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Cross-country cable race cranks up apace

DESPITE the dot.com crash, the data supply industry continues to place faith in bulk data transmission as a major resource in future commerce, with three companies racing to construct trans-Australia cables between Perth and the east coast.

Fujitsu Australia is the prime contractor in Nava Networks’ Nava-1 network, a fibre-optic system spanning from Singapore to Sydney. Two subcontractors will complete work on the Port Augusta (SA) to Kalgoorlie and Kalgoorlie to Perth sections respectively, while the cable will piggyback Powertel lines between Melbourne and Sydney.

Also touted for December 2002 completion is the system of Nextgen Networks (a consortium of Leighton Holdings, Macquarie Bank and US telco Lucent Technologies). Currently digging in with US rocksaws on the unforgiving terrain 300 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie, in temperatures of 40°C and above (and below zero at night), Nextgen plans to lay 8400 kilometres of fibre optic cable across the country. The focus now is on the Adelaide to Perth leg, which will complete a network that runs between every mainland capital except Darwin.

A similar path across the continent is being forged by Amcom Telecommunications Ltd. Majority owned by ABN AMRO Infrastructure, the Amcom IP1 Melbourne-Perth link will be ready at the end of 2002.

But do we really need at least three more providers in a huge, harsh continent with tiny populations flung further apart than in any other country on earth - especially when we’ve had telco infrastructure providers installing data cables for decades?

Nextgen Networks chief customer engineer John Hunter explains the difference. “We’re using a new generation fibre that can deliver more bandwidth. The advantages to ISPs and ASPs is unlimited capacity and high-speed access,” he said.

When asked why Nextgen bothered trying to encroach on a Telstra/Optus captive audience (along with Nava and Amcom), Mr Hunter was convinced Nextgen is offering something new.

“It’s true there’s already a fair bit of fibre in the ground, but the two major carriers’ fibre is dated and low capacity,” he said. “Nextgen is a national company with a high quality service at a reasonable price.”

That high quality service will be in the form of 12 fibre pairs, each of 800Gb, which is - in non-technical terms – big bandwidth.

Mr Hunter said the Nextgen service would have benefits for WA users, while the existing lines from Indonesia would provide better access east.

“It will make Perth a communications hub between Asia and the rest of Australia,” he said.

Neither Optus nor The Australian telco industry’s old faithful - Telstra (which maintains three cross-country cables, one via Darwin) – appeared worried when told of the view among so many new upstarts that their lines are low capacity, wheezing and rusty.

Although a Telstra spokesperson refused to divulge just how much data traffic the telco’s cables carried between Perth and the eastern states (for reasons of ‘commercial confidentiality’), he gave assurance that it had “a diverse range of fully redundant cables that meet our current demand and are able to grow with our customers”.

Optus similarly claimed it was “positioned to provide state-of-the-art network technology across Australia to our customers for years to come”.

Chairman of Amcom, a 26 per cent shareholder in Amcom IP1, Tony Grist, said even though research showed the market could support three more cables, he believed there was a case for rationalising these proposals.

“Independent research for our feasibility to complete our financing demonstrated that the market at the time (nine months ago) could support up to three additional players in addition to Telstra and Optus on the east-west route,” he said.

“That excluded the implications of international traffic to the east coast via Perth.

“However, I think you’d be a brave organisation to be the second or third of those newcomers.”

Mr Grist was confident IP1 could meet the end of year deadline and complete the crossing first.

He said IP1’s Melbourne-Adelaide cable was finished and Perth to Kalgoorlie was close to being finished through an arrangement with Australian Railroad Group.

“It would make sense for some of these players to get together,” Mr Grist said.

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