A lot of us think that every Instagram post we upload, Tweet we send or movie we stream comes to Australia through satellites, but the truth lies at the depths of our oceans.
For Australians, about 99% of our digital connectivity to the rest of the world comes through underwater subsea cables. We currently own or operate about 400,000km of these cables across the ocean floor – so much in fact, that you could lap the world 10 times with that amount of cable.
Just about every bit of communication we make goes through these cables. From calling your family overseas to streaming Formula 1 and versing someone in Fortnite from Singapore. Basically anything and everything.
A short history of subsea cables
Australia’s first subsea cable went from Darwin to Indonesia almost 150 years ago. Back then, it wasn’t for streaming Netflix, but was rather a telegraph cable that essentially transmitted Morse code. Transmitting just one word back then could take several minutes.
The first major advancement in Australia’s subsea cables came in the 1960s with our first telephone cable which connected Sydney to Canada via New Zealand called COMPAC and cost over $100 million to complete. It might seem like a bit of a weird connection , but this was because it connected Commonwealth countries. Not only did this cable allow us to make phone calls to New Zealand and Canada, it also was crucial for airports and shipping companies to be able to communicate. COMPAC and other Commonwealth cables such as SEACOM (Cairns to Hong Kong) and ANZCAN (replaced COMPAC), were officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.
The COMPAC cable was the first of many analogue cable systems that connected Australia to the rest of the world, but as the internet started to gain popularity in the 1990s they were no longer enough to carry the huge of amounts of data growth that was to come.
This ushered in the era we are in now of optical fibre cables, capable of 1000s of times the amount of capacity as traditional analogue cables. Using rapid pulses of laser light carried by hair-thin glass strands, this new technology could transmit data at much higher capacity and drastically reduce delay, or latency as it’s often called.
Our first fibre cable was called the TASMAN2 and connected Australia with New Zealand from 1992, capable of transmitting around 1 gigabit per second, or about as much as a lot of individual homes can now access just on their own.
Just 9 years later, cables we were laying, like the Australia-Japan cable were now capable of speeds of up to 640 gigabits per second state of the art at the time.
Keeping the light on
Manufacturing, laying and connection subsea cables across the ocean is a big task on its own, but maintaining them can sometimes prove almost as difficult.
Some of our cables run thousands of metres underwater, with one cable connecting us to Guam that crosses the Mariana Trench, the deepest water in the planet. So fixing one of these is not quite the same as pulling the manhole off on the side of the road.
Even just getting the grappling hook down to the cable to get to it to repair any damage can take a whole day just to reach it.
Thankfully though, it’s quite rare for damage to occur at these depths, as most damage to subsea cables is caused by fishing gear and ship anchors. So most damage happens in relatively shallow waters of around 100-1000 metres below the surface where fishing activity is more likely to take place and get caught up with.
We also sometimes see damage happen due to subsea earthquakes or from big landslides after cyclones and typhoons. But as technology gets better at marine surveying, these are becoming less of an issue as we can use advanced sonar techniques to better understand the environment we lay these cables in.
While surveying, our teams have even discovered underwater volcanoes that have never been recorded before, which we of course avoid routing the cables near.
60 years ago if a cable went down it might cause a big problem with our ability to connect. These days with such a diverse and large network path, if a cable is broken and getting repaired, which can take about a week, it’s less of an issue. Now we’re able to reroute traffic to other cable segments.
With a growing demand for data and connecting to the world, we continuously need to upgrade or commission new cables. Our latest subsea cable is called INDIGO and connects Singapore, Perth, Sydney and Jakarta, with a mammoth 36 terabit capacity, enough to steam millions of movies a second.
We’ve come a long way from the days of waiting minutes to send a single word from Darwin to Indonesia.
Harry is a technology writer and editor at Telstra Exchange. Harry joined Telstra at the end of 2020 after a slog in the trenches of the tech and startup space. Previously, he was the Technology Editor at Business Insider, Australian launch editor of telco comparison site Reviews.org and a reporter at News.com.au. He loves breaking down really technical topics and making them digestible and fun to read for everyone. Outside of work, he has an uncanny ability to turn every conversation into something about Formula 1 or the NBA.
When COVID-19 sent workers out of their offices and into their homes, people wanted one thing more than masks, gloves and toilet paper – they wanted data, and lots of it. While we’ve been ensuring the health and safety of our team is our top priority, this explosion in demand for data – which has set new records on an almost daily basis – has seen us working around the clock to maintain our international network during this pandemic.
