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The complexities (and quirks) of protecting our subsea cables

Network Business and Enterprise

Posted on January 19, 2019

9 min read

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.

INDIGO cable landing in Perth

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:

  1. Holy ship

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

What’s behind a resilient network?

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.

AIS

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.

How we’re bringing ‘continuous connection’ to our subsea cables

Network Business and Enterprise

Posted on January 18, 2019

3 min read

We live in a world of continuous connection. As part of my job, I am always on the go. While I’m writing this article from Hong Kong, I’m constantly connected to my home in Singapore. I read the news from my smartphone, collaborate with colleagues via my laptop, and video call my family (the best part of my day).

It’s a constant connection that I know I take for granted. But without it, I simply couldn’t do my job and remain so connected to home. That’s why I’m excited to announce that together with Ericsson and Ciena, Telstra is launching a new rapid restoration service on our busiest subsea cable routes in Asia – to help keep all of us connected.

When we watch Netflix or shop online, often we don’t think about the technology that enables it. All of this connectivity is made possible by intricate fibre-optic cable systems under the sea. In fact, 99 per cent of the world’s international data is transmitted through subsea cables.

But that doesn’t come without its challenges. Telstra is proud to have the largest subsea cable system in the Asia Pacific, and earlier this week we announced two new investments that further grow our diverse footprint.

The Asian region however, presents one of the most challenging environments for subsea cable systems. Busy and shallow shipping ports in Hong Kong and Singapore, high-levels of fishing activity across northern Asia, and an ecosystem prone to natural disasters, all threaten to disrupt or damage underwater infrastructure.

And the reality is, damage to a subsea cable can take weeks or even months to fix. Enter our continuous connection service. By combining the vast scale and diversity of Telstra’s subsea cable network, with flexible programmable infrastructure technology through Ciena’s GeoMesh Extreme solution, we can reroute customers impacted by potential damage to another subsea cable path. What’s more, we can do this in less than 30 minutes.

Following successful trials in December, the new service is now available on Telstra’s Hong Kong to Singapore, Singapore to Japan, and Japan to Hong Kong routes.

Our continuous connection service builds on Telstra’s assured availability “Always on” service, which currently offers restoration within eight hours. Telstra’s new service will reduce that time from hours to minutes – a significant reduction to current restoration service arrangements in Asia.

What Ericsson and Ciena’s technology allows us to do is exciting. By increasing the intelligence of our subsea network, we can rapidly respond to changing network demands – all without manual intervention.

Through the scale and diversity of Telstra’s subsea cable footprint and Ericsson and Ciena’s with flexible programmable infrastructure technology, we are able to help remove the pain of potential network impacts for our customers, with an almost seamless restoration of their services.

If connectivity never falters and it becomes something we don’t need to think about, then that’s progress that would benefit us all.

Building Asia Pacific’s leading subsea cable network

Network

Posted on January 17, 2019

4 min read

When we think about streaming and sharing information, most of us look up. We think of satellites and radio waves moving information around through the air. But in reality, much of the information we consume and share is from data transmitted through subsea cable networks. From emails to emojis, Netflix to the New York Times, almost all of it happens not in the sky but beneath our feet.

Since joining Telstra, I’ve been astonished to discover the scale of Telstra’s fibre-optic subsea cable network and what it enables. Threading more than 400,000kms under the ocean floor, it circles the world almost 10 times – it’s what I am calling Telstra’s best-kept secret.

This week, we announced two new investments on the Japan to US route, expanding our footprint as the largest subsea cable network in the Asia Pacific. We made Telstra’s first large capacity purchase on the new-generation New Cross Pacific (NCP) cable, and a further investment in the Faster cable. Both investments not only grow capacity from Asia to the US, but are an important part of our overall Asia Pacific vision.

What’s driving this strategy and investment? Demand and need – demand for data and the need for resiliency.

In 2015, Telstra purchased Asian-based telecommunications provider Pacnet. With that Telstra acquired a substantial intra-Asia and Asia-out subsea cable network. Since then, we have fully sold some of that capacity and we are now strategically investing in additional capacity and infrastructure to meet the increasing demand for data, right across the Asia Pacific region, carefully mapping international paths and investment.

