Vocus turning to sovereignty as its competitive advantage

Australian carrier sees benefits in being onshore and selling itself to a local consortium.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

On Anzac Day, former cybermoat conjurer and secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo issued a provocative missive on the beating of the drums of war.

A nanosecond of thought is all that is needed to reveal the target of the missive -- China -- and as if to hammer the point home, this week saw Beijing cut off China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue talks.

Then the Australian prime minister, in a revealing feat of geopolitical misspeaking, used the words "one country, two systems" when talking about Taiwan. One country, two systems is the way Beijing handles its special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

This is the backdrop upon which two Vocus executives spoke this week at CommsDay Summit, with both reinforcing the company's pitch as being able to provide sovereignty to its customers.

"Sovereignty is a factor which Vocus increasingly sees as a competitive advantage in a market where security is critical to success," Vocus general manager for government and strategic projects Michael Ackland said.

"We've seen an accelerating trend, particularly from government customers, where the use of sovereign assets is not just a nice-to-have but a must-have."

The company is currently on a path that will see it be acquired by Macquarie Infrastructure and Aware Super, at a valuation of AU$3.5 billion, to remain in local hands. It was something Ackland said would help with the sovereignty play.

"It's about having a sovereign network, which is supported by two of Australia's leading institutions and operated by secure staff, based in secure network operations centres," Vocus COO Ellie Sweeney said a day earlier.

Sweeney outlined that Vocus runs a separate secure network, called VAS, alongside its regular commercial network using segregated systems and equipment, while adding that the company will double its capital expenditure on network security during the next fiscal year.

In March, two years after it first ran the idea up the proverbial flagpole, the federal Digital Transformation Agency released its Hosting Certification Framework for data centre providers, which Sweeney said could be extended to network providers.

"It's not much of a stretch to consider that if government is so concerned about how, when and where data is stored and processed, the next logical step is to take an active interest in how, when and where data is carried across networks," the COO said.

Sweeney added the company saw opportunities in building submarine cables as "new sovereign infrastructure".

This should hardly be surprising, given in 2018 Canberra decided to use around AU$200 million of its foreign aid budget to lock Huawei out of building a subsea cable to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Instead of Huawei, Vocus eventually picked up a AU$137 million contract to build the cable.

"As we have seen over the past year or two in the submarine market, governments around the globe are willing to intervene to ensure cables are built by trusted vendors and are routed through trusted territories to avoid geopolitical issues," Sweeney said.

The Vocus chief operating officer said the consortium model used to fund subsea cables might be dead, at least in the eyes of government customers.

"We've certainly seen a growing appetite from our wholesale customers seeking capacity from Asia to the US via Australia to avoid politically contentious areas to our north," she said.

"Vocus' complete ownership of the ASC [Australia-Singapore Cable] cable and the domestic network it's connected to gives us a unique advantage for customers seeking certainty of about where their data is travelling. Route diversity is also increasingly seen as a critical factor, both for terrestrial networks and international networks."

During her speech, Sweeney announced Vocus would build a cable to close the loop on its national network between Geraldton and Port Hedland, under the banner of Project Horizon.

"In total, Project Horizon will establish a 2,000-kilometre network of both new and existing fibre between Port Hedland and Perth via Newman, Meekatharra, and Geraldton," Sweeney said.

"The Horizon system will be designed with transmission capacity starting at 38Tbps per fibre pair, giving us a clear upgrade path ... as demand requires it. It will provide another layer of redundancy and give Vocus a 'figure 8' of network rings across Australia's eastern and western states. It will allow Vocus to provide geographically diverse backhaul out of Darwin."

The company is also planning to connect ASC with its North-West Cable System between Darwin and Port Hedland, as well as branch the North-West cable to Kupang on the island of Timor.

Project Horizon is due to be completed by the end of 2022.

Sovereignty in space

Vocus not only sees sovereignty over terrestrial infrastructure as an advantage; it also wants to push it on the arena of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

With its national fibre footprint, Vocus believes it is well placed to capitalise on LEO players wanting ground stations to keep latency low.

"These low latencies are dependent on the deployment of extensive ground infrastructure with high-capacity fibre backhaul, so processing and storage can occur as close to the edge of the network as possible. This means having ground stations in regional areas close to where the end-users are located, to minimise round-trip time," Ackland said.

"By now you should be starting to see why a fibre company is taking such a strong interest in LEO satellites."

Ackland said the company's controlled environment vaults (CEVs) could be upgraded to function as ground stations "all over the country". The other card Vocus has up its sleeve, according to Ackland, is the millimetre wave spectrum it gained in December alongside the likes of SpaceX Starlink, Field Solutions Group, WorldVu (One Web), Inmarsat, Viasat, O3B/SES, New Skies Satellites/SES as well Telstra, Optus, and NBN.

"Our fibre network provides the foundation to install many more CEVs and ground stations in the future as LEO satellite operators require them. And while we have the fibre, and we have the CEVs to establish ground stations, we now have another key asset to make our LEO satellite business a reality -- the spectrum required to turn these CEVs into ground stations," he said.

Ackland said there was a strong argument that LEO satellites could replace voice services in the bush, which he believes would remove the need for Telstra to hook up premises with copper lines under the Universal Service Obligation. The Vocus executive went further and questioned whether NBN should be investing in its loss-making regional networks.

"Wouldn't it be more economically efficient to subsidise non-NBN services to ensure they're set at a similar price to metropolitan equivalents, and for NBN to write off the losses? These are no longer questions that can be left for another day," he said.

"These are questions which need to be considered here and now, since LEO operators like Starlink now offering commercial services."

Even though Ackland said the LEO service is better than fixed wireless, and sometimes fibre to the node and HFC connectivity, he doesn't believe the world will switch completely.

"They will provide a viable alternative in many instances where latency meant satellite could never have been considered," Ackland said.

"I should also make it clear that LEO satellites are not going to make NBN's two Sky Muster satellites redundant overnight either."

Vocus is using NBN business satellite services to complement its terrestrial footprint when providing connectivity to the likes of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM).

In March, the Bureau called on the federal government to have its own satellite capability.

"All satellite data used by the Bureau is received from international partners ... this arrangement has worked well but access to this data is not guaranteed into the future," BoM said.

"In recent years there has been an exponential growth in commercial satellite data providers offering new business models, resulting in potential threats and opportunities in the space industry. In the future, this may pose a risk to the volume of data the Bureau can access if current arrangements for the free and open exchange of international satellite data are reduced."

The Bureau recently added to its wishlist, floating the idea of running a subsea cable to Antarctica and improving satellite connectivity to its weather stations.

Earlier this week, Vocus was part of the launch of space communications startup Quasar, which is looking to provide ground stations as-a-service via electronically-steered phased array technology.

"This technology emulates the behaviour of a traditional parabolic antenna, but no longer requires the antenna to mechanically track satellites across the sky," Ackland explained.

"As a result, Quasar's technology is able to connect to hundreds of satellites at once, managing connections through time slots for uplink and downlink activity.

"One thing which excites me about our work with Quasar is that it's an Australian company, backed by Australian funding, developing a sovereign Australian capability in the modern-day space race."

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