From Phnom Penh to Indigo West: three decades of connecting Asia
Posted on June 25, 2019
3 min read
When it comes to creating telecommunications infrastructure, there’s not much that Andrew Hankins, Head of Network Evolution for Telstra Enterprise, hasn’t seen in his 30 years at Telstra. Here he looks back on some of his experiences, from Phnom Penh to San Francisco, where he helped create the networks that deliver connectivity as we know it in Asia Pacific today.
When you think about the most connected places in the world, you might instinctively think of New York or Silicon Valley. But really you need to look to Asia Pacific where Hong Kong and Singapore lead the way.
Recently, together with our consortium partners, we announced the Indigo West subsea cable was ready for service. Indigo has a capacity of 36 terabytes per second and promises very low latency connection between Perth and Singapore. It is one of the first ‘open cables’ and deploys cutting-edge engineering to offer about 200,000 times more capacity than cables carried in the 1980s.
It’s fair to say things have changed since I first started at the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (the OTC – now Telstra). In fact, Indigo West is just one of many milestones in telecoms history I have witnessed in my 30 years at Telstra.
In at the deep end
s in Asia started in the late 1980s. The OTC sent me to Cambodia where, like some other countries in the region at the time, networks were almost non-existent.
Our first job was building out international connectivity with satellite stations in the country’s capital Phnom Penh. If you wanted to make a call out of the country, you had to connect to the circuits running either to Hanoi or Moscow. It was certainly a new experience given this was around the time of the end of the Cold War and fall of the Berlin Wall.
Unlike my first postings at the Elizabeth Street office and the Oxford Falls Satellite station testing new antennas in the comfortable surrounds of Sydney’s suburbs, our work in Cambodia was characterised by frequent blackouts and trips to the Russian embassy to stock up on cornflakes.
The United Nations arrived in 1992 with a mandate to restore civil government, hold elections and rehabilitate a country ravaged by civil war and military occupation.
As the UN embarked on a nation-building program, we built a communications network for around 22,000 military and civilian personnel. This included the first mobile network in the country.
Even with the UN’s large presence, it wasn’t without its challenges. Each network site had to be checked and cleared of landmines before we could start construction. And members of our team had to travel to the Khmer Rouge heartlands to install phone lines and satellite links.
Soon the telecom market began to open up. Three mobile phone companies were allowed to set up and operate in the country. Between 1992 and 1995 we built a larger international exchange and infrastructure to connect the mobile phone networks.
Starting from scratch, Cambodia effectively leapfrogged generations of technology, including copper fixed lines. At one point, the country had one of the highest ratios of mobiles to fixed line connections in the world. And that has continued to this day with over 25 million active mobile subscriptions for a country of 16.4 million people.
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