The internet panicked over a cable maintenance advisory. What are submarine cables?
MANILA, Philippines—Several schools called off regular classes while employees, confined in their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, worried about staying connected in the next few days.
It was not a storm signal warning they were worried about but the fear of losing internet connection.
The source of the upcoming disruption was the announcement that an international cable system, called Asia-America Gateway (AAG), which is being used by telco giant PLDT Inc. and other internet service providers in the Philippines, will undergo “emergency maintenance activities” from Sept. 26 to Sept 30.
PLDT, one of two major telecommunications providers in the country, soon became a trending topic on social media.
Initial advisories from internet providers, like Sky, asked customers to brace themselves for slower internet speeds when using social media, internet browsing and streaming television shows and movies.
PLDT said customers might experience “degraded” internet connectivity during peak hours.
The warnings were later toned down as the companies said they have ample backup capacity and alternative international cable systems to serve the needs of customers.
“We wish to assure our customers of continued connectivity, as we have alternative cable systems to keep our services going during this maintenance period of AAG,” PLDT said in a statement.
Still, online classes in some of the country’s largest universities remain suspended. And customers, by and large, are skeptical.
A telco industry official told the Inquirer this was partly due to the nature of the announcements—amid continued complaints about spotty internet services and the crucial need for online services especially during a global health crisis.
The official also pointed to the lack of information about undersea cables, the unseen backbone that connects billions of users on the internet.
A common analogy for these cables are pipes that link countries and cities around the world. But instead of water, these pipes carry all manner of data such as e-mail attachments to video and music files.
These cables are what allow a user in the Philippines to access apps like Facebook, view websites or stream content on YouTube, said Pierre Galla, cofounder of advocacy group Democracy.Net.PH.
While these companies have servers around the world, these are all linked to each other and are connected through submarine cables, he explained.
“Take away submarine cables and each country is limited to what apps are developed and what servers run on their dry land,” Galla told the Inquirer.
Even routine activities, like sending e-mails, are possible only through submarine cables resting on the ocean floor, he said.
Wireless technology used for mobile devices is no different. The data are carried to a nearby cell tower and then travel through land-based and undersea cables.
According to United States-based market research firm TeleGeography, there are 406 submarine cables stretching more than 1.2 million kilometers around the world.
Modern cables, as wide as a garden hose, use fiber optic technology. The data travel through fiber lines roughly the diameter of a human hair.
They can also be damaged by storms, anchoring ships and earthquakes, requiring repairs and maintenance.
Subsea cables are also expensive to lay down. Many are built by a consortium of users like telecommunications companies.
For example, AAG connects Southeast Asia to the United States and was built by 19 consortium members, including PLDT, AT&T and Australia’s Telstra.
Submarine cables make landfall in a country through facilities called cable landing stations. According to Submarine Cable Networks, there are 10 international cables linked to the Philippines through nine cable landing stations.
Two of these landing stations form part of the Philippine government’s Luzon Bypass project.
The Luzon Bypass’ first cable link will be the 12,800-km system called the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN). The project is led by US technology giants Facebook and Google and will connect Los Angeles and Hong Kong.
The agreement provides a branch connection to the Philippines. In exchange for using the Luzon Bypass, Facebook will provide the government with 2 terabits per second of internet capacity “free of charge.” That is roughly equivalent to 170 standard-definition movies or over 50,000 songs every second.
But PLCN’s connection to Hong Kong stalled after the United States raised national security concerns over potential Chinese espionage.
Despite this, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) said last July that the deal with Facebook will proceed and the cable will be activated by 2021.
The agreement provides the Philippine government with its own source of inexpensive internet capacity, which it can use for its free Wi-Fi program and eventually, a national broadband network.
Telcos, like PLDT and Globe, have been expanding their own international capacity as internet demand surges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
PLDT has existing international capacity of 10.5 tbps through four international cable systems ending in the Philippines.
Last year, PLDT joined the 14,000-km US-Japan-Philippines cable system, called Jupiter, which will be ready for service by the end of 2020.
Globe also has investments in Asia Pacific Cable Network, AAG, Southeast Asia Japan Cable System, TGN-IA Tata Global Network Intra Asia cable system and the SEA-US system.
Even then, Galla said current capacity was still insufficient and more could be done to boost the quality of internet in the Philippines and lower costs for customers.
He called on lawmakers to pass the Open Access in Data Transmission bill, which will liberalize the industry and allow more players to build and operate broadband networks.
“The pandemic put into stark relief the imperative to not just improve but to increase our ICT infrastructure and quality of service,” he said.
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