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Quake could leave NZ without internet for months – Orcon boss on Pacific Fibre demise

Orcon CEO Scott Bartlett says New Zealand is left vulnerable by single Southern Cross cable to outside world.

“Then the Japanese tsunami took out four or five international cables” – but the nation was not cut off from the global net for a minute.

By comparison, New Zealand is vulnerable, he says. (A Wall Street Journal report confirms this account, but notes traffic did slowed due to congestion on the remaining links).

“Imagine if the Christchurch quake had taken place in Auckland, where there are just two landings for the Southern Cross cable. New Zealand would be facing a future of no internet for weeks or months.

“How can we possibly tolerate running a modern economy on such a flimsy piece of infrastructure?”

Southern Cross has previously told NBR ONLINE that its twin-cable, figure-eight design minimises the odds of service disruption though natural disaster (although also the cost of maintaining its 25,000km twin loops).

Pacific Fibre also planned to land its single-loop 13,000km cable in Auckland, where the country's main internet exchange is located in the North Shore suburb of Albany (although there was talk for a while about an alternate landing in Wellington).

Another retail ISP boss, Snap's Mark Petrie, didn't have any quake qualms. He noted multiple cables survived both major Canterbury quakes.

But he raised a fresh concern: "I’d second [CallPlus chairman] Malcolm Dick's comment around the MTBF [mean time before failure] of 15 years on Southern Cross. It's quite a frightening prospect."

If Southern Cross lost its connections at Takapuna and Whenuapai, "there would be no option for satellite capacity in my opinion. Maybe for essential services, but residential broadband would come to a very quick halt".

Price concern once dust has settled
Mr Bartlett also had concerns about the price of international bandwidth, which in turn has a big influence on data caps (given most sites we access are offshore, typically in the US).

“It would be political suicide for Southern Cross to turn around and lift prices five minutes after Pacific Fibre dies,” he says.

“But medium to long term, I’m a lot more concerned.”

CallPlus CEO Mark Callander told NBR the price of his ISP's unlimited data plans would have reduced faster (as things stand, they've just been increased) if Pacific Fibre had gone ahead.

Snap boss Mr Petrie was less concerned on that point. 

"All the leases are quite long term, and they have publicly said they are not going to jack up the prices, I do believe that," he said.

(Pacific Fibre acknowleged the incumbent favoured locking ISPs into 10-year bandwidth contracts – but said fast expanding broadband use meant they would have to keep coming back to the table to buy more capacity.)

"I can confirm that it will not all affect our pricing, if anything I do expect that over time data allowances will still go up," Mr Petrie said.

"Don’t get me wrong though, I’d always like to see more competition in the submarine cable market and it is really disappointing that Pacific Fibre is not going ahead."

Answer on Orcon's doorstep?
This morning NBR asked Orcon’s parent company, Crown-owned Kordia, if it would re-animate its plan for a transtasman cable.

The situation was being reviewed; it was too early to say, a spokeswoman said.

Will Mr Bartlett be agitating? (And conspiracy theorists will be wondering at this point if Kordia's transtasman cable plan had any bearing on Orcon's failure to sign on the dotted line with Pacific Fibre.)

“I don’t mind who does it – it could be Kordia, it could be someone else – I just want someone to build another cable,” he told NBR.

Orcon was not an anchor Pacific Fibre customer.

The ISP had had conversations with the start-up but, unlike Vodafone, CallPlus and Australia's iiNet, had yet to sign on the bottom line.

"They were very focussed on trying to raise foreign equity from what I can tell."

The demise of Pacific Fibre "is so sad," Mr Barlett says. "For two years we believed we would see lower data prices and improved national redundancy ... something's got to be done."