Our international network sees a dizzying amount of traffic on any given day, but the increase in data being sent back-and-forth during COVID-19 is truly massive. Data demands have spiked significantly, seemingly overnight, by up to 50% on our international networks.
But when the pandemic hit, we realised that we needed to double down on our mission and ensure our network – which provides crucial connectivity for applications and platforms around the world – stays strong, connected and resilient for not only our customers, but our customers’ customers.
We’ve managed to keep our network alive and thriving thanks to the substantial capacity and headroom we have available to cater for unexpected traffic peaks.
The sudden and significant spike in traffic has come from several sources – the upticks in use of video for work, play and education, as well as large-scale Software as a Service (SaaS) adoption from companies moving their businesses online.
We found early on that people wanted to stay informed, entertained and even well-educated. Research by cybersecurity firm, Imperva, found that network traffic increased dramatically for news (+64%); retail (+28%); gaming (+28%); education (+17%), and law/government services (+17%). Meanwhile, there was a decrease in network traffic related to sports (-46%); travel (-42%), and automotive (-35%).
Companies rapidly adopting online tools such as Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Office 365 are particularly keen to ensure their connectivity stays strong during this time, and we’re working hard to enable this pivot.
For example, we’ve upgraded WebEx links to data centres as we experience huge increases in the number of virtual meetings taking place. We have seen WebEx traffic grow significantly and globally, while Cisco traffic in March increased by 66% compared to pre-global lockdown.
We’re also splitting traffic to allow direct access to Office 365 and WebEx without clogging up corporate networks that may not have the headroom we do.
We connect 11 of the top 12 technology companies in the Fortune 500 to Asia. As such, we’re continuing to work hard with all of our relevant partners on increasing capacity within their networks to keep up with the demand and deliver data efficiently. We’ll continue this work post-COVID-19 as businesses continue to change the way they work.
Our people are also working hard across the Asia-Pacific region to enable this boost to our connectivity stack. When the pandemic broke out, our first and top priority was the health and wellbeing of our team. As seasoned workers from home, we were able to quickly move to remote working, with those who couldn’t split into A and B-teams across Hong Kong and Singapore, with one team working in the main Network Operations Centre and the second working in a back-up facility to build resilience in our people as well as our network.
Meanwhile, our cable maintenance ships worked with port operators around Asia to ensure they could continue working on our network at sea. We pre-booked hotel rooms in the region to hold crews for 14-days prior to a ship coming in so that they were cleared to board the ship when it was time to changeover. And to keep ships operational, we used supply vessels to replenish stock at sea.
We’re always ready to roll with changing circumstances to keep the world connected.
The demand for data is unlikely to drop, even as restrictions are scaled back around the world. Our networks are already designed to manage a significant increase in traffic with minimal impact on services, which is critical during times like these.
We’ve assessed the utilisation of our network between countries and continents, as different areas respond in different ways to the pandemic, which allows us to implement business continuity planning to ensure we’re keeping the network performing for everyone who needs it.
Oliver Camplin-Warner is the Head of International at Telstra, where he is responsible for Wholesale and Enterprise sales and service internationally. Based in Hong Kong, Oliver has nearly two decades of experience in telecommunications and technology in Australia and the United Kingdom. Oliver has two young children, and together with his wife Alisa are co-founders of the charity Finnan’s Gift. This charity was set up in memory of their late son Finnan, and serves to raise awareness and much needed funds for congenital heart disease.
You could be forgiven for thinking that connectivity between countries was predominately handled by satellites and other space-based infrastructure. In fact, the real solutions are buried deep beneath the waves. Subsea cables form a crucial part of our international network infrastructure.
Telstra operates the largest intra-Asia subsea cable network in the region, and we’re growing our footprint in Asia-Pacific with critical new cable paths. Our subsea cable network currently spans more than 400,000 kilometres – or just under 72,000 nautical leagues – under the sea. Jules Verne would be proud!
Such a vast network is enough to circle the globe more than 10 times over. This elaborate and impressive network of fibre optic cables continues to expand as we keep pace with the voracious appetite Australians have for high-speed data. But more than just planning for capacity, we’re mindful that we need to build resiliency at the same time as speed.
That’s where our investment with Southern Cross Cable
Network comes in.
Almost 80 per cent of all internet traffic to Australia
comes from the US, which makes the need for a high-speed and low-latency
connection between our two nations paramount. Our new investment in the Southern
Cross Cable Network’s (SCCN) existing cable infrastructure as well as the
upcoming NEXT cable is about safeguarding that connectivity for the future.
