Terrestrial networks: a valuable alternative?

As subsea routes become increasingly congested, can the development of terrestrial networks offer a valuable alternative for the global carrier community? Alex Hawkes investigates how new terrestrial projects could transform international connectivity between Europe and Asia.

Since the first submarine cable was deployed across the English Channel in 1850, more than a million kilometres of cables have gone on to be laid across ocean floors worldwide. Today they stand paramount to carriers for delivering international connectivity – symbolised by the astonishing fact that subsea cables are estimated to carry 95% of international voice and data traffic.

Yet a number of natural disasters in recent years have highlighted the growing vulnerability of relying on subsea cables to transport such vast quantities of the world’s traffic. Likewise social and political unrest across the Middle East has raised concerns over the level of traffic passing between Europe and Asia via Egypt, a vital gateway for connectivity between the two regions.

It seems little coincidence therefore that a number of large terrestrial cable projects have emerged in recent years as carriers explore new forms of adding resiliency and redundancy to the plethora of existing subsea systems.

John Hibbard, CEO of analyst firm Hibbard Consulting and also a regular columnist for Capacity magazine (see page 9), says the industry is in need of alternative options to subsea links: “There is now becoming an undue concentration of cables up the Red Sea and it is seen as a sensitive area – and there remains a greater dependency on that route to get traffic across. The industry really wants to have alternatives – the attraction of terrestrial routes is more about diversity than anything else.”

Middle Eastern momentum

The Regional Cable Network (RCN) serves as a fine example of the growing focus on terrestrial projects. Aiming to become the longest fully-redundant terrestrial communications infrastructure in the Middle East, the $500 million cable is the result of a collaboration between seven telecoms operators from five countries across the region and will span some 7,750km.

Stretching from the UAE’s Fujairah through Riyadh, Amman and Syria before ending in Turkey, where the cable will connect into Europe, the RCN will be designed with a 12.8Tbps capacity and is aiming to become operational by the end of 2011. When it does go live, it could help to end the Middle East region’s reliance on submarine cables for delivering high-speed internet.

While the Arab Spring on one hand exposed concerns over the industry’s dependency on Egypt’s fibre-optic corridor, the well-documented and pivotal role of the internet and social media in many of the region’s protests also highlighted the high demand and interest in all things internet.

The RCN hopes to open up the potential for the development of rich local content by supplying vital capacity to countries previously underserved. This is particularly evident in Turkey, where Turckcell Superonline, the fixed-line subsidiary of Turkcell Group, is hoping to use its role in the cable project to help meet the growing demand for content in its domestic market: “The region covered by RCN is the fastest growing in terms of internet penetration and internet speeds. There are two billion people in the reach of this infrastructure which is why we felt it was important to get involved,” says Murat Erkan, general manager at Turkcell Superonline.

“This infrastructure will enable us to deliver our services much faster to both Far Eastern and Western countries. A lot of content produced by Turkish companies is now being utilised a lot by other Arabic countries and we want to make Istanbul a key access point for this content.”

While hoping the RCN will help transform Turkey into a hub for regional content, Erkan is also quick to express what he believes are several key advantages to deploying terrestrial cables rather than submarine links – namely “recovery and resiliency”.

“Until we deploy this cable, most of the internet in the region is reliant on submarine cables – and when something goes wrong with submarine cables, it can take anywhere up to a month to fix them. We are handling the maintenance of our section of this terrestrial route in-house, and we believe recovery can instead be achieved in a matter of hours,” says Erkan. “We have also built redundancy by ensuring there are two separate routes from each location, so when one goes wrong the other route will recover the system.”

Finally, Erkan believes the ability to more easily upgrade a terrestrial system than a submarine link will prove essential: “Even if we have invested a lot in capacity, it will never be enough as the internet will continue to evolve, with video content quite clearly being the next big driver of consuming more bandwidth. When you deploy such a digital highway as the RCN, it shows a commitment to the modern now and the modern future.”

Eurasian alternatives

Other efforts to create terrestrial routes linking Asia and Europe via the Middle East have also proved fruitful in recent years. Named after the four capital cities it passes through – Jeddah, Amman, Damascus and Istanbul – the JADI Live network became operational in July 2010. The 2,530km route collects the international data infrastructures of the four countries on a single line and again is the product of collaboration between regional operators, with Syrian Telecom notably being involved in both JADI and RCN.

The other obvious path for Eurasian traffic runs through China, Russia and Kazakhstan. The historic significance of this dates back to 206BC when a network of important routes was created by the Han Dynasty for its lucrative Chinese silk trade. Today, China Telecom Europe (CTE) is hoping to establish four diversified terrestrial cables that pay homage to its ancestors in a project it has labelled ‘Information Silk Road’.

The project began five years ago and three diversified cables have been launched since, all of which connect China through Russia; one of these also runs via Mongolia. In late August, the EMEA subsidiary of China Telecom announced that the fourth cable via Kazakhstan will be ready by the end of this year.