More by Chris Keall

Comments and questions

One would have thought that the Crown would learn from disasters. How about the infamous power cable disaster which left NZ looking like a 4th world country.
What is it with the establishment.....which loves nothing more than to rabbit on about the Digital Economy/NZ Innovation/ Global links/ etc.....that it belt and braces every part of the old milk and stuffed timber industry than tomorrow?
Oh, I see what you mean.....they understand that and haven't a clue on tomorrow.

scott bartlet would say that... there is actually multiple cables and a satellite link.... that no one wanted to throw good money after bad is just commercial commonense. Even the government wouldnt get involved (but then the minister for IT etc is a complete muppet)

Satellite is an option, but only with very limited bandwidth - in terms of the whole country hitting it - and heart-stoppingly expensive.

See also the comments on satellite capacity added to the story above from Snap's Mark Petrie.

agree about satellite - but Southern cross isnt the only cable option NZ has. Besides after an Earthquake getting onto facebook isnt going to be a priority for most New Zealanders.

What we are seeing here is a bunch of politicians and ISPs trying to capitalise on this very sad situation. That it is being pushed so hard by editors desperate for a tech story is only adding to the feeding frenzy.

I seem to recall a lot of people commenting in this very section saying that pac cable and UFB wont work. Looks like at least half of them are now vindicated

It must be surprising to you that some of us located missing people using Google Docs and Twitter - 1 hour after the February quake, thereby reducing load on official services. I'm sure active Facebookers have done the same.

"Besides after an Earthquake getting onto facebook isnt going to be a priority for most New Zealanders."

After the second major Chch quake in Feb last year, I was put at ease by reading posts on Facebook from several close friends in Chch which simply read "Big quake ... just letting you know we are both safe and well!"

Facebook is not just about telling people you're at the gym, you know!

After a quake knocks out the internet for months and cripples the economy, the Govt will throw tons of money at it to ensure it never happens again, at vastly more cost than if we get on and do it now.

After all, we have a bunch now ready and willing to do it mostly themselves who just need a bit of extra support to get over the line. For national economic security reasons the extra cost could easily be justified, and met simply by making the SuperFund invest in Pacific Fibre on condition it adds redundancy to help meet national needs, and maybe land somewhere different than Southern Cross.

In the meantime however the old "it ain't broke" and "save money now whatever the long term cost" mentality prevails. But when we are forced to do it, taxpayers will have to stump up the entire cost, multiplied by an urgency premium of economic and political desperation.

Hmm, it certainly sounds like the short term thinking of a third world country...

Scott's on the money, both on the long term competitive issue and the redundancy aspect, 2nd cable must be somewhere other than Auckland, we need to think ahead here NZ.

Oh but the govt is thinking ahead, Mighty River Power's wind farms are on the Wellington, Ohariu and Wairarapa fault lines - bet they collapse first and then the net goes off, LOL.
What a treasure trove I found here!

Auckland isn't a earth quake risk area. And the national network has evolved to have the data start at Auckland and trickle down the country. There's probably not enough bandwidth up bound from Wellington to Auckland considering half of NZ population lives north of Hamilton. I'm not an expert but that's my guess behinds their logic.

It is obvious that we need a second cable;we can't continue to play such a high risk game with only one; the effect of a disaster on our (hopefully) economic recovery would be too bad to contemplate.
We can only hope that another investor steps up.

Scott Bartlett is in a good position to dissuade his owners from dusting off and readjusting their Tasman plans again with old mates to build close to Southern Cross' existing cable. At least three reasons why it is not a goer- no viable market on that stretch; no physical separation to avoid his tsunami scenario; completely stuffs the possibility of another Pacific Fibre style route being built. So who would they really be helping?
In that case the outlook is that NZ becomes a long term satallite of Australia. Scott, swivel the PR cannon around quick.

Lets be honest I'm sure 80% of the Internet traffic is porn, facebook, and illegal music and movie downloads. If all best effort broadband connections were switched off as a result of a disaster and only premium data connections were to use the satellite link it's likely NZ would survive and not fall into the dark ages for a few weeks worse case month(s). ISP's such as Orcon are simply trying to enhance their profit margins at the expense of the tax payer. Tax payers have coughed up $1.5 billion for fibre in NZ to support these greedy ISP's. The tax payers of NZ are propping up these companies and allowing them to make millions, about time Orcon and their cartel of mates stop dictating how tax payer money is spent. In the good old days Telecom NZ would have worn the cost and the risk of these technologies for this little pacific nation. Not the tax payer.

