The reality of being an Internet provider

When you surf the Internet, you access a variety of platforms including YouTube, Netflix, Instagram – these are all so called ‘content providers’. The content is distributed all over the world, in data centres from the named entities, in most cases they are located in the Asia-Pacific region, in United States (US) and also in Europe. However, now, the content is being assessible much closer to our region because countries like Singapore, Hong Kong or Thailand have become the major locations (also called ‘hubs’) for the abovementioned content providers. The closer the hubs the better the performance and user experience, due to the shorter distance to transmit the content/information resulting in less delays.

Brunei Darussalam, located on the island of Borneo, must have a physical connectivity between the named regions to derive and transmit the content, and this is where the submarine cable systems come into play. These systems are designed to transmit data with the speed of light and with significant bandwidth (measured in terrabit per second, it is million times a megabit per second). They are connecting practically all countries and network operators of the world, creating what we call the Internet. To provide Internet access in the country UNN has to be able to connect with sufficient capacity to these submarine cable networks.

These were stated by UNN in a press release yesterday.

According to UNN, these submarine cables are very expensive and this is the reason why there are usually many partners building a consortium to share the investment and the usage of these cables. In some cases there are more than 20 partners forming such a consortium. UNN is a consortium partner of three submarine cable systems landing in Brunei, including ‘Southeast Asia – Middle East – Western Europe 3’, ‘Asia-America Gateway’ and ‘Southeast Asia-Japan Cable’

“Why do we have three of these cable systems, people may ask? This is to ensure that access to the content remains available in good quality to every customer in Brunei 24 hours a day, seven days a week, independent of issues/failures which may occur on one of the mentioned systems,” said UNN.

Apart from the three submarine cables, UNN is also collaborating with its neighbouring partners to utilise other cable systems to add more diversity and use the connections when required.

According to research, approximately 99 per cent of data being transferred around the world goes through submarine cables, rather than satellite.

Like any motor vehicle, there is a need for regular maintenance on systems used for telecommunications. Similarly, submarine cables are subjected to regular planned maintenance. The consortium’s maintenance authority provides an annual maintenance schedule agreed upon by all consortium members in order to prevent any clashes with any of the other two submarine cables at the same time.

“So, what often triggers the need for maintenance? The submarine cables are laid down deep within the ocean’s seabed and therefore is susceptible to cuts or other damages. Take for instance, when ships drop their anchors into the sea, they may unknowingly damage the submarine cables causing service disruptions to affected countries in the region. Other common causes include fishing, seaquake, typhoon, and other maritime weather conditions,” UNN said.

“Repairing a cable is another whole different story,” it added. Whenever there is a need to perform a submarine cable repair or maintenance, the consortium will be alerted to troubleshoot the extent of the damages before a planned repair can be done. A cable repair ship would need to be deployed to locate the exact location of a damaged in the ocean and pull the cable up from the seabed for repair. Planned maintenance may vary from one to two weeks, whereas repair may take longer time due to the additional work required. Another influencing and unpredictable factor, it said, weather which can vary substantially depending of the region of the damage and the time of the year.

Although maintenance is important, having multiple options – different cable systems – gives UNN the ability to use other cables and maintain connectivity. It has provisioned sufficient capacity for Internet traffic on all routes available, which is exceeding multiple times the demand during the busiest hours of the day in the evening. It means that UNN can react on planned and unforeseen events to ensure internet access at all times.

“However, in the unlikely event of incidents happening to multiple sea cables at the same time, this can lead to situations where customers might face some service degradations, especially during so called ‘peak hours’ where the majority of the customers are using the services,” said UNN. “Unfortunately, this is what happened earlier this year in April.”

UNN is trying to influence the maintenance windows to be outside of the peak hours but there are other factors at play, such as priority levels and severity of damages to other cables. Also single partners, like UNN, only have limited means to influence these dates and times of planned maintenance and in many cases need to accept the maintenance windows suggested. However, UNN has experts that are actively managing the network around the clock to prevent any impacts to services in the country.

UNN recently announced on its social media that there will be planned maintenance of the SJC submarine cable from the November 6-11 (dates subject to maritime weather conditions). With this knowledge sharing initiative, UNN hopes that the public can derive more meaningful explanations from future updates centred on submarine cable announcements.

“Our main goal is to ensure that members of the public will always have access to content from the world. One of the ways that we are doing this is through ensuring that we have enough capacity in our network, and redundancy through the availability of multiple sea cables and partnerships with other countries,” said UNN. “UNN will continue to look at additional solutions to improve the standards of connectivity in the country and the overall user experience.”