The Critical Infrastructure you don't sea
Australians depend on six thin cables to link them to the outside world, and to modern conveniences such as email, Google, Facebook, news sites and online shopping.
Monday 18 September 2017 | The Australian Financial Review | www.afr.com
Imagine a garden hose. That’s the actual width of the six undersea cables that link Australia with the rest of the world.
Many of us are unaware the country depends on those narrow cables for 95 percent of all external telecommunications traffic ,Craige Sloots, director of marketing, strategy and sales at cable company Southern Cross Cables, says.
‘‘They’re the size of a garden hose and typically they get a little bit bigger, maybe four times that diameter as you get closer to shore, but that’s purely armouring and insulation,’’ Sloots says.
‘‘Effectively there’s about half a dozen garden hoses that link Australia with everything else.’’
Perhaps more unbelievable is the fact that within most of the cables, which run for thousands of kilometres along the ocean floor, there are fewer than half a dozen optic fibre wires.
The NBN cable, in contrast, has hundreds of fibres inside it.
Sloots says the submarine cables carry almost every international email and telephone call, Google search, online purchase from overseas stores, Facebook post and international banking transaction.
In other words, they’re critical for international communication and for our economy.
‘‘We’re connecting to the economies of the US, to the economies of all of north and south Asia, that’s really what it’s about,’’ he says.
‘‘Most people, if you ask them how their Snapchat or Facebook posts get overseas, or from overseas here, will say satellite.
‘‘In fact, satellite counts for a very small amount.’’
Australia also depends on the cables to access international news and entertainment content such as Netflix or Kindle books. Sloots explains that after the foreign content is transmitted here, most big IT firms like Google or YouTube store the material in content servers in Australia for future use.
Doing so makes it easier for local web users to access content again, rather than the data having to be transmitted thousands of kilometres from the original source each time someone requires it.
‘‘If somebody creates a new cat video, as they do, in Iceland, and you look at it here, eventually it will make it’s way down to the Google content or YouTube server (in Australia),’’ Sloots says.
‘‘But at some point all content – it may not be when you’re looking at it, depending on what you’re looking at – flows across that network of wires.’’
Five of Australia’s six major cables run from the east coast to Asia or the US. One of these runs from Perth to Asia. There are a further three regional cables that link New Zealand, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea to Australia.
Like roads, population and geography determine where the cables run. Most of them land in Sydney before connecting with land-based cables to link up with the rest of the country.
Far from being a recent invention, submarine cables have actually been serving human communications for a very long time. It’s almost 160 years since Queen Victoria sent the first ever telegrams via a Transatlantic cable in 1858. Australia first linked to the outside world via a submarine cable in 1871.
Sloots predicts cables will remain our primary linkages with the rest of the world for many decades to come. It’s down to their vastly superior capacity in an age of explosive growth in human internet usage that guarantees their continuing necessity, he explains.
The only real alternative is satellites, but they’re still a very long way away from being able to cope with today’s internet traffic, let alone internet traffic in 10 or 20 years’ time.
‘‘Satellites are very good for broadcasts if you want to do TV broadcast covering a lot of areas at the same time, but if you want a lot of capacity then fibre optic cables are the way to go,’’ Sloots says.
‘‘That’s why they’re kind of like our lifeline to the world.’’
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