Fascinating Stephenson piece on Undersea Fiber

Rohit Khare (khare@mci.net)
Thu, 17 Jul 1997 18:31:04 -0400

Following up on Project Oxygen, I read up on WIRED's profile of its
predecessor. Neal did an EXCELLENT job on this very lengthy piece from
issue 4.12.


>From a WIRED article by Neal Stephenson on FLAG (Fiber Link Around the


When you talk on the phone, your words are converted into bits that are
sent down a wire. When you surf the Web, your computer sends out bits that
ask for yet more bits to be sent back. When you go to the store and buy a
Japanese VCR or an article of clothing with a Made in Thailand label,
you're touching off a cascade of information =DFows that eventually leads to
transpacific faxes, phone calls, and money transfers.

If you get a fast busy signal when you dial your phone, or if your Web
browser stalls, or if the electronics store is always low on inventory
because the distribution system is balled up somewhere, then it means that
someone, somewhere, is suffering pain. Eventually this pain gets taken out
on a fairly small number of meek, mild-mannered statisticians - telecom
traffic forecasters - who are supposed to see these problems coming.

Like many other telephony-related technologies, traffic forecasting was
developed to a fine art a long time ago and rarely screwed up. Usually the
telcos knew when the capacity of their systems was going to be stretched
past acceptable limits. Then they went shopping for bandwidth. Cables got

That is all past history. "The telecoms aren't forecasting now,"
Mercogliano says. "They're reacting."

This is a big problem for a few different reasons. One is that cables take
a few years to build, and, once built, last for a quarter of a century.
It's not a nimble industry in that way. A PTT thinking about investing in a
club cable is making a 25-year commitment to a piece of equipment that will
almost certainly be obsolete long before it reaches the end of its working
life. Not only are they risking lots of money, but they are putting it into
an exceptionally long-term investment. Long-term investments are great if
you have reliable long-term forecasts, but when your entire forecasting
system gets blown out of the water by something like the Internet, the
situation gets awfully complicated.

Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) /// khare@mci.net
Voice+Pager: (617) 960-5131  VNet: 370-5131   Fax: (617) 960-1009