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Montgomery Launches First City-Owned Internet Exchange Point in Alabama

Montgomery officials are touting the new project as a landmark in the city's history and a blessing for local economic development and cybersecurity research.

Montgomery, Ala., has become the first city in the state and just the fourth in the southeastern U.S. to launch an Internet exchange point, the Internet equivalent of a freeway interchange.

As the city announced Jan. 20, instead of Internet service providers, content delivery services and educational institutions routing traffic through Atlanta, they can now route traffic and store data locally.

The announcement coincides with the creation of a cooperative – called the Montgomery Cyber Connection – that includes the city of Montgomery, Montgomery County, the state of Alabama, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base and the Air Force Cyber College, and will enable cybersecurity research and attract new economic opportunities to the region, according to officials.

The Montgomery Internet Exchange (MIX) is an investment in the city’s future, said Ben Venable, MIX project manager, adding that the city expects big gains for its small investment. The city, he said, spends about $900 a month to rent rack space in a local data center where project partner Akamai Technologies keeps its equipment, along with another $100 each month to pay the electricity bill and the fee for Akamai’s back-end connection. The Cisco exchange switch was donated by the Packet Clearing House, so for about $1,000 a month, Venable said the city established itself as an important piece of the Internet infrastructure.

Montgomery’s main ISPs, WOW! and Charter Communications, can now serve local customers more easily than if they needed to run backhaul to Atlanta, he said, and many ISPs from Atlanta have asked to connect to the new exchange point to add redundancy to their networks.

“Companies want to locate themselves and particularly their equipment close to an Internet exchange where they have the opportunity to purchase their Internet cheaper than they could somewhere else – and that’s the significance of the exchange,” Venable said. “But now when you add in the Air University piece, Montgomery has the opportunity to become one of the forefront locations in the world to do cyber-research.”

The exchange, he added, was made possible through a combination of dormant resources: the city’s dark fiber, the data center, the city’s partnerships, and Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base’s need of a public network that could be used to conduct research across universities.

“Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast wanted a way for his students at Air University to collaborate with other university students on cyber-research, but for him to do that, he had to have a platform outside the military on a commercial network that other university students could get to, because if he put it on the military network, nobody but the military would be able to touch it,” Venable explained, noting that running fiber through an Internet exchange in Atlanta or Florida could cost billions. “The exchange is a huge draw for our community in terms of education and technology.”

And 50 years from now, said Air University Commander Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast in a press release, "when people write about the fact that America reinvented the way it could live with freedom, independence, civil liberties and privacy in an information age and they write about the River Region, Montgomery and Alabama being the leader of that effort, they will find that in this moment the magic ingredients for innovation existed.”

Upon announcement, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange told a local news outlet that the exchange is a boon for the city’s technological and financial future, as it puts the city on a path to becoming a 100 gigabit city – and the bandwidth will bring in millions in economic development.

Though some of the city’s expectations are a bit overblown, says Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, installing the exchange was a smart move.

“It’s important and I think it’s terrific that they’re doing it,” Mitchell said. “However, the main bottleneck that most residents and businesses see will not change. And that’s their connection right outside their house or business. This local peering point will not make their local connections faster, most likely. What it will hopefully do is make it easier for local ISPs, or even the city if it so chose, to expand, because they wouldn’t have to figure out how to connect to Atlanta or some other major hub. They can just connect in town.”

That promises of such magnitude can be purchased for just $1,000 a month is curious given how rare exchange points are. The Western seaboard and New England each have dozens of exchanges, as they serve both larger populations and as intercontinental access points, but in many regions it’s possible to go hundreds of miles and cross entire states without finding one. It’s not just cities that are without exchanges – Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming are just some of the states that don’t have an exchange point. More cities should build them, Mitchell said, but one can’t expect it to work everywhere.

“What you need is excited networks to connect within it,” Mitchell explained. “So to some extent, this is a quintessential public-private action where the city is working with the private providers and [educational institutions], because if a city just did this and the local networks weren’t interested in using it, it won’t go anywhere.”

The Midwest Internet Cooperative Exchange (MICE) in Minneapolis, for instance, serves as a regional traffic handler that saves some ISPs a trip to Chicago or Wisconsin. For proprietary reasons, not everyone can use that exchange, Mitchell said, but even without speed boosts, more exchanges can yield other advantages.

Speed is not everything on a network,” he explained. “Increasingly, businesses care about things like latency and other network measurements, and when you don’t have to pass through a whole bunch of extra routers or go hundreds of extra miles out of your way, you get better performance.”

If companies can host their data closer where it’s needed, it can ease network congestion. Companies like Microsoft and Apple store operating system updates at exchanges, while companies like Netflix and Hulu store movies. The same principle applies to the buildout of local networks. There’s less backhaul connecting a neighborhood to a fiber network if the exchange is in town.

So for a city considering an exchange, not much is needed but a little creative thinking, said Mitchell. Santa Monica, Calif., for instance, repurposed an old jail for one during a remodel.

“What you need for something like that is a building that has secure access and fiber optics,” he said. “You could take a school, fire station, police station, take a little portion of that property, build up a glorified hut that has air conditioning and heating, and make a secure entrance, and you basically have something like this. It’s a little more complicated than that, but it is something that cities can do because they have property everywhere.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.