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New cable will future-proof the internet


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Southern Cross Cables is undertaking a project that will massively expand and continue to protect Australia’s vital internet connection with the world.

Monday 18 September 2017 | The Australian Financial Review | www.afr.com

 

When one of the six major undersea telecommunications cables linking Australia to the rest of the globe was disconnected last month, the country’s internet users were warned to expect slows speeds.

However, the company behind two of the other cables is reassuring internet users there’s really not much to worry about. Southern Cross Cables’ two undersea lines – which were not damaged – carry 60 to 70 percent of all traffic in and out of Australia.

Director of marketing, strategy and sales Craige Sloots says it’s Australia’s only protected submarine network, meaning Southern Cross is the only operator in the country to run dual cables instead of one.

That means that if one of its cables goes down then internet traffic can be rerouted through the other – an astute and practical insurance policy for the nation’s internet access and its connection with the world.

No other cable operator in Australia can claim the same level of contingency, Mr Sloots says.

However, there’s always room for improvement, which is why the company is now building a new cable.

The original two were installed in 2000, and with most submarine cables having a design life of 25-30 years, Southern Cross Cables is looking to future-proof its lines.

‘‘So there’s a bit of time up our sleeve, but we want to add that to our network to help increase the resilience, as we are the only protected network out of Australia and we also carry about 60 percent of Australia’s international traffic,’’ Mr Sloots says.

‘‘We take that quite seriously.’’

The new cable, called the NEXT project, will run from Sydney to Los Angeles with a spur connecting to New Zealand.

Chief executive Anthony Briscoe says Southern Cross Cables is also in talks with the governments of Fiji, Samoa, Kiribati and Tokelau about their respective countries potentially linking up with the NEXT cable.

‘‘It is very gratifying that we have the potential to help further boost island economic growth through cable connectivity to support the vision of the Pacific community,’’ he says.

Building a new submarine cable is a complicated process that will cost Southern Cross Cables about $US350million ($438million). It’s anticipated it will take about three years to put the cable in the water. It’s due to be complete by the end of 2019.

The process is highly technical with three distinct phases, kicking off with a design phase that involves working out the cable’s data capacity and how many fibres will be needed.

Mr Sloots says a marine survey ship has been contracted to scan the seabed and help map out the best cable route. About 15,000 kilometres of seabed between Australia and the US has been surveyed for the project.

‘‘It’s a bit like building a road – you have to know where all the valleys are, you have to know where all the mountains are and fine-tune your routes to avoid those sorts of things, as well as any other obvious obstacles,’’ he explains.

Southern Cross Cables has put out a tender to find the builder of the new cable, with a choice to be made in December.

Work on land-based cable stations and extensive trenching and ducting work will also be undertaken to ensure the high-voltage cables are safe. The cable-laying process then begins and is expected to take about six months, Mr Sloots says.

Ships carrying massive drums, each containing 4000 km of cable, will ply the plotted route across the ocean.

‘‘They then unceremoniously drop the cable overboard,’’ Mr Sloots says. ‘‘It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, and the ships use complex geostationary equipment to stay within a couple of metres of the route.’’

Those on the ships also have to account for the fact they’re moving forward but the cable is coming to rest up to 7500 metres below sea level.

‘‘There’s a whole mathematical algorithm that determines that even though the ship is here, the cable will not actually touch the bottom until it is actually four or more kilometres away.

‘‘So the ship has to know where it needs to be ahead of time,’’ Mr Sloots adds.

Once the cable is connected, he says, the pay-off will be enormous: not only strategically but also commercially.

The new cable will be able to carry a whopping five times Australia’s current internet traffic. While the average traffic for the whole of the country at present is about 12 terabits per second, the NEXT cable will have the capacity to handle 60 plus terabits per second.

‘‘The new capacity paves the way for growth in demand.

‘‘Things like your Netflix, Facebook and YouTube all drive more data consumption,’’ Mr Sloots says.

‘‘There’s high rates of continuing and growing content demand and this [project] helps meet this.’’

Southern Cross’ first dual cables–installed with a combined capacity of 20 gigabits (ed.) – cost about $US1.3 billion ($1.63billion) in 2001.

Mr Briscoe says 16 years later the new cable will have a much larger capacity of 60 terabits per second for a cost of only US$350 million, making it an excellent investment opportunity.

‘‘This is not about short-term supply or capacity – that is more than accommodated by the current Southern Cross cable,’’ he says.

‘‘Rather, it is about future-proofing the whole region well beyond 2030, and ensuring there is a reliable and resilient supply of international bandwidth for the region to keep us connected to the world.’’

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