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Making sure our undersea cables are always on

Business and Enterprise

Posted on July 11, 2019

2 min read

Our subsea cables are unsung connectivity heroes. Every day, terabytes of data are passed through these routes as they sit under the surface of some of the busiest and most turbulent seas in the world. Their importance can’t be overstated, which is why we’re making sure that from today they’re always on.

Together with Ericsson and Ciena, we’re turning on what’s called continuous connection for our subsea cabling. Using Ciena’s GeoMesh Extreme solution, we’re able to build an ‘always on’ service that reconnects interrupted subsea cable traffic in minutes, not hours. This means automatic reconnection and greater resiliency on our routes from Singapore to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Japan and Japan to Singapore.

We have the largest subsea cable network in the Asia Pacific, and protecting it means making sure everyone knows where these invisible backbones of the internet are so they can take care.

We work with commercial transport vessels to ensure they know the location of our cables via the Automatic Identification System (AIS) while also meeting local fishing vessel crews and unions to let them know where our cables are. These fishing vessels are also given ways to contact us just in case they catch a cable instead of a fish.

Because of the care we’ve taken educating and protecting our infrastructure, we’ve achieved a 30 per cent reduction in impacts to our network service year-on-year. And with our always-on service now going live, we’re further improving uptime and resiliency.

Now if a route is damaged or interrupted, our always on technology will be able to switch traffic to another cable within minutes. Previously this process would have taken hours of work. This now means that our carrier customers (such as financial services organisations and cloud service providers) can improve their service level agreements (SLAs) to provide better uptime to their customers.

We’ve already been helping cloud service providers do business faster and with greater reliability on our Asia Pacific routes during testing, and with the official launch, we’re excited to bring these improvements to all our customers.

Tags: subsea cables,

From Phnom Penh to Indigo West: three decades of connecting Asia

Business and Enterprise

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 

My experiences 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


Our long history in Asia – a lot more than just cables and PoPs

Business and Enterprise

Posted on June 24, 2019

5 min read

As the telecommunications industry gathers in Atlanta for ITW, it’s normal for companies to focus on what’s new.

Announcements like our deployment of the brand new high-speed INDIGO cable between Singapore and Australia or our expansion of our ‘Always-on’ connection service which is aimed at providing continuous connection on our busiest Asian routes represent important developments both for us and our customers – the latest investments we have made in enhancing global connectivity and our subsea cable network.

It is also, however, a time to reflect on the entirety of what we do and highlight some of the lesser reported facts about connecting the world to Asia – and Asia to the world.

Building and operating the largest subsea cable network in APAC with 30 per cent of the lit intra-Asia capacity is not easy. But in addition to that, we have also built a strong in-country footprint across the region in markets with different languages, cultural norms, climatic conditions, not to mention complex access regimes. That’s why we’re extremely proud of the work we’ve done to become the number one international telecommunications provider in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines – and one of the top few in mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.*

A shared experience creating Asian connectivity

These achievements are founded on a long history on the ground in Asia.

From the development of the first international networks into Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to work on the first Hong Kong to Singapore cable, we have been deeply involved in delivering connectivity in Asia. We were instrumental in the development on the first mobile networks in India and Sri Lanka, as well as the first 2G network in Thailand.

We are honoured to have contributed to these developments, and even more proud that some of the people who achieved these feats are still with us today more than 30 years later.

An ongoing commitment to in-country Asian expertise

Today, Asia is booming. The region’s economic rise has seen it called the “world growth engine”, driven by countries that make up more than 60 per cent of the world’s population, and those people are demanding connectivity!

By 2022, it’s expected that Asian IP traffic will grow by 32 per cent every year, ultimately carrying as much as 5.7 exabytes every day – more than every word ever spoken by human beings.

And we are playing a vital role in supporting this growth. In January, Telstra made an investment on the Japan to US route on the new-generation New Cross Pacific cable. These investments are part of a long-term strategy to capture data demand across Asia and the Pacific, in conjunction with our leading position on the HK-US route and investment in both Hong Kong Americas and Pacific Light Cable Network.

When it comes to infrastructure we continue to: build out our subsea cable network boosting capacity and resiliency delivering our always on promise, increase our investment in our backhaul network across China, Taiwan, Japan & Korea, and be at forefront of providing connectivity between US & China.

But technology and connectivity don’t meet all our customers’ needs. That’s why we continue to build our local presence and engage with the local governments and the business community, to offer local service, support and counsel to customers around the world.

Relationship goals: milestones in key markets

This enviable position is due to our culture of partnering with our customers, and of having strong engineering expertise and an exemplary service record.

We have engaged local staff, forged public and private partnerships, and invested in domestic infrastructure making it easier for our customers to do business across mainland China, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and more.

This year marks a decade of operations for our Telstra PBS joint venture in China, founded on the strength of our long-term relationships with Chinese partners. We were the first Sino-foreign joint venture with a cross-provincial IPVPN license in mainland China, building and operating data centres, IPVPN networks and backhaul that now extend to 47 PoPs in 37 cities – with more coming soon. We are the only western Telco with approval for cross border VPN into China.

We also celebrate our fifth anniversary of telkomtelstra in Indonesia; our joint venture with Indonesia’s largest carrier Telkom. Marrying Telkom’s extensive domestic network capability and infrastructure with our international and service capabilities, we offer end-to-end managed solutions across Indonesia.

Connect to Asian expertise

Individually, each of these developments offers answers to some of our customers’ biggest challenges in looking to connect with Asian growth.

But all together they underline the strength of our commitment – both in the ongoing development of our subsea network and our extensive, unique in-country people & asset footprint – to support our customers do business in Asia in bigger and better ways.

* Assessment based on three criteria, including each of total number of in-country employees, total in-country revenue and domestic network footprint.

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.