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Technology: Making the Asian Highway also an Information Highway

Rohan Samarajiva PhD is founding Chair and CEO of LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank active across 12 emerging Asian economies. He is a member of the Board and former Chair of the Lanka Software Foundation and Board Member of the International Communication Association. Here, he discusses the issues of broadband quality and availability in Asia:

The critical success factor for any service, especially in emerging Asia, is the ability to offer low prices to large numbers of customers. This is one of the key reasons for voice services to succeed – low prices while assuring extensive connectivity. In order for broadband to flourish in Asia the same condition must exist.

Although 60 percent of the world’s population lives in Asia, only 16 percent of Asians are reported to have access to the Internet. The high cost of Internet bandwidth remains the biggest barrier to the growth of broadband. This is a disturbing contrast to the conditions that led to the meteoric rise of mobile telephony.

Backhaul capacity in Asia is three-times more expensive than North America and Europe. Deregulation, new builds, and competition have brought down backhaul costs at major Asian hubs such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Yet the gap between Asia and the western hemisphere remains constant.

The reason is that, unlike Europe or North America, the Asian countries are interconnected primarily through submarine cables. The Indian Ocean has less cable than either the North Atlantic or the North Pacific. The result is less competition. Therefore, the cost of connectivity in Asia is significantly higher, which is reflected in IP transit prices.1 The necessary condition for affordable broadband is the lowering of international backhaul costs, not just for incumbents, but for all operators.

The solution begins with increasing the conduits currently accessible to Asian countries. In comparison to North America and Europe, Asia has few terrestrial cables. More undersea cables are needed, but it is best that they be complemented, ideally in a mesh configuration, with terrestrial cables. This will help address the vulnerabilities of undersea cables that have come to the fore in recent times with major cable breaks, caused for the most part by natural forces such as typhoons and earthquakes. In a few cases, there is no explanation, which is even more worrisome. Major backhaul providers are scrambling to evolve remedies, including connecting from India to China across the Himalayas so that they can reach Europe via terrestrial cables across Russia in event of a failure in the undersea cables.

Private entities will not build terrestrial links across multiple countries because the approvals will be difficult to obtain. However, the government authorities responsible for the interlinked system of highways known as the Asian Highway (or the railroads designated to be part of the Trans-Asian Railway Network), will not face this difficulty. They have in the UN Economic and Social Commission for the Asia Pacific (UNESCAP), which has responsibility for the continental transportation networks, the mechanism to coordinate the construction of an “information highway” alongside the existing transportation highways.

The architecture of the highways and railways designated to be part of the Asian system is a natural for the highly redundant mesh configuration that would be the best defence against terrorist attacks and natural disasters, especially if articulated with submarine cable systems. Unlike submarine cables, terrestrial cables, especially those that will run along transportation corridors and thus connect major population centers, can be used for domestic as well as international backhaul.

Increasing the conduits is the first step. Ensuring that any legitimate operator can use the backhaul capacity at cost-oriented rates on a non-discriminatory basis is a necessary condition. When terrestrial cable that run along highways were given over to incumbent telecom operators, this condition was not satisfied. Therefore, it is imperative that the conduits and the dark fiber therein is not owned and controlled by incumbent operators, but by National Road (or Rail) Authorities; that they be operated under an open-access regime that would enable the highest utilization by all operators. The prices within each national segment would have to be periodically set by national regulatory agencies.

Sources: 1 Global Internet Geography Pricing, TeleGeography 2009.


The redundancy imperative:

  • Dec 26, 2006 earthquake in Luzon Strait south of Taiwan snapped 7 out of 9 trans-Pacific cables, including both sides of some rings. 11 ships took 49 days to restore service.
  • Jan 23 – Feb 4 2008: 6 cables snapped  within 12 days across the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Andaman sea. What caused this series of cable cuts remains unexplained.
  • Dec 19, 2008: Mediterranean earthquake. Total downtime: 17 days.
  • Aug 7, 2009: Typhoon Morakot and subsequent undersea earthquakes. 10 submarine cables damaged in >20 locations.

The response:

  • Dec 29, 2009 Tata and China Telecom Joint Venture
    • Jointly rolling out a 500 km fiber-optic terrestrial cable connecting India and China
    • Expected to go live by December 2010
    • Route and cost not announced
    • “The India-China Terrestrial Cable will go a long way in meeting the business needs of two of the world’s fastest emerging economies. The new route, coupled with Tata Communications’ other subsea cable investments, will also provide a new high-speed connectivity path between Europe and Asia by transiting India and China.” Byron J Clatterbuck, Senior VP Tata Communications

Dr Samarajiva’s latest book “ICT infrastructure in emerging Asia:  Policy and regulatory roadblocks” (Sage and IDRC, 2008), is a compilation of LIRNEasia.

About Rohan Samarajiva

Rohan Samarajiva
Rohan Samarajiva is founding Chair and CEO of LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank active across 12 emerging Asian economies. His most recent book, ICT infrastructure in emerging Asia: Policy and regulatory roadblocks (Sage and IDRC, 2008), is a compilation of LIRNEasia research.

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