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APAC Exec's $20B Optical Vision

Ray Le Maistre
6/21/2011
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The Asia/Pacific region has been starved of affordable broadband because of the constraints of its inter-regional and international subsea data network routes, argues Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow at regional ICT policy and regulation think tank LIRNEasia and currently secretary general of the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB).

Khan, though, has an idea that, he believes, could transform the region. But it's an idea that requires the support of 32 countries, years of development and up to US$20 billion in investments.

Citing data from Telegeography, Khan notes that the median wholesale prices for gigabit Ethernet capacity is five times more expensive than in Europe, while a leased circuit is more expensive (on average) in Asia/Pacific than in Latin America. That, in turn, forces up the wholesale and retail price of broadband services.

The key reason for these prohibitive costs is that the region is interconnected by expensive subsea networks. "Asia countries have behaved like an archipelago, linking by submarine cables. But it's not only expensive, it's unreliable." That unreliability stems from the 'ring of fire,' the string of volcanoes that marks a major fissure in the earth's crust and which is responsible for regular and devastating seismic activity that has affected the subsea cables and cut off many Asian markets from the global Internet in recent years. (See Quake Shakes IP Transit Market and Earthquake Cuts Cables Near Taiwan.)

Heading west out of Asia/Pacific, Khan notes that the region's subsea links with Europe pass through the Red Sea, now a much more dangerous place for the cable-laying companies because of the threat of Somali pirates. Add to that the protectionist antics of some countries on that west-bound route (Khan didn't want to comment because it's just hearsay, he notes) and "Asia's connectivity with Europe is compromised.

But Asia/Pacific doesn't need to live with these constraints. Khan has a vision that, he believes, can open up the broadband market across the whole of the Asia/Pacific region -– an open access terrestrial optical mesh backbone running along the road system known as the Asian Highway Network.

That highway network, a cooperative project between 32 countries and the United Nations, runs for 142,000 kilometers from Japan to Turkey, creating a regional meshed transport network linking 32 countries that currently doesn't include any telecommunications cables because "the road authorities never think about telecoms," notes Khan.

They should, though. Khan believes that laying fiber along that route and making it an open access network that can be used by any service provider would transform the region, providing not just inter-regional capacity and an alternative transcontinental link to Europe, but also provide additional national capacity. It would also provide the road authorities that manage the highway network with additional revenues.

The cost? Khan, who says he's proposing this idea as a social cause, not as a business venture, says a proper study would need to be done, but that it would likely cost $10-20 billion to build and should be funded on a public/private investment model. He refers to the proposed network, which in his view should be a multi-vendor project requiring two network operations centers (NOCs), as LION (Longest International Open-access Network).

He doesn't believe there should be any knock-back from the countries involved, as they already have interconnection agreements based on the subsea connections, and that it shouldn't cause any regulatory issues as access to the network would be for licensed operators.

And he believes the time is right for this idea. "We have the skills and technology to build and run it and the mandate exists in every country. What Asia has done in mobile now needs to be done in broadband," Khan tells Light Reading.

So he has the idea -– now all he needs is support and someone to take the idea and run with it as a working project. He is presenting his ideas here at CommunicAsia on Wednesday during a session due to be attended by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré, who could be a key ally (the Asia highway is a United Nations project and the ITU is a United Nations body).

Khan's LION is clearly a vision borne of desire to advance the potential and prosperity of the Asia/Pacific region and for that he must be applauded. Will it ever become a reality? Plenty will hope so, for sure. Whether as many will believe it's realistic is another matter.

— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

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