The Polar Express … for data!

I was at a nerd party last Friday and as it goes, ideas became wilder as the beer supply diminished. One of the wilder ones stuck with me: Jarl brought up the possibility of a submarine cable across the Arctic region, properly connecting East-Asia and Europe.

This is certainly a wild idea, but as a matter of fact it may have a great potential. The current routes between Europe and – say – China or Japan are flat out lousy. Ping times to Japan range between 300 and 400ms and to China close to half a second (brief and unscientific tests gave me average ping times of 320 and 420ms respectively). And for a good reason – the traffic has two equally lousy routes to choose from:

  1. Across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and via the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean where it zig-zags its way to the region, probably through a major peering point, located in Singapore.
  2. Across the Atlantic to the Atlantic Coast of the US, across entire North-America and then across the Pacific! Incredibly this is the route I usually saw when tracerouting Japanese and Chinese servers.

Either of these two routes is at least 16 thousand kilometers and probably closer to 20 thousand, with a lot of peering points along the way. (See Wikipedia map of submarine cables for reference)

Iceland is finally becoming pretty well connected as we will soon have at least 3 major submarine cables, each with bandwidth in the 1 Tbit/s range, and directly linked with the main peering points in Europe, namely London and Amsterdam (the latter one is unconfirmed).

From here, the distance through the Arctic region to Japan is less than 10 thousand kilometers as drawn below: From Iceland, north of Greenland and then straight across the North Pole to enter the Pacific Ocean via the Bering Strait and on to Japan. It is probably possible to lay a cable this route using submarines. It has been done, but I bet maintenance is a bit tricky. Somehow I just don’t see a submarine taking in a cable to splice damaged fiber.

A more likely route would therefore be the fabled North-West passage that presumably is now open for cable ships just as well as other vessels, allowing for relatively normal maintenance on a cable lying there. This variation is a little further in total (counting from mainland Europe). Both routes should nevertheless be able to bring ping times from Europe to East-Asia down to the 100ms range (laws of physics, like the speed of light start to kick in at these distances).

This is not perfect, but importantly this is below the threshold acceptable for VoIP traffic, meaning that bandwidth on this route should be hot property. So maybe, Iceland will one day become a major peering point for IP traffic to Asia…

Certainly a big, crazy, wild idea – but worth further investigation.

thumb-polarexpress

6 comments

  1. Þetta er mjög áhugaverð pæling. En er hagkvæmara að leggja sæstrengi heldur en jarðstrengi? Maður sér fyrir sér að strengur sem fylgir að mestu Norðausturleiðinni nema styttir sér leið í gegnum Yakutsk og Vladivostok á leið sinni myndi bæði stytta leiðina og hafa aukið notagildi. (Það mætti auðvitað ennþá leggja legg til Alaska og niður vesturströnd N-Ameríku)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakutsk
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Sea_Route

    Nú er til hugtak um “mannfjöldamiðju” jarðarinnar – semsagt sá punktur þar sem samanlögð vegalengd til hvers og eins jarðarbúa er styst (líklegast í Indlandi án þess að ég vitit neitt um það). Á sama hátt er einhversstaðar að finna “nettengingamiðju” jarðarinnar (sem væri líklegast nær Íslandi). Þó að netið sé í eðli sínu decentralized þá myndi meika sens að gera öflugan höbb þar.

  2. Frábærar pælingar Gummi. Ég get svarað því að það er mun ódýrara að leggja (og viðhalda) sæstrengi en strengi á landi. Kostnaðurinn við að draga streng á skipi vs. að grafa hann í jörðu er mjög hagstæður og svo eru bæði færri rottur og óvarkárir gröfumenn í úthöfunum en á landi 🙂

    Á móti er dýrara að gera við sæstrengi þá sjaldan þeir bila.

    Varðandi mannfjöldamiðjuna og miðju internetsins, þá væri gaman að fara í vísindalega úttekt á því, en svona til að nálgast þetta eitthvað þá sló ég inn í Google Earth þær 20 borgir í heiminum sem hafa stærstu Internet Exchange punktana (byggt á þessum lista og svo stærstu staðina sem ég fann í Bandaríkjunum. Þetta setti ég svo gegnum græju sem reiknar út “center of gravity” fyrir innslegna punkta og viti menn. Miðpunkturinn er nánast akkúrat á Nuuk á Grænlandi!

    Þetta tekur auðvitað ekki tillit til hversu mikil traffík er flutt á milli þessarra heimshorna, né stærðar hinna ólíku peering punkta, en ætti samt að vera einhver vísbending.

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