Sunshine Coast’s Fibre Optic Fallacy

The Sunshine Coast Council in Queensland has put forward a proposal to bring a “sixth” undersea communications cable to Australia, and the first to connect directly to Queensland. Two articles in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) by Tony Moore on  3 September 2015 cover this:

Malcolm Turnbull visits Sunshine Coast to view proposal for new undersea communications cable

Clive Palmer will back undersea internet cable bid to Sunshine Coast 

The proposal is all a bit of unfunded fluff from the Sunshine Coast Council, with very little to back it up. The council would not be funding the cable, but merely state that a cable protection zone would “encourage the private sector to deliver an international undersea broadband cable connection that would land at the Sunshine Coast.”

The proposal further unravels, where the first of the above listed articles states: “The Sunshine Coast Council in July applied to run Australia’s sixth undersea communications cable – a spur from a line already connecting Guam to Sydney – into the Sunshine Coast.”

Of the cable connections to the East Coast, this limits the main possibility to Pipe Networks’ ‘Pipe Pacific Cable’ (PPC-1), which was laid between Sydney and Guam and became active in 2009. During the cable laying an extra Branching Unit (BU) was placed off the coast of South East QLD, with the intention of being able to branch off a cable to the Gold Coast, coming off Fibre Pair 1 which also links to Sydney, which means no extra network capacity would be installed for Queensland, although I will put a slight caveat on that statement based on the network design:

Fibre Pairs 1 & 2 link Sydney to Guam (with FP2 being an express path linking the two locations directly).
Fibre Pairs 3 & 4 are currently dark, and are available for future network expansion between Sydney and Guam.
(Source: Pipe Networks )

The Australia-Japan Cable (AJC) also links Australia to Guam, although does not appear to have a Branching Unit installed near Queensland, so I consider this to be a lower possibility, although with the scant details released by Sunshine Coast Council, it’s difficult to state which cable they intend to connect into for sure.

The Sunshine Coast Council present very little detail of their proposal and display a lack of geographic knowledge in their YouTube clip and project web site. Both feature graphics of an undersea cable extending from the Sunshine Coast directly towards the west coast of the United States, which is very far from Guam where the PPC-1 (and AJC) cable connect. To assist the Council, I have helpfully provided a graphic overlay (below the video) to demonstrate their error of roughly 6,765 kilometres.

Not Guam

Not Guam: Let me fix that for you


PPC-1 Network Map


Of the politicians the Sydney Morning Herald sought comment from, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems to have taken the best approach of having not yet made a statement while waiting to be properly briefed. The Liberal National Party (LNP) candidate for the federal seat of Fairfax, Ted O’Brien, who according to the SMH is a ‘digital technology businessman’, formerly of management and technology consultancy Accenture, is perhaps a bit over enthusiastic of the proposal, stating “This is a massive game-changer for the Sunshine Coast”, and that “It allows us as a region to suddenly get on the map when it comes to major technology.”

None of this compares to the hyperbole of Independent federal MP for the seat of Fairfax, Clive Palmer, who stated “So it could be the start of a new Silicon Valley for the Sunshine Coast and stop Australian graduates having to go overseas to access the world.” Evidence is unlikely to support a reversal of the brain-drain to Silicon Valley by branching a cable connection to the Sunshine Coast.

The SMH article on Clive Palmer asserts that “The existing east coast submarine cables near New South Wales are classed “as crowded”“, although it’s unclear how the author came to this conclusion, as the east coast cables have plenty of available and future capacity, as shown below.

Pipe Pacific Cable
Operational since 2009, and connects Sydney to Guam. It has a design capacity of 2.56 Tbps, although further upgrades could boost this to 7.68 Tbps. It currently has 140 Gbps of its capacity lit.

Telstra Endeavour Cable
Operational since 2008, and connects Sydney to Hawaii, with 2 fibre pairs and and a design capacity of 1.28 Tbps, and is currently only running at 100 Gbps.

Australia-Japan Cable
Operational since 2001, and connects Sydney to Japan via Guam. This cable has a design capacity of 1 Tbps (although its owner states a potential capacity of 5,000 Gbit/s, which is 5 Tbps. Possibly related to a 2014 announcement with further upgrades). Only 320 gbps are currently lit, so there’s still significant capacity available here.

Southern Cross Cable
Operational since 2000, and connected Sydney to the West Coast of the USA, with additional landing points in New Zealand and Hawaii. This has a design capacity of 6 Tbps, with only 3.6 Tbps currently lit.

Is it worth it?

It’s always good to have more network paths available, but this proposal is too thin on the ground, a little bit misleading, completely unfunded, outside the realm of local councils entirely, and mostly just fluff. The article on Clive Palmer states this would cost $200 Million to implement, and for that, no new international cable or capacity will be provided, any benefits would be much smaller than the blustering of the Sunshine Coast Council and Clive Palmer.

Australia has pretty crappy Internet, but that’s mostly due to the ‘last mile’ connections to individual premises and many Internet plans having low transfer limits. None of these problems will be solved by this cable branch. The main advantage is extra path redundancy for Queensland, which has its merits, although is not quite as sexy to sell as allegedly turning the Sunshine Coast into Silicon Valley, or bringing $1.1 Billion annually to the QLD economy, as claimed by the Sunshine Coast Council.

This project may one day be necessary, although as the existing fibre-pairs connecting to the east coast of Australia have immense unlit capacity, that day (and expense) can be deferred for a while yet.


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