In December, Telstra entered into agreed terms to purchase a 25 per cent stake in Southern Cross Cable Network (SCCN). Subject to definitive agreements and regulatory approvals, the agreement includes capacity on the existing Southern Cross network and new Southern Cross NEXT subsea cable – set to become the lowest latency path from Australia to the US. This is an incredibly important route as US to Australia traffic accounts for more than 80 per cent of all the internet traffic to Australia – and is growing.

Last year we also boosted our Asia to US operations with a half fibre pair investment in the Hong Kong Americas (HKA) cable and a 6Tb capacity purchase in the Pacific Light Cable Networks (PLCN) cable, both due to be completed in 2020. These new-builds complement Telstra’s major half fibre pair investment in the INDIGO cable system from South East Asia to Australia, which has reached a major milestone with the completion of the 4,600km Indigo West cable lay from Singapore to Perth just before Christmas.


As the Asia Pacific’s economy grows, so do we. These investments are part of a long term strategy to capture data demand across Asia and the Pacific. Capacity demand on our international network has almost doubled over the past two years alone. What’s driving this? It’s predominantly the explosion of cloud computing, but also significant growth in video streaming and e-commerce. Once completed, Telstra’s investments in SCCN, HKA, PLCN and INDIGO, will further grow Telstra’s subsea cable network.

Telstra has been in this market for over four decades. We want to continue to grow our unique footprint across Asia Pacific.

Beyond capacity however, the increased scale brings diversity and resiliency. There is no doubt that the Asia Pacific represents one of most challenging environments for subsea cables in the world. Shallow waters around Asia combined with a high volume of commercial shipping and fishing activity are a recipe for disaster. The giant anchors of container vessels can easily sever a cable if dropped in a no-stopping cable zone. Combine that with natural disasters like underwater earthquakes that can disrupt the seabed and dislodge cables and typhoons that can cause underwater avalanches, and you have an environment that threatens to damage subsea infrastructure daily.

We protect our network in a number of diverse ways, but having scale and multiple network paths allows us to quickly divert capacity across our network when needed. For our customers, resiliency is vital and our growing footprint increases the peace of mind of our customers.

While the scale of Telstra’s subsea cable network might be a secret under the sea, we don’t want to keep it that way. Our ongoing investment in our subsea cable network not only aims to deliver the best connectivity to businesses, but also hours of entertainment to consumers like you and me.

The INDIGO subsea cable: the power of the internet beneath the ocean

Business and Enterprise

Posted on October 23, 2018

4 min read

A cable the width of your average garden hose is being laid deep beneath the ocean along a 4600km route between Perth, Singapore and Jakarta. Once complete it will boost internet speeds for Australians and provide huge opportunities for business, particularly in the areas of e-commerce, cloud services, education, research and innovation.

This new subsea cable project, called INDIGO, recently reached a significant milestone, with work on the first section connecting into Perth now complete. While we’re building INDIGO in partnership with a number of consortium partners, Telstra’s extensive infrastructure and experience in managing large scale network rollouts in Australia and around the world have been critical throughout this project.

Leveraging our network leadership and engineering excellence

Laying a cable under the ocean, across international and territorial waters, is a complex task that requires a lot of planning.

For INDIGO, we started by mapping our preferred route to lay the cable – which involved surveying and scanning the seabed to see if there were any obstacles or areas we needed to avoid. You would be surprised by what you can find lying on the ocean floor! Once we had determined the best route, we worked with various government departments to obtain permits to lay the cable.

The added complexity with boosting connectivity between nations is that the cable runs through international waters and the territorial waters of multiple countries. This means abiding by the respective local regulations and managing permits from various governments. In INDIGO’s case, we worked with our contractor and consortium partners to help obtain the necessary permits to run the cable through Singapore and Indonesian waters.

