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Don’t Put All Your Internet Infrastructure in One Basket

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Robbie Mitchell
Senior Communication and Technology Advisor, Internet Society
Categories:
Resilience
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October 31, 2023

Last Thursday, 26 October, a fire broke out at the Khawaja Tower in Dhaka, Bangladesh, claiming at least three lives and significantly disrupting the Internet and telecommunication services of the country.

The tower hosts the operation centers of several International Internet Gateway (IIG) service providers and interconnection exchanges, as well as two data centers. Reports suggest that approximately 30-40% of Internet connections were hampered due to the fire, as were mobile Internet and voice telecommunications.

IIGs manage data flow coming and going from a country, enabling Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecom operators to access the global Internet. As of June 2023, Bangladesh has 34 registered IIGs and 124 national ISPs, 479 divisional ISPs, and 2,206 hyper-local ISPs. The latter figures highlight Bangladesh’s excellent retail ISP Diversity (Figure 1).

Infographic showing the poor score for Transit Provider Diversity, excellent score for Retail ISP Diversity and 51% Internet Resilience Score.
Figure 1 — The different ends of the spectrum of Bangladesh’s open Internet environment. Source: Pulse Country Report.

While 34 IIGs might seem like a high number, the reachability of international Internet transit providers in Bangladesh is not distributed equally. As per IIJ’s Internet Health Report (Figure 2), more than half of Bangladesh’s Internet networks are connected through Hurricane Electric’s network (AS6939), while 22% obtain transit via Summit Communications (AS58717), Bangladesh’s largest domestic ISP. These high percentages are behind Bangladesh’s relatively poor Transit Provider Diversity (Figure 1).

Screenshot of list of top ten networks servicing Bangladesh
Figure 2 — More than half of Bangladeshi networks obtain transit via AS6939. For a country to have an excellent Transit Provider Diversity score, no more than 10% of networks can transit via a single transit provider. Source: IIJ.

This means if Hurricane Electric were to ever go offline this would disrupt over half of the Internet service providers in Bangladesh, a scenario that recently played out in Italy. Interestingly, this figure has decreased from 65% since May 2023.

Read: Managing and Growing the Internet for One-Quarter of the World’s Population

Greater diversity of transit providers is important for maintaining Internet resilience, market competition, and Internet affordability. All three of these have been somewhat compromised in recent years following the decision by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) requiring all ISPs to purchase bandwidth from at least one registered IIG. This has created a bottleneck with consequences that became evident after the recent fire.

Redundancy Helps But Costs Money

Large local transit providers (those providing transit services to more than 9% of Bangladesh’s networks), such as AS58717 (Summit Communications-BD), AS58682 (Level-3), and AS10075 (Fibre @ Home), which all were reported to have had IIGs located in Khawaja Tower, were able to reroute traffic quickly via other points of presence and as such saw minimal or no change in Internet connectivity.

Line graph showing no changes to the Internet Connectivity for Summit Communication between 24-31 October.
Line graph showing small change to the Internet Connectivity for Level-3 between 24-31 October.
Line graph showing brief change to the Internet Connectivity for Fibre@Home between 24-31 October.
Figure 3 — Internet connectivity for Summit Communications, Level-3, and Fibre @ Home from 23-30 October. Source: IODA

However, smaller transit providers (those providing transit services to 5-9% of Bangladesh’s network providers) such as AS139009 (Windstream Communication Limited) and AS58715 (Earth Telecommunication), saw more prolonged impacts on connectivity.

Line graph showing significant changes to the Internet Connectivity for Earth Telecommunication between 24-31 October.
Line graph showing significant changes to the Internet Connectivity for Windstream Communication between 24-31 October.
Figure 4 — Internet connectivity for Windstream Communication and Earth Telecommunication from 23-30 October. Source: IODA

Given the impact that this fire had on total Internet connectivity for the country, it seems that these smaller transit providers are collectively servicing a considerable number of ISPs. One reason for this is that these smaller transit providers may be cheaper than larger ones, which helps the 2,000+ hyper-local ISPs remain competitive while aligning with the BTRC’s new requirements.

However, many of these smaller transit providers keep costs down by not having as much redundancy (points of presence). The issue in this case was that many of these smaller transit providers had one of their limited points of presence located in the same location as others, which compounded the effect.

The Need For Local Data More Important Than Ever

Another important aspect of this event to consider is the importance of data centers and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) serving local content. If we look at the Internet Resilience Index Profile for Bangladesh (Figure 5) we can see that these enabling infrastructures have respective scores of 4% and 19%.

Screenshot of the Bangladesh Internet Resilience Index profile
Figure 5 — Bangladesh Internet Resilience Index profile. Source: Internet Society Pulse

Data centers play an increasingly important role in the Internet as they allow providers of data-intensive services such as video streaming to store local copies of content closer to Internet users. This reduces the time (latency) it takes to receive such content, which traditionally you would have had to have accessed via another country. 

With such a relatively low number of data centers, the effect of having two data centers knocked out by the fire, especially these two specific data centers that were servicing so many transit providers, was always going to be felt. According to one report, one of these data centers provided 70% of broadband Internet services nationally.

Internet Exchange Points play an equally important role in keeping traffic local. In this case, we can see the significant effect that this fire has had on ISPs trying to access this local content (Figure 6) with traffic dropping from around 140G to 60G during peak hours on Friday 27 October.

Line graph showing the amount of traffic transitioning via the Bangladesh Internet Exchange from 24-30 October
Figure 6 — Total traffic transiting Bangladesh Internet Exchange (BDIX) from 24-30 October. Source: BDIX

Measuring Internet Resilience Requires a Holistic View 

While this incident is another example of the fragility of Bangladesh’s Internet infrastructure, it’s important to note that other components need to be taken into consideration when assessing its overall resilience.

Bangladesh’s Internet Resilience Index score is 51%, which is 5% higher than the overall average for Asia and ranks only behind Bhutan for South Asia (Figure 7). 

Figure 7 — Breakdown of the Internet Resilience Index South Asian countries based on the four pillars that contribute to the smooth operation of the Internet: Infrastructure, Performance, Security, and Market Readiness.

While we’ve focused on components that relate to Internet infrastructure in this post, the score for this pillar is a respectable 50% (above average for Asia) and is its second-highest ranking pillar after security (71%) (Figure 7).

It could be argued that the two pillars that need the most attention are performance (40%) and market readiness (42%). In relation to the latter, we can see how Upstream Provider Diversity and Peering Efficiency score rather low, which are related to a lot of what we’ve discussed in this post (Figure 5).

To be fair, market readiness is something that all countries in South Asia and other regions of the world are struggling with. Importantly, low-cost Internet access is not the driving factor — in many cases it is often influenced by a combination of policies to encourage greater competition, and deploying and supporting networks to connect to Internet Exchange Points which reduce transit costs and lower latency by keeping traffic local.

The Internet Society Internet Resilience Index (IRI) aims to offer these insights and more to help network operators and decision-makers identify weaknesses in their Internet resilience and make data-driven decisions to address these.