Casting a Net across the Middle East
The internet is an incredible resource for growth and innovation; it sparks creativity and connects people across the world, whilst supporting the global economy.
This year, the internet celebrates its 30th anniversary. Over three decades, the internet has grown to a scale which was hard to imagine in the early days. But as with any technology, the internet is at different stages of maturity around the world. The US and Western Europe enjoy significant user penetration and considerable support from the public and private sectors, with internet even reaching into some household appliances.
Other parts of the globe are catching up quickly – learning from the experiences of other regions, these younger industries are able to skip incremental technology advances, such as the evolution from dial-up infrastructure to broadband to fibre broadband and wifi.
The growth and development of the internet is dependent on dozens of factors, and these are often region-specific. For the Middle East, one of the important issues is capacity, a broad term that includes physical infrastructure, computing hardware, software and human capacity. Building this capacity will be fundamental to ensuring the kind of growth required to bring new regions and users online, while managing the huge amount of data traffic generated by applications such as streaming video. With the fast pace of technology development, building internet capacity is essential to safeguard the future of the internet, and foster local and international innovation.
A closer look at the Internet in the Middle East
The IMF predicts that in 2013, the Middle East will continue to experience economic growth at a rate of 3.7 per cent. But it’s not just enjoying growth through economics – the Burj Khalifa is an example of the sheer scale and ambition of industry in the Middle East, and the ambitions of the internet industry are no less grand, with the sector developing rapidly, and attracting investment and users.
Internet infrastructure and development in the region is a completely different landscape compared to two years ago. For example, the number of RIPE NCC members (also known as Local Internet Registries, or LIRs) based in the region grew nearly 20 per cent in just the last 12 months. A broad commitment to building the internet has helped to decrease the cost of development through economies of scale. Previously it simply wasn’t a financially viable effort for stakeholders to build internet infrastructure, but this is changing, and better, more widely deployed infrastructure has resulted in better access opportunities for businesses and ordinary citizens, and increasing revenues for internet-related industries.
Infrastructure capacity is developing rapidly, with new Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in the UAE and the Palestinian Territory. These IXPs are of benefit to all parties when utilised properly for peering, and help to reduce overall costs for ISPs, as well as improving latency and bandwidth issues for end users. On the international stage there has been a lot of discussion and recognition of the importance of building local peering relationships, and the recent first meeting of the Arab Internet Governance Forum (Arab IGF) featured the issue prominently in its agenda.
It’s also important to recognise how the Middle East is taking steps to develop the internet through the sharing of knowledge and experience, and actively engaging in multi-stakeholder internet governance processes. In 2012, the success of the first Arab IGF, a region-specific event held in Kuwait and similar to the global Internet Governance Forum, demonstrated the high level of interest from a range of regional stakeholders in Internet governance issues. Planning is already underway for a 2013 event, with a public Open Consultation session scheduled to take place in Dubai this March. These events are an opportunity for representatives from the region (including individuals from government, business, technical & academic community, civil society as well youth) to collaborate and share information, perspectives and experiences.
In a similar vein, the Internet Society hosted its first INET Conference in the region recently in Qatar. The sheer demand and support for both of these events underlines how much the region’s Internet community has grown and how quickly it is maturing.
In addition to these events, the RIPE NCC works closely in support of the Middle East Network Operators Group (MENOG). The MENOG IPv6 Roadshow program, which provides practical, hands-on training for network operators, has seen significant demand from public sector institutions across the entire region. With 13 events held over 2011-2012 and more than 300 participants, The IPv6 Roadshow is helping to build technical expertise that will be vital to the on-going growth of networks in the region. Working closely with MENOG, the RIPE NCC has also been active in building the kind of social and professional networks of peers that are essential to growing human capacity. Combined, these activities create important tools for sharing information and capitalising on the technical talent already based in the region.
These efforts are paying dividends within the region and also on the global stage. One such example is Qatar, a country that has set a strong example in terms of encouraging growth in its local industry, and has been noticed on the international level at global events like the World Conference on International Telecommunications.
The public sector has played a key role in developing the local internet capabilities. The national governments and regulators are taking a proactive interest in capacity strategies – task forces have been set up in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon and Egypt. It’s a tremendous result to see so much support so quickly, and it drives home the message within the local Internet industry that there is high-level support for businesses.
There are positive results from a greater focus on regional peering, and that will improve even further with the launch of the Middle East Peering Forum in March 2013. Local events like this are important for the continued development of the internet in the Middle East as they help to build new relationships and strengthen the networks already in place, and provide an opportunity to share experiences, challenges, and especially successes.
Effectively addressing issues like infrastructure and processes will take time. The region is still building examples of best practice and fostering new intra-region relationships – these must be based around the existing structures and institutions first, before being developed further.
We’re also seeing a range of stakeholders focusing attention on the importance of local language content. Internet content in Arabic is essential, both for industry education, and also for encouraging the general population of the region to use the internet. Google Saudi Arabia now provides local language translating – this may appear to be a minor landmark, but as more Arabic content becomes available, we will see more frequent internet use and deeper integration with the local culture and society. This will eventually lead to the internet changing from a luxury item with niche appeal to an everyday commodity for the mass market.
An opportunity to be world class
The focus has been on public sector at first with the private sector following shortly after. But there must be a collaborative effort by all of the main stakeholders, from governments to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and beyond. The fact that the Internet industry in the region is still relatively young lends itself to exploring innovative ways for the public and private sectors to work together.
The Middle East faces a big challenge, which is also a big opportunity, to engage its own people and set a precedent for the rest of the world to follow. It can engage with young people and create a new industry invigorated with fresh ideas and passion. The scale of the youth sector means there is a large pool of people to educate and then employ, while not losing the best talent in a brain-drain to the West.
It needs to be made clear to young people that their ideas can have an impact on their local environment, from regulatory policies to seeing new jobs created around the Internet. Young people can change the way the market behaves, and make a real difference at this relatively early stage of the industry’s development. This is in stark contrast to other regions, which have a more mature and established internet with more rigid systems and processes in place.
The RIPE NCC is exploring opportunities to link the Euro IGF and Arab IGF youth sections, which would again help to promote and inspire knowledge sharing. It’s vital that the next generation is passionate and engaged, so they can continue the good work already done. The Middle East has an opportunity to show the whole world how internet resources can be developed, but this can only happen with the involvement of all stakeholders, from government level right through to the average internet user.
Capacity building is crucial to the future of the internet across the region, and it will only happen through the active engagement of both the public and private sectors to encourage young people to participate in the industry and build a long-term future for the internet in the Middle East.
Paul Rendek is director of external relations at regional internet registry RIPE NCC