As the internet withstands an increase in traffic in India from people working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we spoke to Raunak Maheshwari, who runs the Extreme Internet Exchange, for an idea on how ready exchanges and the Indian internet are to handle the surge in traffic. Note that this conversation happened on March 23 — we seem to be have a stability in web traffic after it initially surged at the beginning of last week. Extreme IX is a private internet exchange, one among several that directly connects content providers like Amazon Web Services, Facebook, Google and Akamai to Internet Service Providers.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

MediaNama: Is your exchange capable of dealing with increased video bitrates even if content providers don’t do anything to reduce their data use? Would you be able to handle data use doubling?

Raunak Maheshwari: Yeah. On our infrastructure, we can manage [the surge in traffic]. That is not an issue. But ISPs bring their own infra to the exchange. They either bring their own fiber or buy point-to-point links from some telco, and reach the exchange. So we are not the ones manning the connection from the exchange to the ISP, the ISPs themselves are responsible for it.

We just provide ports on our switches. As long as we have switches with ports, we can provide our services. The dependence on my infra is very small; the dependence on telcos’ infra and ISPs’ last mile and their connection to my exchange is what matters.

MediaNama: How about ISPs’ networks themselves? Are they ready?

Raunak Maheshwari: As long as they are connected to the exchange, they have enough capacity to deliver all kinds of bitrates from content providers to end users. For tier 2 alternative ISPs [independent ISPs in smaller cities], this is not a constraint.

MediaNama: Then why did telecom companies ask streaming services to reduce their bandwidth use?

Raunak Maheshwari: Telcos are having problems with their wireless last mile. Wireless telcos’ base stations may not even be connected with each other on fiber. Broadband is a wired connection to the user’s home, whether it’s ethernet or fiber to the home. This is basically a high capacity last mile from the ISP’s last mile NOC (Network Operating Centre) to the end user’s home. This is essentially 100Mbps per customer. If it’s FTTH it’s 1Gbps.

If it is a wired last mile, there is no bottlenecking. But wireless last miles are not the same. There it depends on customers concurrently using one base station. And there is a limitation of capacity on the wireless last mile. Concurrent delivery of high bitrate video streams can be difficult. That can choke up a base station. A surge in connectivity is manageable, but consistent delivery of high bitrate data is not something that can be handled easily. With India’s 4G implementation, it’s unlikely that telcos will be able to handle more than 2Mbps per user when you have consistent high bitrate data on wireless connections.

MediaNama: Why is NIXI’s traffic really low? [The National Internet Exchange of India was set up by the government, and has all major telecom providers as members.]

Raunak Maheshwari: All telcos peer with each other in some location or the other, even without NIXI within India. Why would they send traffic through NIXI?

MediaNama: So what utility does NIXI provide?

Raunak Maheshwari: I honestly think NIXI could have done better before the private exchanges came along in India. One of the policies that held it back was the data difference rule [where telcos have to pay the exchange for data downloaded minus data uploaded, in addition to the bandwidth they are renting]. They also did not allow content providers like Google and Facebook to participate, only licensed operators were allowed. This is a policy that did not allow it to grow. Now that there are private exchanges that allow peering very easily, NIXI’s usage has gone down. Telcos also don’t prefer sending traffic through NIXI.

[Note: NIXI reversed these policies in 2019, but only two content providers have shown interest so far.]

MediaNama: How much of the Indian internet’s traffic do you think goes through your exchange?

Raunak Maheshwari: India is a periphery in the world’s internet ecosystem. We are consumers — the download traffic is much more than what we are able to upload. My calculations with respect to the traffic across the content providers is that India uses about 25Tbps of incoming traffic from the world. So out of that, if you calculate percentage, 800Gbps is what travels through Extreme IX, around 3%.

MediaNama: Does the bulk of internet traffic in India go through exchanges?

Raunak Maheshwari: No, the bulk of traffic does not go through exchanges; not because it’s the exchanges’ fault, but because of India’s internet ecosystem. Our fixed broadband penetration is at most 8%. You have only a few cities with enough fixed broadband players, like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Pune, Nagpur, maybe Coimbatore, that have decent saturation of fixed broadband providers. Aside from these cities, most cities are served by BSNL, and the fixed broadband connections there aren’t much.

I come from Kota, where you have 2 lakh students coming for IIT entrance exam coaching, but the fixed broadband penetration there in a town of 10 lakh people is just around 5,000 BSNL home connections. This is a mini cosmopolitan city with 2 lakh homes with lots of money coming from outside the city from students who enrol in coaching centres. This means people have money, but they don’t feel the need of fixed broadband. This is why exchanges won’t be able to do the traffic that we see in other developed internet economies, like Brazil, which has the largest internet exchange of the world, doing 10 terabits per second with a fifth of India’s population. And that’s also just a fifth of that country’s internet traffic. The government of Brazil is highly supportive of the exchange ecosystem. So they encourage all institutions, banks, universities, everybody to connect to the exchange. In India we are not at that level yet.

MediaNama: A Netflix network engineer said that last mile connections even for wired broadband was not good enough everywhere, justifying the company’s decision to lower video bitrates in Europe. Do you believe that fixed broadband last mile connections in India can sustain the onslaught of traffic from COVID-19?

Raunak Maheshwari: I don’t believe that ISPs’ last mile (connections) in India were mostly empty before the pandemic. The pandemic has resulted in more traffic, but I don’t think it’s significantly different from what you see across global providers. And I differ with this Netflix engineer’s point where he says that fixed broadband last mile is not good; I can understand that with respect to BSNL; yes, it is not good. But with respect to private organisations like DEN, Alliance Broadband, Excitel, Hathway, the cable broadband ISPs… they have a decent last mile. BSNL has a last mile that was not particularly designed to withstand high bitrate video traffic.

Private ISPs’ last mile capacities are good enough to handle the surge of data. The bottleneck may lie between cities. For example, if an ISP in Surat or Kota wants to connect to an internet exchange in Mumbai or Delhi, they have to rely on the last mile connectivity from some telcos, and telcos won’t really have that kind of huge capacity. For example, if an ISP in Jaipur wants to upgrade its 5Gbps point-to-point link to a 10Gbps one, it won’t happen for a few months. Because telcos won’t have that kind of capacity. This is where the bottleneck lies, not between the end user and their nearest network location.

MediaNama: Anything interesting that came up after this pandemic you’d like to share?

Raunak Maheshwari: There is surge in traffic, and it wasn’t expected to be this high. People at home are free to entertain themselves, but enterprises say that they’re equally productive with their employees working from home. I’d seriously question that as an exchange provider working with about 300 ISPs, and having spoken with their owners and seeing what the entertainment traffic patterns have been.