadband speeds, coverage and prices. In terms of affordability targets, it may be appropriate to review the Alliance for Affordable Access’ (A4AI) new proposed target for mobile broadband of a 1Gb data bundle costing no more than 2% of monthly GNI/capita[4].

e) Establish an effective national Internet observatory.
Strategies to promote better Internet connectivity require measures by which to judge their effectiveness. Measures also need to be pragmatic, rather than exhaustive – they need to be easily obtained, objective, comparable and up to date. In this respect, a few simple measures are proposed, aiming to provide not only an indication of the numbers connected but also the level of internet utilisation.

International Community:

Support progressive private sector and government initiatives.

The private sector and government are likely to benefit from knowledge of experience outside the country as well as potentially needing material support for some of the initiatives described above, in particular the IXP, incubators and many of the government policies, ranging from development of a national broadband plan, to finding the most effective model for operating a Universal Service Fund.

This would also include capacity building of the planned national regulator and raising awareness of recommendations or guidelines by international institutions (I.e., ITU, EEC, EU, OECD, WTO) which could help encourage the government to adopt a more enabling policy environment.

Coordination of support from the different members of the international community can be a problem, and establishing a mechanism to maximise synergies and minimise overlap may be needed.

Civil Society

Raise awareness and maintain dialogue with the private sector, government and the international community.

Civil society’s chief activity is to represent the broad interests of the public in obtaining better access to the Internet and relevant content by raising awareness of new and on-going issues with the relevant entities, be they individual, the private sector, government or international agencies. The capabilities of civil society stakeholders in Tajikistan in this respect is significant. Their inputs will support the development of Internet infrastructure in the country and will help ensure a balanced and neutral approach to security, privacy and regulatory issues relating to the deployment and use of the Internet.

Endnotes

[1] Statistics vary widely depending on the source of information (ITU has not received statistics from Tajikistan since 2006)
[2] Approved by Government Decree No. 691 of 31 October 2014, http://www.osce.org/tajikistan/215401?download=true
[3] Many countries have made the mistake of privatisation before establishing an effective regulatory body, which created a more problematic environment with an even more powerful private monopoly
[4] http://a4ai.org/1for2-affordability-target

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