Telecommunications infrastructure

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:

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The evolution of undersea cables from 1990 till 2019.
Click on play or replay to watch the proliferation of cables around the world.

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.

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.

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 are experimenting with various projects, including providing mobile access from Internet balloons and drones.