Imagine you wanted to travel by car from one continent to another. For a smooth journey, you would need adequate roads that could take you across flatlands and mountainous regions, ships to transport you across oceans, bridges and tunnels, and proper directions. Telecommunications infrastructure is very similar.
It is a physical medium through which all Internet traffic flows. This includes telephone wires, cables (including submarine cables), satellites, microwaves, and mobile technology such as fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks. Even the standard electric grid can be used to relay Internet traffic utilising power-line technology. Innovative wireless solutions like Internet balloons and drones are also gradually being deployed.
The Internet, therefore, is a giant network connecting devices across geographical regions.
How does data flow through this infrastructure? Let’s say a user based in Chile - connected through a data package on a device - wants to access content hosted in Spain. The user’s device would wirelessly communicate packets of information on the cellular network. Those packets would then be routed between that network and every connected network via ethernet cables, coaxial cables, and over land, underground or under-sea fibre cables, until the packets arrive at the destination server. The process is reversed - not necessarily along the exact same route - for the digital content to arrive back to the user’s device.
Take a look at how an under-sea cable looks like:
What are the main policy issues involved? Policy issues include access (how to connect the unconnected), the liberalisation of the telecommunications and services market (opening up the market, and therefore, boosting competition), the development of intercontinental backbone links (how to create more routes across continents to diversify Internet traffic, such as China’s One Belt, One Road initiative), and the establishment and harmonisation of technical standards.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of cables financed by giant tech companies, due to the demand for services requiring faster connections. Today, since the telecommunications infrastructure is predominantly owned by the private sector, there is a strong interplay between governments, companies, the technical community, and international organisations.
Watch the development of undersea cables over the years, based on data from TeleGeography: