Mining dark fibre

The global financial services sector is famed for its rapacious hunger for ever-faster network speeds. For a telecommunications provider like BSO Network Solutions, shaving milliseconds off network latency can mean big business.

BSO specialises in connecting up banks, trading firms and professional services organisations in the world’s major financial capitals. This means working with the operators of a handful of intercontinental cabling systems such as SEA-ME-WE-3, which travels under the oceans from Asia to Europe.
When a new intercontinental cabling system comes online, certain network routes become much faster. For example, in 2008 a new overland connection between China and Europe became commercially available, and the latency BSO could offer customers between London and Hong Kong dropped from 240ms to 195ms.

But according to BSO’s managing director Scott Ritchie, the days when new intercontinental cabling can be laid are numbered. "We don’t really know the future of fixed-line telecoms," he says. "Who’s going to spend all that money when they don’t know the return?"

Luckily for Ritchie, there are other opportunities to improve latency times, in the form of unused cabling infrastructure around the world. "We’re finding unused cables all time, everywhere China and Russia to parts of Brazil," he explains. 

There are a number of reasons why unused, or "dark", fibre optic cable might be lying around, he says. "Quite often, when electricity lines are put down, there’s underlying optical fibre as well, because if you’re digging a hole you may as well whack as many services in there as possible."

"Some of these assets have been decommissioned or just forgotten about after companies go bankrupt. And sometimes when military objectives change, all of a sudden a bunch of infrastructure becomes available."

Since 2008, BSO has been able to cut its London to Hong Kong latency down by roughly 20ms, in part by discovering new unused fibre.

"We found a cable that went from the Russian border directly down through Mongolia, which cuts out the Northern part of China," he explains.

Ritchie is vague on the previous purpose of this cable. "Why would there be a secret substation on the Russian border? You would need to ask the Chinese government."

Discovering cables like these is a matter of technical analysis and local market intelligence. "We have a dedicated team of network engineers whose sole job is to improve the performance of our network," explains Ritchie. "A major element of that is discovering new network systems, and new partners that will add value."

Once it has discovered unused capacity, BSO undergoes a long due diligence process to make sure it is technically sound, secure and commercially viable.

"In the case of the trans-Mongolian cable, there was a year and a half of negotiations and research and development before we went live," Ritchie recalls. "About nine months of that was bureaucracy, working with the local powers that be to understand whether we could run the asset as a commercial operation."

This work, Ritchie believes, is the future of the international cabling industry.

"Our customers are a investing a lot of money in emerging markets, so there’s plenty of demand," he says. "That’s an opportunity for companies that are innovative and entrepreneurial enough to get over there, spend time with the local companies, and build the local market intelligence."

That said, Ritchie is not prepared to reveal precisely how one goes about ‘discovering’ an unused fibre optic cable in the Mongolian desert. "Are we telling everybody how we do it? No. Could someone else do it? Yes they could, but they’d have to put in as much time and effort as we did." 

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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