There is something underpinning the Internet that is seldom noticed; seldom noticed because it works so well. Commissioner Karl Frederick Rauscher offers insights on an area of profound importance to stakeholders everywhere who rely on the Internet…

Guardians of Global Connectivity

by | Aug 2, 2016 | Insight

While the Internet is not up there with air, water and food on the list of essentials for human survival, it has become extremely important in our lives, and is certainly vital for economic growth and stability.  Indeed, a loss of the Internet on a wide scale for any substantial period of time would have a devastating impact on the world as we know it.

While there are many technological, design and operational factors that contribute to the reliability of the Internet, like any man-made system, the Internet, or some portion of it, can fail. From an historic perspective, the rates of adoption and reliance on the Internet have developed extremely rapidly. Along with its many benefits, this rapid adoption exposes us to yet-to-be-experienced failure modes.

One such failure mode is the loss of international connectivity.  Underpinning global information infrastructure are about one million kilometers of fiber optic undersea communications cables that crisscross the world’s ocean floors and handle nearly all of the Internet’s international traffic. It comes as a surprise to many that satellites carry only a minuscule percentage of international traffic, while the vast majority travel via undersea cable. Though seldom in the limelight, undersea communications cables are the backbone of the international Internet and enable what is possible today:  their span stretches across the widest ocean, they transmit at near the speed of light, and their utilized capacity, which is on the order of 100 Tbps (i.e. 100,000,000,000,000 bits per second), staggers the imagination. Global Undersea Communications Cable Infrastructure (GUCCI) is the silent workhorse of the Internet.  Given how critical these systems are, a better appreciation is needed for latent failure modes that could cripple businesses and wreak havoc on financial and other international systems.  One example of a major concern are network points of concentration such as the Strait of Malacca, the Luzon Strait, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, where many cables come together. In such locations, a single event could severely impair global connectivity.  A more complete discussion of intrinsic vulnerabilities can be found in the 2010 IEEE Reliability of Global Undersea Communications Cable Infrastructure (ROGUCCI) Report.

Given how critical these systems are, a better appreciation is needed for latent failure modes that could cripple businesses and wreak havoc on financial and other international systems.  One example of a major concern are network points of concentration such as the Strait of Malacca, the Luzon Strait, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, where many cables come together. In such locations, a single event could severely impair global connectivity.  A more complete discussion of intrinsic vulnerabilities can be found in the 2010 IEEE Reliability of Global Undersea Communications Cable Infrastructure (ROGUCCI).

As it stands, there are three paths forward for protecting stakeholders’ interests in continuous international connectivity: (i) intra-governmental regulation, (ii) inter-governmental regulation, or (iii) primarily industry-led initiative. Given the profound importance of international connectivity, doing nothing is irresponsible.

The first or second paths are likely to come upon us if a major event were to happen, as politicians would be quick to react.  The least desirable would be intra-government or unilateral regulation.  Lack of coordination between governments would likely impede the efficient installation and maintenance of undersea cable and make these processes much more complex than they are today.  The problem with a primarily inter-governmental-led effort is that any oversight would likely be accompanied by undesirable burdens. Industry would no doubt object to government oversight, for the common suite of criticisms of interference in private enterprise: regulation is slow, regulators are less knowledge than the industry’s experts, the regulatory process could impede competition, increase costs and lead to unintended consequences.  In addition, it is conceivable that these processes could quickly become bogged down and politicized by nation-state security interests.  In sum, the expansion and progress of the Internet could be hampered.

Given the profound importance of international connectivity, doing nothing is irresponsible.

The third option is for industry to provide leadership and proactively address these concerns. This is quite a challenge for a number of reasons, including that the industry is comprised of many competitors, is quite international, and the regulatory and business ecosystems are complex.  Nevertheless, industry-led initiatives are the best choice, and should be encouraged as long as the industry demonstrates a collective will to follow through.

A first step would be for cable system operators and stakeholders to have serious discussions about the reality of non-zero downtime for future connectivity. A statistical framework, based on operator reported outages, could be provided to stakeholders to enable them to perform appropriate risk management for their operations. Very useful statistics can be calculated using historical data of outages. If aggregated and presented at an industry level, as suggested by the seventh recommendation of the ROGUCCI Report,  the identity of any particular outage-reporting company, which for these purposes is not necessary, can be protected.  One stakeholder that should be keenly interested in such statistics is the financial services sector, and the banking community in particular. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, in its Basel II Accord introduced a goal for operational risk to be quantified based on data and formal techniques.  For nearly a decade the banking sector did not have access to the proper data to conduct due diligence in this important area.

Will the industry step up to this challenge?  Actually, it has already taken the first step. The International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) deserves applause for its leadership in producing statistics that enable stakeholders to get a quantitative grip on their operational risk related to international connectivity. Equally as important, these statistics are being used to identify the most frequent causes of outages and to identify suitable countermeasures.  They have even invited governments to be part of this industry-led initiative.  I urge the undersea cable industry to continue the momentum of this initiative, bringing additional operators into this effort and openly sharing reliability data with governments and other business sectors.  I also urge the governments of the world to reward this industry initiative by limiting regulations of the undersea cable industry to a “light touch”.  Industry initiative and light touch regulation is the optimum formula for end user reliability and functionality.

The Internet, and the benefits it brings, should never be taken for granted.  Awareness of the vital role that GUCCI plays in its success is vital, and new industry initiatives to help ensure GUCCI’s reliability are encouraging.  The best guardians of global connectivity are industry experts and operators, and the ICPC has stepped up to this role with their proactive posture in supporting stakeholder needs.  I applaud their actions and encourage others in industry and government to join this effort.

 

karl-rauscherKarl Frederick Rauscher serves as GIIC Managing Director and CEO. He is a Bell Labs Fellow and author of the IEEE ROGUCCI Report, which offered the first reliability analysis of the aggregation of the world’s undersea communications cable systems. In addition to serving on governance and strategic boards for technology start-ups… (read more)