Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen: New Zealand gets 'another long piece of string'

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New Zealand needs more connections for resilience and to meet increasing demand. Photo / Alcatel
New Zealand needs more connections for resilience and to meet increasing demand. Photo / Alcatel

It actually looks like New Zealand will have another communications cable, linking us to the rest of the world (via Australia, but that's OK) as the Tasman Global Access consortium has started work on the project in Raglan.

Weather and access to Nokia-owned Alcatel-Lucent cable laying ships permitting, TGA should be ready by the end of the year, providing 20 terabit per second data transmission capacity.

That's good news, as New Zealand needs more connections for resilience and to meet increasing demand, but the TGA is testimony to how difficult it can be get cable projects off the ground.

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TGA was first mooted in 2013, which means someone started thinking about it a few years before - and, it was meant to be ready the year after.

Vodafone New Zealand was keen, Spark probably more so, but the other third-owner Telstra went cold on the TGA. The New Zealand telcos tried to get someone else to take Telstra's share, including Callplus (now owned by Aussie provider Vocus) but failed.

Instead, Vodafone and Spark upped their respective shares of the TGA, and Telstra decided to hang in there with a small, US$6 million slice, or about nine per cent of the US$70 million (about NZ$102 million in today's money) building cost.

It was touch and go for TGA in other words, and thanks to the wrangling, the cable is two years' late and won't have the full 30 terabit/s capacity originally envisaged.

TGA is a fairly modest international cable system, with just two fibre pairs spanning 2,300 kilometres, and the cost of building it isn't too hair-raising either for three large telcos.

With the Australian data centre market continuing to expand, UFB uptake rocketing up and everyone in general using heaps of data, there should be plenty of demand for capacity as well.

Another factor that may have contributed to the delay is that operating subsea cables is a major commitment for many years.

Even then, getting TGA off the ground (or into the sea rather) was difficult. Part of it was no doubt all the rumours and false starts about competing cables that cut undercut profitability on the TGA.

Cables and the equipment that drives the optical signalling systems over the fibre have to be maintained, upgraded and if something goes wrong, repaired.

Things go wrong with cables too: last year, the Sea-Me-We 3 failed several times.

In February this year, the PPC-1 cable between Sydney to Guam was snipped, and repairs are still taking place. Even the Southern Cross, which runs its cable system in a figure-of-eight configuration so that a break out at sea won't kill connectivity completely isn't invulnerable to rogue diggers and anchor dragging boats, or a faulty line card that last week caused a small issue for some Internet providers.

When a problem occurs, it's usually not the cable operator's fault. That doesn't however wash with end-users accustomed to and in many cases, dependent on, always-on and reliable internet connections.

Finding faults and repairing them on subsea cables means a ship has to be dispatched and there aren't many in the region apart from Alcatel-Lucent's Ile de Re. That's a busy boat at the moment, costing something like $100,000 a day to hire and due to the nature of the work, rather slow at fixing faults.

Presently, the Ile de Re is somewhere between Tasmania and mainland Australia, trying figure out where the fault is on the combined Basslink electricity and data cable.

As there's no option for New Zealand as a nation but to build better internet connectivity with the world, not just to meet demand but to cope with cable failures, the government should consider investing in new links sooner rather than later.

That's a complicated and awkward process, as the combo cable is much heavier and bigger than a small fibre-optic link, making the repair work even slower. Basslink's power cable developed a fault in December, and now that and the data link have both been cut for repairs which could take until May or longer and be very expensive (and keep the Ile de Re from connecting TGA to Australia).

Tasmanians are up in arms over the lengthy service restoration times - more over the degraded internet speeds than the risk of electricity rationing it seems.

There are two older cables connecting Tasmania to the rest of Australia, laid by Telstra, but competing Internet providers decided to take a gamble and didn't buy spare capacity on those - possibly because of the high price, as they were over the barrel and didn't have much negotiation power.

The irony here is that while having more cables provides better resiliency which is a nice way of saying stops customers from burning down your offices as their internet connections die, it also reduces the incentive to come up with the capital to build new ones as they can't be priced high enough to recoup the money quickly.

Telecom under Theresa Gattung timed the Southern Cross cable build perfectly in that respect, and it was paid off ahead of schedule.

New operators won't have the luxury of the first-mover advantage so their business cases will as a consequence look much less attractive, especially when you consider the length of their commitment.

As there's no option for New Zealand as a nation but to build better internet connectivity with the world, not just to meet demand but to cope with cable failures, the government should consider investing in new links sooner rather than later.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

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