Telstra has acquired a 25 per cent equity interest in the existing Southern Cross Cable Network, joining existing shareholders in the project. It follows several other investments in our subsea cable infrastructure, including:
A significant increase in fibre capacity to our subsea infrastructure using Infinera’s Infinite Capacity Engine 4, and
The launch of a new rapid restoration service on our assured availability “Always on” service – a world-first offering to key routes in Asia – reducing restoration time from within eight hours to just minutes.
Alongside these investments, we’re excited to also partner
with SCCN as one of the anchor customer for its upcoming NEXT cable. Designed
to carry 72 Terabits per second of traffic, the equivalent of simultaneously
streaming 4.6 million ultra-high definition movies, Southern Cross’s NEXT will
meet our customers’ growing data requirements well into the future.
With the completion of the Southern Cross NEXT cable scheduled for
January 2022, Telstra customers will have access to capacity across the three
routes across the Pacific, connecting Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the
United States, maximising diversity and resiliency.
Thanks to our subsea investments, we are now well placed to
meet the growing data requirements of our customers now and into the future,
right across the Asia-Pacific region.
Michael Ebeid joined Telstra in October 2018 as Group Executive, Enterprise. In this role, he is responsible for revenues in excess of $8bn and manages a growing business that delivers connectivity, platforms, applications and tailored industry solutions to Telstra’s enterprise and government customers. He is also responsible for Enterprise’s international operations, with approximately 3,500 people in 20 countries and the largest subsea cable network in the Asia Pacific region.
Michael joined Telstra from SBS where he has been the CEO and Managing Director since 2011. In this role, he significantly evolved the public broadcaster's portfolio with four distinctive TV channels, an extensive in-language radio offering and new market-leading digital services like SBS On Demand which now has over five million registered users with high audience engagement.
Michael is a strategically focused leader with a 30-year career across the Technology, Telecommunications and Media sectors. He has a successful track record in leading organisational change and transformations and is passionate about workplace culture, leadership and diversity. In 2017, Michael was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his service to Broadcast Media and Multicultural Affairs and named CEO of the Year at the CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year Awards.
The complexities (and quirks) of protecting our subsea cables
By Andy LumsdenJanuary 19, 2019
Despite the Asia Pacific region being one of world’s most treacherous environments for subsea cables, Telstra saw unplanned subsea network impacts reduce by more than 30 per cent last year – our lowest levels in a decade. A trend we have ambitions to maintain. We’re also proud to own one of the region’s most resilient undersea networks. Andy Lumsden, who leads Telstra’s international networks engineering and operations team, explains the quirks and complexities of why.
If I asked you to list the most important infrastructure for a growing economy, you might say: “Roads, railways, electrical grids.” If you look outside the window right now, you can see the impact of this infrastructure connecting people, moving goods, powering business. But what if you went a little deeper, literally? Increasingly, it’s the infrastructure people can’t see that’s powering our global economies.
I’m talking about subsea cables: the fibre-optic cables carefully threaded under the globe’s ocean floor like a web, providing the backbone to the Internet and connecting us all to the world.
And while this infrastructure may not come first to mind, when it’s impacted (think no Netflix or halting trade on the stock market) you better believe people notice. Telstra has the largest subsea cable network in the Asia Pacific, and a hefty part of my job is protecting it. I can tell you, this is no easy task.
Asia represents the most treacherous environment for subsea cables anywhere in the world. I’ll explain why this is (and no, it’s not cable-gnawing sharks), but first I want to let you in on a recent coup. Last year Telstra saw a more than 30 per cent reduction in service impacts on our subsea network. We had less cables cuts, damage and service impacts. This is during a time when our network expanded, and other competitors saw their issues grow. Let me explain why.
The big three dangers
When most people think about the perils of the sea, they think about sharks, electric eels or perhaps Ursula from The Little Mermaid – my concerns are a little different. The waters in the Asia Pacific are particularly shallow, and the region where many of our cables sit is on the plateaux of the Pacific Rim fault. These shallow waters relate to the three main threats to our cables:
Anyone who has flown into Singapore or Hong Kong and looked out the window will have seen the spectacle of the mass of commercial vessels in these harbours. Container ships and oil vessels can stretch hundreds of meters long, but it’s their anchors – which can weigh tens of tonnes alone – that represent a significant danger to our cables. While there are strict shipping lanes and non-anchorage zones around cables, a combination of shallow water, high volume shipping and the large number of cables sharing seabed space is a risky business.
