When Matt Sayre explains the community benefit of starting an internet exchange in Eugene, he likes to put a non-technical lens on it.
Sayre is vice president of the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO) and technical lead at US Ignite Smart Gigabit Cities. An internet exchange is a little like a digital town square, he says.
“A town square back in the day used to be a place where ideas, goods and services were exchanged. In modern times, an internet exchange — or a digital town square — is a place where these things are exchanged in a digital sense,” he says.
Otherwise, an internet exchange is defined as the physical infrastructure through which internet service providers, or ISPs, exchange internet traffic between their networks and content delivery networks, or CDNs.
If your head’s in the local tech scene, you might already know about WIX, or Willamette Internet Exchange, located in the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG) building on Willamette Street downtown.
Calling WIX an internet exchange is a bit of a misnomer, Sayre says. “There is an interconnect site there,” he says, or a carrier hotel, rather than a true internet exchange, like NWAX, or the Northwest Access Exchange in Portland.
It’s all a lot of technical alphabet soup, so let’s cut to the chase.
Pieces are falling in place to make WIX a true internet exchange, and those are pretty rare. Eugene’s would be one of only about 50 around the world, and it would be even more rare to find a true internet exchange in a medium-sized town like Eugene.
But what difference will this make to locals, both tech and non-tech-y alike?
It would be a little like establishing a regional airport in Eugene, but for the internet, Sayre says. Communities can get by without at least a regional airport, “but it’s going to increasingly become difficult for that community to thrive,” he says.
In addition, a local internet exchange would allow easier exchange of data and better collaboration — files passing directly between big players like the University of Oregon and PeaceHealth quickly and securely, without having to ping out across the larger internet.
As it is now, that process is a like having to travel to Portland or down to the Bay Area in order to walk a letter across town.
Helping build a true internet exchange is a natural extension of LCOG’s mission to bring together community partners, LCOG Principal Planner Jacob Callister tells me via email.
“Over the last two decades, telecommunications has emerged as an area where LCOG can play a role,” Callister says. “Pursuing a true internet exchange where members and local content providers can share data with each other in more efficient ways is an exciting example of this.”
Eugene has been assembling the building blocks of this type of infrastructure for a while.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Eugene’s designation as a Mozilla Gigabit City, or how there’s a fiber consortium in the region stretching from as far east as Oakridge and Westfir, to the coast, and down south of Roseburg?
There’s a lot of high-speed fiber around here, and an internet exchange is the final component to attract tech employers and tie it all together.
“This infrastructure that we’ve invested in, to date, is necessary,” Sayre says. We have regional infrastructure assets that help further the conversation, but “it’s not sufficient to attract content providers.”
We’re getting there, Sayre says.
“We needed to connect all of that fiber — which historically had been an island — to the broad internet,” he continues.
Most of all, an internet exchange would provide a more consistently good internet experience.
Telemedicine would become more viable and video conferencing more stable. In addition, experiences in the digital domain that require low-latency would become possible.
This means a vocalist could perform on the stage at the Hult Center, accompanied by a music ensemble streaming from somewhere else on the West Coast, and the human ear wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, Sayre says.
With a local internet exchange, there would also be increased network resiliency in the event of a major outage or natural disaster.
And for the average internet consumer, an internet exchange in Eugene could bring prices down while helping to improve service.
“It helps foster a competitive landscape,” Sayre says. “Competition helps good companies get better. In the internet space, when you have companies competing for customers, we’ve seen locally prices fall, speeds increase and customer service get better.”
So how close are we to a local internet exchange becoming a reality? We’re about 70-percent there, according to Sayre.
Local accountants and law firms have stepped up to help WIX gain non-profit status, and the UO has given an informal vote of confidence. LCOG hs donated rack space for the digital infrastructure, and Seattle’s Internet Exchange (SIX) has open-sourced all their documents.
In addition, the city of Eugene has stepped forward.
“We got validation that the community has interest in creating a true internet exchange in our region,” Sayre says, which would require members chipping in only about $100 bucks a month.
“Everyone chips in a little bit and the people of our region benefit,” he says.
“We would have this exchange online and creating value for our region in the next 90 days,” Sayre says. “We fight above our weight class in this category.”