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.
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.
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.
A convergence of two worlds: telecoms and computers
The internet can be structured into three basic layers: a technical infrastructure layer (physical), a transport layer (standards, protocols), and an application and content layer (www, apps). A good interaction between the first two layers is crucial from the perspective of telecommunications.
In order to use and further develop the infrastructure efficiently, there was a need to bridge two worlds with different needs – telecommunications and computers. The technical standard Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) managed to bridge the two. TCP/IP works over the infrastructure; all applications work over TCP/IP. Nowadays, much of telecommunications infrastructure is built to fit the needs of digital communication and the internet.
Internet backbone cables
Since the first telegraph cable reached India via the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean in 1870, most international electronic communications traffic has been carried via seabed cables. In addition, many private companies and governments own complex networks of undersea cables. Currently, 98% of all global internet traffic flows through submarine fibre-optic cables. These cables reach land through a few internet traffic hubs, such as Miami for most Latin American cables, and Singapore and Hong Kong for Asia.
Take a look at what an under-sea cable looks like:
Recent years have seen a proliferation of cables financed by giant tech companies, due to the demand for services requiring faster connections. Google, for instance, is deploying the Equiano cable connecting Europe and the West African coast, while the 2Africa cable system initiated by Meta aims to connect 23 countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
The last mile
The local loop (or last mile) refers to the connection between ISPs and their individual users. Problems with the local loop – including cable lines in poor conditions, power outages, physical barriers to reaching remote places, and prices for deployment – are an obstacle to the more widespread use of the Internet in many countries, mainly in the developing world.
One common solution is to use existing infrastructure such as copper wires, or cable TV and mobile networks. In order to make good use of such infrastructure, governments and regulatory bodies often order operators to rent their loops (local loop unbundling).
Another low-cost solution is the use of wireless communications. Major tech companies have been experimenting with various projects, including providing mobile access from internet balloons and drones.
Initially, mobile networks were constructed primarily to deliver a voice service. As the technology advanced, options for sending text messages (SMS), then multimedia messages (MMS), and, later, limited-bandwidth data transfers, were added. We are now in a phase where mobile networks mainly provide high-bandwidth data transfer, with other services being conveyed in digital form as well (such as VoIP).
Mobile internet connectivity has developed through several iterations. The second generation, 2G, was the first to be enhanced with the general packet radio service (GPRS) data transfer of up to 60 Kbps, useful for normal browsing and emails. High-speed packet access (HSPA), a 3G upgrade, provided internet speeds of up to 7.2 Mbps and became useful for mobile TV streaming and other high-end data transmissions. 4G services brought speeds between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps.
Building on its predecessors, 5G brings significant improvements in speed, latency, and bandwidth, making it essential in unlocking the potential of AI, IoT, virtual and augmented realities, and more. Not yet a reality (standardisation work is likely to start in 2026 at the 3GPP), 6G promises to enhance machine communication (e.g. autonomous machines, collaborative robots) and human communication (e.g. enriching immersive experiences), and foster advancement in enabling services that require features such as high accuracy location, mapping, or body sensing data.
Read more: 5G
Satellite internet services are used as a backbone link to enable internet connectivity in particular in underserved and remote locations. In addition to governments launching operational geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) satellites to provide connectivity, there are also several GEO satellite companies (e.g. Eutelsat, Inmarsat, Intelsat), as well as an increasing number of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite operators providing access to broadband via satellites (e.g. Globalstar, SES).
An example of new satellite technologies is the private initiative Starlink, a satellite constellation constructed by the American company SpaceX. By March 2023, Starlink had launched over 3,700 small LEO satellites; the company has approvals to deploy 12,000 satellites and has applied for authorisations for a further 30,000. The other main initiative, OneWeb has a constellation of 648 LEO satellites as of April 2023.
Competition in the field of satellite internet services is set to intensify, as more actors – such as the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and Amazon’s project Kuiper – are working on launching satellite constellations to compete with the services provided by the likes of Starlink and OneWeb.
Regulating the telecommunications infrastructure
The telecoms infrastructure is regulated at both the national and international level by a variety of public and private organisations. International organisations include the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which develops rules for coordination between national telecommunications systems, the allocation of the radio spectrum, and the management of satellite positioning; and the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has played a key role in the liberalisation of telecommunications markets worldwide.
The roles of the ITU and the WTO are quite different. The ITU sets detailed voluntary technical standards and telecommunications-specific international regulations, and provides assistance to developing countries. The WTO provides a framework for general market rules.
Following liberalisation, the ITU’s near monopoly as the principal standard setting institution for telecommunications was eroded by other professional bodies and organisations. At the same time, large telecommunications companies – such as AT&T, Vodafone, Telefonica, Orange, Tata Communications, and Level 3 Communications – were given the opportunity to globally extend their market coverage. Since most internet traffic is carried over the telecommunications infrastructure of such companies, they have an important influence on the development of the internet.
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