Technology never stands still. It is continuously growing and evolving with the passing of time. History has shown time and time again that what we consider high- tech today will be no more than dinosaur tech in as little as a decade.
The internet is one such example of the massive potential and contribution technology has made in our civilization. Unfortunately, very few of us tend to question the science, mechanics and engineering excellence behind this marvel of mankind’s inventions.
Anyway, today, we’ll be looking at my proposition on a future optical fibre submarine communications cable system designed to reduce latency (lag) and increase efficiency in the current internet backbone. If you don’t already know what in the world they are, how they work or what I’m even talking about, don’t worry, I assure you will not be lost or asleep halfway through the article, thanks to my relatively simple and straightforward explanations… I hope.
Now imagine this. You’re in Kuala Lumpur, and you wanna get to London as quickly as you can. Your best option would be to buy a first- class ticket on board a commercial airliner. For those of you who have been on a plane before, you should already know that the plane will stop over in certain cities and countries to refuel and what not. In the end, you would have taken off from Kuala Lumpur, and visited Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and maybe India as well before actually landing in London. So, what can we conclude from all of this ?
That’s right, the current airline ethics are quite inefficient, unfortunately. Similarly, the internet backbone can be likened to the airline ethics. Let’s say, you’re in London now, and you wanna make a Skype internet voice call to your family back home in Kuala Lumpur. But how does it work ? Now don’t panic, it’s not hard at all, I promise. Remember how I explained the airline ethics earlier ? Well, the concept can be applied here in the internet backbone too. The internet is just a big web of cables. Data flows from computer to computer through the cables. Thus, the passengers and the plane represent the data, whereas the flight path represents the cables. When you make a Skype call from London, the data will ” stop- over ” in certain areas before reaching your family in Kuala Lumpur. See ? That wasn’t so hard was it ?
So that brings up the question… why not just fly or communicate data in a straight line ? Wouldn’t that be better ? Faster ? More efficient ?
This map above shows us the ideal path. It is indeed the shortest possible path between Kuala Lumpur and London. But the reality is that this path is just impossible today. It passes through many, many countries, seas, oceans, mountain ranges and whatnot in the process. This complicates the process. For example, the path cuts through Iran, which at the moment isn’t on good terms with outsiders. Then there’s the Swiss Alps. This physical barrier is best likened to a massive stone wall in between you and your target. Then there’s the cost factor. To build this ideal cable, we need to spend extra, digging through the mountains and whatnot.
So yes, with all of this in mind, we can then proceed with our discussion. Here is the current cable as of writing, the SEA-ME-WE 4 ;
When you Skype your family back in Kuala Lumpur, the data would have gone through the Mediterranean Sea, passed the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, landed in Mumbai and Chennai and finally in Penang, where it links up to Kuala Lumpur. It is far from our ideal straight line path earlier. It’s longer, which means it’s going to take more time to navigate, making it less efficient. Then again, it was what the professionals could afford back then in 2005, taking into account cost and political matters.
This is what I came up with. I took into account all of the factors (I hope) mentioned above. It isn’t as short as the 6,550 mile ideal cable I showed you earlier, but it’s far shorter than the 10,000 + mile SEA-ME-WE 4 current cable of today. Without further a due, I’m hereby going to give a brief explanation on exactly why I think this proposed cable is better than the current one;
Segment 1 – South East Asia to India
In the current SEA-ME-WE 4 cable configuration, we can observe that the path was constructed in such a way to avoid terrestrial (land) crossings. The cable takes the longer way around India, by scaling India’s southern coastline. This was done in favour of costs among other things. In my proposal, the cable would make a landing in South East India, cross the Indian subcontinent at it’s shortest point, linking up with Mumbai in the process. While this may drive up costs significantly, I am strongly in favour of this policy because it will prove to be more efficient in the long run. The economic and political situation in India has improved significantly in the last few decades and will probably continue to do so in the near future. If anything this will only ease the process of laying the cable through India, as opposed to the current path, which takes the longer route, wasting time and reducing efficiency in the process.
Segment 2 – India to the U.A.E
The current SEA-ME-WE 4 cable does indeed connect to the United Arab Emirates via India, but it is merely a branch of the main stem of the cable. This increases the latency/ lag between the U.A.E and India significantly, due to the inefficient design. Again, this was done to favour costs. Under my proposition, the cable would connect to the U.A.E directly. This would reduce the cable length and latency significantly.
Segment 3 – Arab Crossing
The most flawed segment, in my opinion of the current SEA-ME-WE 4 cable is the part where it crosses the Middle East. It keeps to the water (Gulf of Aden and Read Sea), scaling the whole of the southern and western coastline of the Arabian Peninsula. Once more, this is a consequence of the limited budget (it is cheaper to lay cables under water as opposed to under ground). In my proposal, the cable would cross the Arabian Peninsula instead. This would shorten the cable length by a massive margin. The cable would, from the UAE, enter The Gulf and land in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Then it will take the shortest route across the Arabian Desert. Lastly, it will cross into the Mediterranean Sea parallel to the Suez Canal in Egypt. By taking a terrestrial approach across Egypt, the cable would be less prone to damage from shipping in the Suez Canal, as we have seen in the past with the SEA-ME-WE cables. But even more importantly, the cable avoids politically unstable countries such as Iran, Israel and Palestine. Sabotage is the last thing we want.
Segment 4 Final – Europe
The current SEA-ME-WE 4 cable performs quite well in this segment, so there is little to improve on here. However, I would still suggest, as seen in my proposal, a shorter route, which would scale the western coastline of Italy. This would shave some miles off the current configuration. Although some may suggest that a terrestrial crossing through Italy more ideal, I would have to disagree because the Italian topography is extremely inconsistent. This would drive up costs unnecessarily.
This proposal, if realized could bring about significant improvements in the performance of the internet today, at least between South East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Currently, under the best of configurations, a latency/ ping of 180 milliseconds (ms) is all we can achieve between Kuala Lumpur and London. Under this proposal, we can achieve figures closing 150ms, possibly even 130ms if I’ve done my maths right. Although a reduction of just few dozen milliseconds might mean nothing to the most of us, most professionals will agree that this is all that is required to take Asia- Europe relationships, economics and politics to an all- new peak. The internet has already become the blood vessels of our civilization after all. Hard to believe ? Think again. Remember those colonial times before the Suez Canal when European trading ships had to go all the way down to South Africa to reach South East Asia ? When the Suez Canal did indeed open up later in the 1800s, international trade boomed. Clearly, it wouldn’t be all far- fetched to say that history is about to repeat itself thanks to this new cable.
However, as with everything in life, there is a dark side to this proposition too. Without a doubt, it’s going to cost many hundreds of millions to build. It will also require the cooperation of various telecommunications giants from all over the globe. Plus, as this is merely just a concept, I may just have missed some unknown and random factors which could potentially bog down the whole project. I’ll admit, I’m no professional and I apologize if I’ve missed anything out.
Well, we’ve got to start somewhere right ? I sincerely hope that the future SEA-ME-WE 5 cable would take somewhat of a similar pattern to what I have proposed above. It would be a shame to sacrifice valuable potential because of that one ugly, but nonetheless constant factor ; cost.