In a sign of increasing market liberalisation, the company has collaborated with a range of Russian and Kazakh partners to create the new transit-Kazakhstan fibre-optic cable. While paths through China–Russia or China–Kazakhstan–Russia have long been identified as providing the shortest possible distances between Europe and Asia for deploying terrestrial cable and therefore offering valuable lower latency for operators, these telecoms markets have also traditionally been viewed as heavily regulated by governments and associated with relatively high pricing.

CTE, however, has struck deals with a range of operators in recent years, including the Russian telco Rostelecom, to expand its network across Europe and Asia, and the rapidly approaching completion of ‘Information Silk Road’ could mark a new era of openness for these markets. “From the day the Information Silk Road was conceived, I have envisaged it to be a state-of-the-art network delivering next-generation communications across Europe and Asia, rather than merely a group of low latency cables,” says Yan Ou, managing director at CTE. “The Information Silk Road has significantly enhanced the communication connections between Europe and Asia.”

The Highway Code

One man, however, has come up with an ambitious concept that could potentially dwarf any existing terrestrial projects and radically reduce Asia’s reliance on subsea cables. Abu Saeed Khan is senior policy fellow at the Asia-Pacific ICT policy and regulatory think tank LIRNEasia, and his clear vision is to utilise the extensive Asian Highway Network project by deploying an open access terrestrial optical mesh backbone alongside it.

The Asian highway project brings together 32 countries in Asia and Europe and is assisted by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) which aims to create a highway system from Japan all the way to Turkey. With 142,000km of the highway network reportedly already completed, Khan believes it is the “natural right of way for any long-haul optical fibre transmissions”.

Khan first came up with the concept in 2008 and has been actively trying to encourage various members of the telecoms sector to get onboard since. Calling the proposed network LION, in reference to the Longest International Open-access Network, he estimates the project would cost between $10 to 20 billion to construct and should be funded via a public/private investment model. The incentive for the road authorities managing the Asian Highway is also clear, he says, as it will provide them with additional revenues.

“This should be a multi-vendor project involving the likes of Siemens-Erikson, Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei deploying and maintaining the networks,” says Khan. “The push must come from the carriers as it will benefit them if the offshore fibre networks are replicated onshore. It will help to create a competitive market and drastically lower the cost of international bandwidth.”

Cross-border boundaries

While Khan promotes a compelling vision for the future of terrestrial cable projects between Asia and Europe, the present reality is that terrestrial cable projects still face some of the same challenges that have long been associated with them.

The caution with which countries treat cross-border fibre networks continues to vary, and establishing terrestrial links can remain a time consuming and frustrating process laden with bureaucratic red tape.

Hibbard sees a great potential in Khan’s LION concept, but also acknowledges that “a lot of water will have to go under the bridge before it can happen”.

“It has taken 15 years for the Trans-Siberian route to be seen as a comfortable alternative to subsea links,” Hibbard points out. “There is, however, a growing interest in terrestrial routes in Asia where they make sense. One of the biggest breakthroughs was the launch of a cable between China and India by China Telecom and Tata Communications. These are two enormous countries, and such a project required a lot of negotiation. It’s a major milestone.”


Africa’s mainland mission

The rapid and well documented boom in subsea cable connectivity coming into Africa has led to an increase in the roll-out of terrestrial links supplying valuable capacity to previously underserved landlocked countries.

Here, Gateway Communications’ CEO Mike Van Den Bergh explains the unique challenges of deploying terrestrial cables across Africa: “One of the key things we have been focussing on lately is how do we make the subsea cable capacity, which is becoming available in abundance at landing stations, penetrate inland. We have been opening up routes, concentrating initially on Southern Africa, where the biggest early demand has been.

There is a lot of capacity being built by operators in Africa now, so one of the things we have been keen not to do is replicate what is already available. The fibre roll-outs and terrestrial network builds are often happening on a disconnected and random basis and Gateway Communications has been looking at how to integrate all that by filling in the gaps, which has so far proved successful.

The challenges of deploying these networks range from getting the necessary stable power supplies to equipment in remote areas, to obtaining necessary approvals to cross borders.

Until a critical mass of capacity is delivered into inland Africa, the tendency is for single spoke build outs. One of Gateway Communnications’ immediate focusses is therefore to build alternative routes and to get resilience into the network as quickly as possible.

There is an initial enthusiasm when an inland country first receives access to a terrestrial cable as it can provide cheaper and faster services with lower latency. In that rush of enthusiasm, operators forget that all of that customer demand they have suddenly built up can be jeopardised if it relies on a single terrestrial route and that encounters a break. Building alternate routes into inland countries, providing a level of triangulation and using satellite for backup helps bring in key resilience and redundancy.

The ability to peer and provide access from those different peering points – be it in south, east or west Africa – is also an area Gateway Communications has been focussing on. Even though the pricing for cable capacity is coming down dramatically, it’s still a high cost component and there is a need to reduce the latency as quickly as possible. We are finding that mobile operators are prepared to pay a premium to have access to express routes to the main internet peering points in Europe and North America, as well as break out to places like Kenya and South Africa by delivering a good localised regional service.”

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