Disguising a cottage industry

The information superhighway comes to Wales.
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The Independent Culture
THIS IS without doubt the best-connected "farm" in the world. You wouldn't believe it to look at it, but it is the main thoroughfare of Britain's information superhighway. With cows grazing over the fence and a cattle grid by the front gate, you would be forgiven for thinking the most exciting thing to happen would be the milk tanker arriving. But pop inside to make a call and you shouldn't have trouble getting a line. Every single phone call made between the UK and America (and a lot more besides) could flow across the kitchen table - if there were one. You can make one million calls at a time from Home Farm.

The stone cottage and its outbuildings are not what they seem. It contains some of the most sophisticated power-generation and telecommunications equipment money can buy. The "farm" in Oxwich Bay, south Wales, is the disguised landing point for half of a pair of cables called Gemini that, between them, more than double capacity of the nine communications cables currently connecting Europe and America. Gemini, which has just come on stream, will have a capacity of 30 gigabits per second when it is fully commissioned next July. To put this in context, the cable could transmit over four thousand 150,000-word novels a second; 30,000 photographs a second; 6,000 TV channels; or one million simultaneous phone calls. But where the capacity is needed is to transmit the text and pictures that make up the millions of pages of the World Wide Web. With the US still the home of the vast majority of web sites, and demand for Internet services continuing to rocket, pressure on the transatlantic Internet "backbone" is always high, and at times the infrastructure has been creaking.

The backers of Gemini (Britain's Cable and Wireless and America's Worldcom) have completed the project in double-quick time. The cables have been laid in less than two years since the two companies decided to launch the project, which has cost over half a billion dollars. "It's been an incredible rush to get this system up and running," says Mark Heraghty, managing director of Cable and Wireless's international business. "Over 70 per cent of content accessed comes from the US and, with traffic growing at about 100 per cent a year, capacity was becoming a problem."

Gemini is a remarkable piece of engineering. The traffic will be carried over eight optical fibres, each as thin as a hair. While the eight fibres are housed in armoured cables, they are in a demanding environment. In places, the two 6,000-kilometre cables have been dropped into waters five miles deep and across under-sea mountain chains. Mountains are, unsurprisingly, not good for the cables, but it is coastal waters where the biggest dangers lurk. Repairing a cable deep-under-water is not easy. Should the unimaginable happen, the other cable will keep working while a repair ship puts to sea. Users will notice no difference.

Gemini is built in a ring structure to make it more resistant to failures at any one point. A "terrestrial" UK ring links London with the cable stations at Lands End and Wales; a "wet" ring links the two UK cable stations and the two US cable stations at New Jersey and Rhode Island, and a "terrestrial" ring links New York with the two US cable stations.

But the Internet is not about to double in speed. "While most of the congestion on the Internet has been on these backbones," says Susen Sarkar of telecoms analysts Ovum, "congestion is now moving towards the local access network, that last part of the worldwide phone network that connects into the home."

Even the backbone is not going to be big enough for long. Cable and Wireless and Worldcom are partners in a new cable that will come into operation in two years and will offer 20 times the band-width of Gemini. "Our need for capacity just seems to know no bounds, for the next 10 years at least," says Sarkar.