Fishing for trouble
Right now it’s fishing season in the northern regions of Asia. Picture this. Thousands of fishing vessels of all shapes and sizes set off at dawn, laser-focused on catching as many fish as possible. They’ll use stow net fishing, bottom trawling, long line fishing, drift net fishing… whatever necessary to catch the biggest load. It’s both some of these techniques (and illegal ones) and anchors that can get caught on and damage our cables. Pretty much as soon as the fishing season started this year, we had a cut to one of our cables. With less controls and mechanisms to track than larger commercial vessels, fishermen have become an increasing issue for cable operators.
Hell or high water
Natural disasters are the third of the big three dangers. The Asia Pacific’s proximity to the Pacific Rim fault line, also known as the Ring of Fire, means the region is prone to subsea earthquakes that can trigger subsidence and seabed shift. With our cables laid within the ocean floor, the sheer power of these events can damage and break our fibre.
We see another unique climate risk around Taiwan in particular, which is caused by high volumes of rainfall. As Taiwan is a mountainous country, after heavy rain large volumes of water enters the sea on the eastern coastline where our cables run. The water and debris push into the ocean like an underwater avalanche and can also damage cables.
Of course the other natural event in this region, which thankfully we don’t see as often, is a tsunami affect – and the damage can be the catastrophic. Due to some incredible partnership work, Telstra was the only cable provider in that region to stay connected during the 2011 Japan tsunami.
Creating and protecting a resilient subsea network involves many things, from the optical transmission and IP network built on top of the cables, to how the cables are interconnected. For Telstra, the large scale of our network and on-going strategic investment to build our subsea footprint creates redundancy options in the Asia Pacific that other operators simply don’t have. But there are a number of things we have been leading in this space for a number of years.
I mentioned the danger of giant anchors on commercial vessels earlier. We have responded to this through something called AIS, a ship’s Automatic Identification System. All vessels over a certain size must have a transponder on board. This emits a signal that identifies the ship, its speed and direction. We use a system to monitor where ships are, and if they’re close to one of our cables and look like they’re slowing down, we’ll contact the vessel to warn them they’re close to our cables and shouldn’t be stopping. Our team contacts about 30 vessels every month, particularly in Singapore. Since we’ve been proactive with AIS, we’ve seen incidents with commercial vessels decline by approximately 20 per cent. But it is not perfect, particularly when further out to sea, or during heavy weather when anchors can be deployed to slow a ship down.
Friends with the fisherman
The fishing industry in the Asia Pacific presents its own challenges – it’s a tough living being a fisherman, particularly for the smaller scale operations. To combat the risk these boats pose to our infrastructure, we had to think a little more laterally. And that’s where Telstra’s local teams from our regional operations and cable landing station come in.
Our local teams across Asia went out to meet with their fishing unions, fishing committees, and fishing villages to build awareness of our cable system and how to avoid it. Over a beer or two, we shared charts and maps, and asked the fisherman that if they snagged a cable, to contact us directly before they cut their anchor or net – and we’d reimburse them if the risk was serious enough to warrant.
Working together to avoid potential issues is very important. On top of that, we have our partner cable repair vessels on standby in Taiwan. Telstra invests in commissioning smaller guard boats, which patrol cable areas during fishing season, support cable operations with local and dedicated marine teams advising boats when they’re fishing close to our cables.
Measure twice, cut once
While these measures have had an impact, the greatest resiliency comes from planning – which I realise sounds obvious. Avoidance is the best policy. Cables are buried at key points into the seabed, ideally (but not always possible) three metres down in waters less than a 1000 meters. But more than that, we use constant data and insights to inform our decisions.
From starting my career at BT building terrestrial networks in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, to developing subsea infrastructure across almost every parts of the world with Global Crossing, Asia Netcom, Pacnet – and now Telstra, I’ve learnt from some tough experiences.
Route planning and good execution is critical and a vital element in a successful cable project. Compromises, which sometimes are necessary in deployment, draw on the operational experiences hard learned. The amount of data we now have available to plan or augment existing routes to best avoid shipping, fishing and environmental challenges, I believe will further boost the resiliency of our new systems well into the future.
For example, Telstra has been building the new INDIGO WEST cable with our partners over the past 12 months. One of the areas we gave most consideration to was the Sunda Strait, which separates Java and Sumatra. You may have seen this region in the news with the recent eruption of the Anak Krakatau volcano and subsequent tsunami and sad loss of life.
Natural disasters are just one challenge of the Strait – a narrow channel with a high volume of commercial and fishing shipping activity. In our planning, we analysed a high range of topological, environmental and shipping data to lay our cable in the most protected western passage as far away as much was possible from the high risk area existing cables(s) have been impacted by.
