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Has the Internet come full circle?

THE future of data traffic is in sight. It’s cheaper, faster and – depending on how much noise its proponents are prepared to make about it – destined to be a big part of Internet traffic handling.

The technology is called peering. In layman’s terms, it’s the process where servers can communicate directly via a routing system instead of sending their information (like web pages or email) into the nebulous mass of the Internet (via ASDL or cable, among other methods).

The system is called WAIX – the Western Australian Internet Exchange. Put together by the Western Australian Internet Association, it’s a potential wake-up call to large and consolidating (or monopoly) telecommunication carriers.

Peering’s theory is that Internet Service Providers in a smaller proximity (and ones far removed from telecommunication back-bones) can transmit data faster and cheaper between themselves with-out having to rely on telecom-munication carriers for data transmission infrastructure.

To join, all you need is a data link to the Exchange. Your traffic can be transmitted over ASDN or fibre optic lines already in place, or you can install private lines from your server to the Exchange. Some of Perth’s biggest ISPs have made short work of the problem of inter-office location cabling by being lucky enough to be located in the same CDB office tower.

In a market like Perth where there are roughly 100 ISPs, WAIX only needs a few big customers (and it already has several) for WAIX to be worth it. A large proportion of Perth traffic no longer has to go via Sydney or other big telecommunication ports before it comes back to Perth.

So why would a non-profit organisation bother? Spokesman for the Western Australian Internet Association and in-house legal counsel for iinet Ltd, Kimberley Heitman, responds that the Association has “an important role in developing WA industry and the public interest.”

Describing Perth as a bit of a telecommunications backwater, Heitman believes the WAIX will address the “end of pipe” situation that Perth is in.

“It’s a long way across the Nullarbor,” he says.

“WAIX is a means of making access faster and more reliable rather than just cheaper.”

When asked about the potential threat to the Telstras and Singtels of the world, Heitman is enthusiastic not about imminent competition but a market where all can be involved.

“We’re in talks with the big communication carriers and if they come on board it’s a win-win situation for everyone,” he said.

It’s a double-sided coin of inclusion and competition - it means taking backbone traffic off the big telecommunication players but offering them a stake in much more efficient data delivery.

The reason lies in WAIX’s second technological advantage – transit. While the vast majority of traffic within Perth already goes through WAIX without having to go off into greater cyberspace, the exchange also accesses data from the rest of the Internet in the usual way. But the difference between WAIX getting backbone traffic from a carrier and an ISP going directly to the carrier is a matter of the WAIA bulk-buying their bandwidth.

An ISP will usually pay a carrier anything from 10 to 50 cents per megabyte (traffic can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month for the bigger services). The same service can join WAIX for a one-off fee of $500 plus quarterly upkeep fees of $450, regardless of how many megabytes they transmit.

The fees are also fixed regardless of the amount of traffic that comes through WAIX from other ISPs on the Exchange versus the amount that comes from carriers via the backbone. For big data services like gaming servers who pay a relative fortune for the heavy data they transmit (and who have no idea where their data traffic is going or coming from), fixed prices are good news.

WAIX can afford to on-sell bandwith cheap because it’s al-ready big. Thirty of Perth’s 100 ISPs are on the exchange, including a handful of the biggest (who are responsible for roughly 85 per cent of local Perth traffic). It’s estimated that iinet, for example, receives about twice as much traffic through the WAIX as they do directly from the backbone via telecommunication carriers

And it’s getting bigger. The WA government service, Servicenet, is on the exchange. In March 2000, WAIX transmitted over 6.7 terabytes of data.

So how does all this help Perth users? Peering means speed and efficiency of delivery of the bulk of local content, and transit offers the potential for huge cost savings as the WAIA passes on bandwidth discounts (the WA government is said to save up to $500 a day by operating through the Exchange).

But with such an all-encom-passing presence in Perth and despite its obvious advantages, there’s been little hype about the technology. The reason why is that WAIX is a philosophy more than an enterprise.

“We’re obliged to carry no more than our overheads and reasonable reserves against contingencies.” Heitman says, explaining why WAIX is as cheap as it is, “WAIX is a process of investing in infrastructure to make the Internet more convenient.”

It’s a philosophy that almost takes the Internet back to the days of its formation, when the driving force was the free exchange of communication rather than the delivery of content and advertising for profit.

But, admits WAIA Treasurer Jamie Bekker, it could be a lot bigger.

“We’re not really marketing it at all to the big corporates. The ISPs know about it but not many others do. There are plans to put on an executive officer at the Association to oversee a program of marketing,” Mr Bekker said.

Where both agree is that it’s an alternative not to the monopoly power of telecommunications giants, but to the speed and delivery process we have to deal with when we use the Internet. It’s a system the telcos can get involved in to sell their delivery cheaper and through which we can all benefit by using a local network instead of waiting for web pages, emails, files and streaming technologies to trickle their way down to our PC from the Internet.

When asked if there are plans to partner with Internet Associations or bodies interstate to create similar, national networks, Heitman is open to the possibility but realistic.

“The cost of traffic through the few pipes that come from the east is prohibitive,” he said.

“More pipes will result in lower costs and then it will be feasible.”

So for now, Perth may serve as the Brave New World of local Internet delivery and with a little promotion and involvement from the telecommunication industry, peering could be the technology of tomorrow.

As Heitman outlines, “A non-profit network is the goal.”

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