Networks and Nature

First published: 07th October 2010

I had an interesting discussion with a Customer Service guy from PCCW / NowTV before lunch. He was following up a complaint I made last week about service interruption on two of their channels (Disney and BBC Entertainment). To be fair, it is hell trying to navigate their IVR (Interactive Voice Response, not to be confused with IVF: In-Vitro Fertilisation), but once you do get a live person, they are good at following up. This isn't the same as actually solving the problem, but at least he's friendly.

So, at different times, the video and sound got interrupted on these two channels. The video would get jerky, then stop, the sound would continue a little, become choppy and stop too. After a few minutes of annoyance (now I'll never know the punch-line, until I see the repeat!), everything went back to normal. I reported the problems. Friendly Mr. Customer Service called me back, he'd checked the records and found that the interruptions were caused by Solar Interference, and therefore out of PCCW's control. OK, understood, they'd be a few complaints if PCCW switched the Sun off improve transmission reliability.

Wait a minute... Solar Interference is related to sunspots and the Solar Cycle. We've just been through a period of very low sunspot activity, and, if the 10.7-year cycle continues normally, we'll be seeing higher levels of interference for about the next 5 years. That doesn't sound good for my entertainment! Why does solar interference affect NowTV, I get the data stream via PCCW's local fibre network? Obviously, it is transmitted from somewhere else, bounced off a satellite in the Clarke Orbit, received by PCCW's dish in Hong Kong, and piped to my home via Charles K. Kao's optic fibres. The wonders of Modern Technology.

Mr. Customer Service couldn't tell me where the transmissions originated, I guess somewhere in South East Asia, because the Disney channel in particular is localised with references to Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong, he'll get back to me on that. But, I suggested, how about eliminating the problem entirely? Use optic fibres all the way? He rightly pointed out that marine cables are vulnerable to earthquakes, mentioning one in Taiwan a couple of years ago. Is it just me, or is there a certain similarity between the map of earthquake locations and PCCW's network map? There is a particular correspondence between the "Pacific Ring of Fire" and PCCW's networks on the East Asian and West American coasts.

Do telecommunications companies consider geology and astronomy when designing their networks?

I had a final suggestion for friendly Mr. Customer Service - Disney and BBC Entertainment are not live channels. Everything on them is pre-recorded, for example, Fawlty Towers (currently being broadcast on BBC Entertainment) was recorded in 1975. Could they arrange for the data to be delivered to their local data-centre physically, by pack-mule, for example, and piped across their local network from there, thus eliminating interruption by unexpected solar storms or earthquakes?