When we switch on INDIGO WEST for our customers in the mid-year, it’s our hope this work will pay dividends for our customers.
Combining scale, technology and partnerships
Something that’s unique to Telstra is the scale of our underwater infrastructure – which brings further resiliency to our network. It means we have a repair ship 80 per cent dedicated to us. The size of our subsea network, combined with new technologies, has allowed us to create an intelligent network that is capable of remarkable things. We announced this week a new partnership with Ericsson and Ciena to deliver a continuous connection service on some of our busiest subsea cable routes in Asia. Through Ciena’s flexible programmable infrastructure technology and GeoMesh Extreme solution, we will be able to reroute customers impacted by potential damage to another subsea cable path on our network within 30 minutes.
By protecting our current infrastructure, drawing on our team’s depth of experience in planning, and working with our partners to bring the latest technology to increase the capabilities of our infrastructure, we are creating an increasingly resilient subsea network for our customers and end users. So whether that means uninterrupted Netflix or allowing trade on the stock exchange, we remain focused on continuously building redundancy and resiliency for everyone.
Network Engineering & Planning Principal -
Based in Hong Kong, as Principal and Lead for Engineering and Operations within Telstra’s International Networks, Andy leads efforts to maintain and further develop Telstra's network leadership, across platforms and infrastructure Internationally. He previously served as Pacnet’s CTO and Network Service Head, and was responsible for developing Pacnet’s submarine cable network architecture.
Andy has over 25 years of telecom technology experience in Optical, IP and Marine Engineering & Operations, and has held positions including Managing Director for APAC at Xtera, Director of Engineering at Asia Netcom and Senior Project Manager at Global Crossing, having the opportunity to develop several major private cable systems at a key time within the industry.
Andy began his career at British Telecom and has spent a number of years in the UK, USA and has resided in the Asia Pacific region for the past 18 years.
Smart, stylish and state of the art – the latest tech to deck out your home
By Campbell SimpsonJanuary 18, 2019
There’s no place like home, especially if it’s a smart home and CES 2019 proved that almost everything can and will be connected in our pads of the future. Some won’t break the bank either!
The TVs of the very near future are getting bigger, have ultra-high resolution, respond to your voice commands and can even roll away out of sight!
Most of us have heard of 4K – the current pinnacle of display resolution. Well, now 8K is coming, doubling the number of horizontal pixels and creating another evolutionary leap in image quality. Considering a standard 4K movie is an estimated 100 gigabytes, you can only imagine how big an 8K movie will be to stream or download, which of course will require a fast connection.
More TVs, at all price points, are also including support for connected voice assistants, like Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple Homepod, allowing you to change channels and search for content just by talking. Great for when you can’t find the remote!
#CES2019 has become the place where TV manufacturers try to outdo each other with extreme displays that draw oohs and ahhs but there are plenty of promising TVs you can actually afford.https://t.co/pj3eTjxRre
We flagged this in an earlier blog but it’s worth another look. Who would’ve thought – a TV that actually rolls away out of sight when you’re not using it. LG made a huge splash with their first rollable TV, which is expected to hit the market later this year. They even use these new versions to create an amazing TV tunnel.
Our humble home appliances and fixtures keep getting smarter, even the toilet.
A number of big name brands unveiled updated connected fridges, washing machines and ovens. Fridges can now write to-do lists, which can then be shared to all of your family’s devices, check the contents of your fridge remotely and ask for cooking tips. Your phone will even get a ping if you’ve left the door open. Many now come with voice assistant support for when your hands are full of dirty laundry or dishes.
Meantime, Kohler unveiled a voice-enabled throne at CES 2019. Using Amazon Alexa, you can tell it to raise or warm the lid and play music. Most importantly, you can tell if to flush afterwards.
Our PCs continue to keep powering up to handle the size and complexity of the latest games, and new accessories are hitting the market to create even more immersive experience.
Audeze will soon release its motion-aware headphones for first-person shooter fans. They detect and recreate the movements of your head. For example, you’ll be able to peek around a corner just by moving your head.
We hit our target of switching on 200 5G sites across Aus by the end of 2018. Experiencing the awesome gaming demos from @NETGEAR at #CES2019 I couldn't be more excited to get devices into our customers' hands so they can experience it on Australia's first #5G network! pic.twitter.com/UA1hvkJ3WI
Campbell is our External Editorial Lead and manages the Telstra Exchange website. He came to Telstra with over a decade of experience in technology journalism at websites like Gizmodo, CNET and PC World, and has a long-time love of tech and gadgets of all kinds. When he's not writing, Cam spends his downtime outdoors whenever possible.