The INDIGO cable was manufactured at a specialist facility in Calais, France and we were on hand to supervise the final stages of manufacturing to ensure quality and then oversee the cable being loaded onto a special cable ship called the Ile de Brehat. Along the way, we have been in regular contact with the ship’s captain and crew to make sure we are tracking to plan and to manage any issues that may arise, such as severe weather that means we have to stop work for the safety of the ship’s crew.

We have been able to leverage our extensive network assets in Australia as part of this project. When the cable reached Floreat Beach in Perth, it was fed through a duct under the beach to a nearby manhole, where it will then be connected to a Telstra exchange. From here it will connect to our extensive terrestrial network and provide fast onward connectivity around Australia.

Connecting customers across the rapidly growing Asia Pacific region

We have now started work to lay the remaining section of cable that will connect Singapore and Jakarta. This section of cable passes through shallow waters and busy shipping ports, so we are armouring the cable and burying it under the seabed to protect it from damage.

We expect to finish laying the cable by the end of 2018 before testing begins. It will then be turned on and start transmitting data from mid-2019. Once completed, the INDIGO cable system will have more capacity than the cable currently in use between Perth and Singapore, and support faster speeds of up to 36 terabits per second – the equivalent of simultaneously streaming millions of movies a second.

Our vast subsea network is a key part of our international growth strategy and Telstra will continue to invest in additional capacity to meet the increasing demand for data and maintain our network leadership in Asia Pacific, which represents about 30 per cent of capacity in the region. This provides unprecedented benefits to our customers in today’s high-speed, connected world.

Read more: How we protect our subsea cable network

Tags: subsea cables,

Building on our Asia-Pacific network leadership with new investments

Business and Enterprise

Posted on January 22, 2018

3 min read

A vast network of undersea and terrestrial cables carry the data we use to connect to the cloud, stream content, shop, and socialise online. But capacity demand on these cables is increasing at around 30 percent each year, as cloud computing scales and as we continue to use more and more data. Paul Abfalter, our Director of OTT and Emerging Markets, explains how we are investing to meet this growing demand and growing our network leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.

As cloud computing and the number and variety of digital devices in use worldwide continues to explode, so too does the demand for the international networks, like a subsea cable, needed to keep them connected.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Asia, which is now home to almost half the world’s internet consumers and where tens of millions of new services are enabled every year.

While Japan has historically been the primary driver of economic growth in the Asia-Pacific (or APAC) region, China is now the second largest economy in the world and is driving the most capacity growth of any country in Asia. As an example, we saw a 25 percent uplift in traffic across our IP network in a single day during the ‘Double 11’ or ‘Singles Day’ sales promotion in China last November.

In line with this increasing demand, we are investing in two new international subsea cable systems that will connect Hong Kong and the west coast of the United States. These investments will help us to meet the growing demand for capacity to support the growth of China and south-east Asia, and will maintain our position as the owner and operator of the largest network of Asia-Pacific subsea cables.

The first investment will see us partner to build the new Hong Kong Americas (HKA) cable, on which we will have a half fibre pair. Additionally, we will invest in capacity on the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) that will also connect Hong Kong and the US. The investment will deliver the equivalent of 6 terabits per second (TBps) of new capacity on our network.

These two cables will provide our customers with greater resiliency, bypassing areas prone to natural disasters. They will also offer two direct, alternative paths to our AAG cable – on which we operate the most capacity and which connects South East Asia to the US west coast via Hong Kong, Guam and Hawaii.

These investments follow the announcement in April last year that we had entered into a consortium to build INDIGO, a new subsea cable system between Australia and South East Asia.

We are one of the leaders in transporting the data that enables millions of consumers and businesses to connect to the internet and with each other around the world. Our subsea network is a key part of our international growth strategy and the services we provide to large and emerging cloud and content companies, global and regional mobile and service providers, as well as multinational corporations requiring connectivity across APAC.

We will continue to invest to maintain our network leadership, and this includes a commitment to investing in additional capacity on the Australia to US route, as well as investing in terrestrial networks in China, Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines to expand on our already unique positions there.

The HKA cable is expected to be completed in 2020 and PLCN in 2019.