NBN 101: Floating the submarine cable question

We take a deep look at the issue of international links to the internet and what this means for broadband investment in Australia

This article is part of Computerworld Australia's NBN 101 series, in which we take a look at the arguments surrounding the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network, and dissect them one by one. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates central to the National Broadband Network (NBN) and other broadband infrastructure projects to give you a grounding as more and more media outlets and commentators speak out on the project. We encourage people to take the discussion further in the comments section.

In our first article we took a look at how Australia’s NBN plan compares to the rest of the world and the statistics and graphs from the OECD, and then we strapped in for a tour of speeds. We also had a look at wireless technologies versus fibre optic, then we delved into the economic argument for a high-speed national broadband network, and how applications and potential service packages may play a role in the NBN. Then more recently we discussed whether mobility is a friend of foe.

Now we turn out attention to our international links to the internet, as it is one of the topics that surprisingly popped up during the Federal Election.

Bedding down the submarine cable links

One of the conversations emanating out of the Federal Election campaign broadband discourse centred on our international links to the internet.

In short, the argument went that mass infrastructure investment in projects like the National Broadband Network (NBN), no matter how fast, would be ultimately bottlenecked by Australia's international links. Support for this argument has some convincing elements: 70 per cent of the content Australians access is based overseas and the submarine cable links connecting us to the rest of the digital world simply aren't abundant.

To build a network of the NBN's scale without factoring in additional international links would relegate Australians to a proverbial pipe dream (excuse the pun).

Throughout the election campaign several commentators used this reasoning to various ends. Pro-NBNers, on the other hand, conjectured with the notion that Australian internet access would become much more local, as increased bandwidth afforded greater benefits for internal communication and applications.

However, most really didn’t look beyond a very shallow interpretation, and in many ways it is fundamentally erroneous.

So let’s look a bit deeper.

Aside from the fact the US is a highly successful mass content producer and has for some time put in a lot of national effort into bolstering the IT industry, one of the reasons so much of the internet content Australians access is located offshore is the manner in which our networks are architected.

IDC analyst David Cannon explains that when websites were mainly static content, it didn’t matter if updates to information took up to two or three days to complete. Basically, around the late 90s and even early this century, a lot of this content was cached domestically, predominantly with hosting company, Melbourne IT.

At the time, ISPs bought data from the big carriers – Telstra, Optus, AAPT, and WorldCom (now Verizon) – in two strands: Domestic and international.

“All of it travelled back and forth locally at a cheap price,” Cannon said. “Then all of a sudden websites started to become more dynamic with multimedia capabilities. What was happening was the cached data wasn’t keeping up with what the websites were trying to achieve. Simultaneously there was the Southern Cross pipes coming onboard, making data far more accessible and much cheaper.

“What they were hoping to do was sell clear channel pipes to the ISPs who could go to LA and peer with basically the internet and negotiate data rates themselves, and the telco would just sell them the pipe. That didn’t work out because they were really asking an arm and a leg. I remember selling the first STM-1 Southern Cross pipe to connect.com, which was AAPT’s ISP.

“I think it was something like $US12,000 a month or something like that just for a 2 megabit per second (Mbps) pipe. Back then that was good capacity, but of course now that is just ridiculous. Then if you wanted to move to STM-1 or anything like that you were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars US per month. It was just out of reach.”

To cut a long story short, things evolved - prices came down, broadband emerged and the dynamic content on websites meant it was better to go direct to the US for data instead of paying to cache it domestically. And we have lived with that architecture for the past 10 years.

So do we have a capacity bottleneck to access this data? Not even close.

As far back as early last year Robin Russell, CEO of the Australia-Japan Cable, wrote in an article that international networks are nowhere near being considered a capacity constraint.

“That proposition can be despatched immediately,” he wrote. “Each of the four networks that will be providing the bulk of international connections for Australia is capable of carrying at least a terabit per second of data. The total international capacity in use for the Australian market in 2009 is estimated to be around 300 gigabits per second. Accordingly, total capacity usage could double, then double again, then double again, and then double yet again before the capabilities of those networks was exhausted. It would therefore be difficult to say that international networks are a capacity bottleneck in the Australian market.”

The four cables he was referring to are:

  • Southern Cross Cable Network
  • Australia-Japan Cable
  • Telstra’s Endeavour
  • Pipe Network’s PPC-1

There are other submarine cables but these are the four major transit routes for most of our internet traffic.

(See the images at the top of this story for the cable routes and maps.)

Moreover, there are other cable projects in the works. In July, it was announced raw network bandwidth out of Australia is set to get a two-fold increase with a $US400 million undersea cable.

Data carriers Pacnet and Pacific Fibre are partnering to build the Pacific Fibre cable, a low-latency undersea fibre optic cable spanning Australia, New Zealand and the US.

The bandwidth of the new cable will be a minimum of two fibre pairs with 64 wavelengths per pair. Each wavelength has a throughput capacity of 40 gigabits per second (Gbps) for a total of 5.21 terabits per second (Tbps) bandwidth.

The cable length is estimated to be 13,600 km long and will connect Sydney, Auckland and Los Angeles, bypassing the likes of Guam and Hawaii for the time. The pipe can be upgraded to 12Tbps with 100G technology.

And in July, many analysts and observers backed the announced upgrade to the Asia Pacific Cable Network 2 (APCN2) from 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) to 40 Gbps.

So capacity is really not even close to being an issue at this stage. Will we need more in future? Most likely, yes, particularly if NBN Co makes good on promises to deliver peak speeds of 1Gbps. But the existing cables can be upgraded by swapping out the terminal equipment to increase the already abundant capacity.

Yet, although we don’t have a bandwidth bottleneck by any stretch of the imagination, it doesn’t mean you will get top speeds from content that is located offshore.

Layer 10’s Dr Paul Brooks explains.

“Because of the round trip delay, you are not going to get 100Mbps of download from an international server regardless of how much capacity is sitting there unused,” Brooks said. “If you have a server close by, yes you can get your average PC can get 20, 30 or 40MBps from that. But with exactly the same download even if you had infinite capacity would still give you only 6 to 10Mbps from the international server because of the round trip delay.”

So even if we build the NBN we aren’t going to get the speeds they promised anyway, so what’s the point in spending the money?

Well, there are a number of reasons why this conclusion is acutely short-sighted – not least that we won’t be using broadband infrastructure just to access internet content that comes from the US - and it shouldn’t be used to preclude building top-class telecommunications infrastructure, even if it isn’t the NBN as we know it under the Labor administration.

Next: The domestic caching trend

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