Only trouble is that with well north of 50Gb/s of Internet traffic internationally there maybe insufficent configured satellite capacity in NZ to support 20% of it (~10Gb/s) in an emergency

A quake would effect any cable systems terrestrial infrastructure components such as terminal stations, points of presence etc - similar to bridges, buldings and any other terrestrial infrastructure or property.

The Japanese tsunami took out 7 of the 8 cables connecting Japan to the rest of the world - service was effected for quite some time for both protected and unprotected circuits - even though the telecoms industry banded together to switch data onto the remaining routes and maintenance providers were on the scene within days

The NZ, Australian continental shelves and the US continental shelf do not exhibit the same characteristics to that of Taiwan when terrestrial of submerged earthquakes can break submarine cables - neither does any other part of the Pacific which is largely benign to cable disruption.

Upshot is an Auckland based landing is fine for the risk profile of the physical landing, and subsea and terrestrial geomorphology.

Mr Bartlett does not have his facts right, nor what he is talking about (other than saying its sad PF failed) as he has no experience in the submarine cable industry.

However one must also ask - why did he not support PF by purchasing capacity for Orcon?

because orcon's parent company was also trying to build a cable....

Rubbish. Additional satellite links could be brought online rapidly and, while there might be 100ms latency that would irritate online gamers, it would be perfectly acceptible for the vast majority who could get by until fibre infrastructure was repaired. Far from ideal but not as bad as made out here. We live on a plate boundary, get over it!

Orcon is owned by Kordia who shelved plans for their Trans-Tasman cable when PF came along. Of course they wouldn't be a customer. Now wait for those plans to be dusted off and/or a Kordia asset sale

This guy Scott is so full of it. If he really supported Pacific Fibre then why didn't he sign up as an anchor customer?

Orcon won't need a PF anchor customer deal once it's acquired by iinet. (hold the phone)

@pacific fibre supporter

why didn't scott tie the anchor around his foot and jump in the pacific LOL!

The Japan and Christchurch events showed that the highest priority in a disaster is local communications, not not facilitating the rest of the world gawping at pictures of the apocalypse. That is, local mobile connectivity is the lifesaver. If the disaster is so trivial that the majority of the country still wants to watch unlimited international movies and play games whilst the disaster area goes to hell in an earthquake, then it can't be that significant a natural disaster in the first place! If the majority of the population is taken out in an earthquake, then demand for international capacity shrinks so fast that it is actually feasible to use satellite - after all, the most important data doesn't actually consume vast quantities of capacity in the first place, even when there isn't an earthquake happening.

So instead of bleating about international resilience, why are these ISPs not sorting pout the real and present resilience problem the local internet faces - local backhaul capacity to move our existing data around the country so that we reduce existing local congestion and face less variance in the time taken for our mundane day-to-day packets to pass. Or sort out the 'disasters' that see local email go 'off the air' for hours (or occasionally even days) at a time. These 'outages' are both vastly more probable than an earthquake, and although each may be smaller in cost, totalled up they already likely cost the economy more than the expected cost of a single devastating international cable loss event.

It behoves these doomsayers to remember that (as the Nobel Laureated Kahneman and Tversky have shown) the human tendancy is to overreact to the high-cost, low-probability events but under-react to the high probability low-cost ones which over time can actually be more significant.

Whilst a second cabe option would be nice, clearly the bussiness case does not stack up. However, before everyone goes into a panic. SX is in fact two seperate cables. One goes to Hawaii the other to Australia. So we have TWO cables not ONE.

lets get real here folks - we are a small nation with more sheep than people who makes its fortunes selling carcasses and dead trees to the world.

The economics for half this stuff just doesnt stack up and probably never will for the foreseeable future, which is why people are leaving droves as living in a viable economy with a decent climate has a very real appeal

remember that in the chch quake what really worked was not mobile, not internet, but old school landline phones