DE-CIX heads for the final frontier

15 October 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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German internet exchange operator DE-CIX has a vision, to take high-quality access to the 40% of the world without any. Ivo Ivanov tells Alan Burkitt-Gray that low-orbit satellites are the answer

Pretty much anywhere you go in the developed, highly industrialised world, you will get a good internet connection. That’s why internet service providers (ISPs), internet exchanges (IXs) and data centre owners are thriving.

But Ivo Ivanov, who is president of DE-CIX International, is worried: fully 40% of the world’s population has no reliable internet connection. That means people in those areas struggle to communicate with their families and to do all the things most of us have been used to for a couple of decades or more.

“Businesses in these locations have been struggling to digitalise,” he explains, “and there is a lack of suitable internet access for educational institutions, for example.”

Ivanov and his colleagues have an idea, and he is keen to talk about it. He sees an opportunity for DE-CIX to go global, to set up what he calls “a space internet exchange, or space intercommunications”. There is, he says “new hope from space” for 40% of the world. And, no, he adds quickly, “do not mix this with SpaceX”, though Elon Musk’s company is one prominent example of a possible solution.

From Frankfurt to space

This is the birth of what could become DE-CIX Global, a satellite-based extension to the idea that has driven DE-CIX for the past 26 years. Frankfurt-based DE-CIX is owned by Eco, an internet industry association with more than 1,100 members, the largest such group in Europe. It operates carrier and data centre-neutral internet exchanges in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia.

Interconnections mean services get to the whole world – or, at least, the 60% with good and reliable internet service. The other 40%, well, sorry.

Ivanov sees hope in the emerging business of launching and operating low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which orbit just a few hundred kilometres above the surface. The benefit of such a low orbit is that latency – the round-trip time for a signal – is short, just a few milliseconds. LEO satellites’ main competitors are geosynchronous satellites, orbiting 35,786km above the equator. Their disadvantage is that the 71,000km round-trip brings delays, thanks to the speed of light, an unchangeable 300,000km/s: that means about a quarter of a second to send the signal up and back down again, and that’s before you get a reply.

There are two significant LEO satellite projects on the go at the moment, and Ivanov is ultra-careful not to say which DE-CIX is favouring. One is SpaceX’s Starlink, which plans to orbit its satellite at 550km above the surface. That gives a latency of 1.8ms. The downside, though, is that each satellite can’t cover much of the planet. SpaceX already has permission from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for 12,000 Starlink satellites and is hoping for 30,000 more.

Its main rival, OneWeb, plans just 648 satellites in its first phase: about half are already in orbit and the rest should be working by mid-2022. At 1,200km up, each satellite covers more land – and sea – than each of SpaceX’s; latency is 4ms, just over twice that for the Starlink satellites.

But, then, if you’re in Barcelona, Dublin, Naples or Stockholm, you’re as far from DE-CIX headquarters in Frankfurt as one of OneWeb’s satellites in orbit over Europe.

Space internet exchange

So this is what Ivanov and his colleagues are doing, though you will have to accept for the moment that it’s still early days for DE-CIX’s plans-in-progress. There is a name, though: Space-IX. And there is a website: space-ix.net.

“LEO technology allows a new telecoms backbone in space,” says Ivanov. This backbone “needs also to be interconnected as locally as possible”. The idea is, he continues, to colocate data centres with the main ground stations that link to the satellites. He has been watching the LEO business – again, no names for projected partners, though it’s noticeable, and perhaps significant, that SpaceX is the company he keeps referring to for examples.

“We are working with LEO operators,” he says. Some have “started using the DE-CIX ecosystem”, he adds. “This gives us an idea – this will change the way a region without any internet access or very poor access will be served better.”
Many people and companies in many remote areas already use geosynchronous satellites, or even the halfway house, medium Earth orbit (MEO) services. But LEO scores over both in latency, “which is very important”, he adds.

“Geostationary satellites provide a very bad experience.” Not just the low bandwidth – typically around 1Mbps – “but the worst thing is the latency”, says Ivanov.

Beautiful digital services

“We can bring internet access to the beautiful world of digital services to people who are isolated today,” he enthuses. It’s not just a matter of providing the satellite network. “It needs to be connected – with gaming providers and sports and streaming companies,” he adds, citing again the fact that “more than 40% of the world’s population do not have access to the internet. It is our mandate as an industry to change this. What is the purpose of our industry but to serve the needs of users?”

The role of the internet industry is “about providing solid information for businesses and consumers”, he adds. “It means allowing you and me to access the internet. This is very important.”

He gives some examples: “Let’s talk about a company, a start-up, in the rural US or a small village in India or Africa,” he says. “They need to rely on good cloud connectivity – they need to rely on services that are not on their premises.” He lists services such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) that all commercial operations rely on today, not to mention Microsoft Teams as a key means of communications.

DE-CIX already offers Microsoft Azure Peering Service to its customers, though Ivanov says that “we don’t like to call it MAPS because of possible confusion with Google Maps”. Microsoft itself says that the “Azure Peering Service is a networking service that enhances customer connectivity to Microsoft cloud services such as Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365, software as a service (SaaS), Azure, or any Microsoft services accessible via the public internet”.

Available everywhere

Ivanov observes: “All of this should be available everywhere.” He is not thinking of just Azure, but also Google, Tencent, Alibaba and other cloud providers. “We need to get excellent quality in terms of latency and jitter.” Interconnection is vital.
How, in practice? One obvious solution, says Ivanov, is to work with mobile network operators and their base stations in under-served markets. LEO satellites can connect data centres with base stations and on to end-users in the immediate area. “Operators can collaborate with the backbone, just like interconnecting with the celltower – then from the celltower to users,” he says. Getting the inter-connection details right is important.

You could work with a ground station, located close to an existing DE-CIX metro network, that delivers signals to a customer of a LEO satellite network, he adds.

Big gaming

He makes it clear he’s not just talking about business services. “Don’t forget the big gaming guys – that’s the space interconnected ecosystem. Remember how colourful the community can be. We are talking about gaming companies, content delivery networks, the cloud. All are present in DE-CIX,” he says.

DE-CIX’s interconnected services will “all be interconnected to each other and the existing DE-CIX ecosystem”, he adds. “We will globalise the interconnection.” He offers a new word that a colleague has invented: “glocalise”.

This LEO connectivity “is already happening”, he says, mentioning DE-CIX in New York, but not offering further details. “We need to deploy DE-CIX fabric in new areas where the network will have ground stations,” adds Ivanov. “It is part of a bigger approach, not specific to LEO, but part of our strategy for DE-CIX to cover the world with local interconnection.”

It will allow DE-CIX to expand to data centre operators that don’t have direct interconnection, expanding the company’s offer to tier-2, tier-3 and tier-4 markets. It will become, he smiles, “DE-CIX as a service – a project designed to be very flexible and a perfect opportunity to speed up our go-to-market strategy”. Or, maybe, DE-CIX’s go-to-space strategy.