If you think Hawaii's traffic jams are bad, try venturing into cyberspace. The fiber freeways between here and the mainland are filling up fast.
Isle Internet traffic
has hit a bottleneck
By Rob Perez
So many people are using the high-tech highways -- surfing the Internet, transmitting data, downloading movies, music and games -- that telecom carriers are running out of space on the undersea fiber-optic cables to route the traffic.
The crunch for high-speed bandwidth has become so pronounced that some Internet service providers cannot get any additional space now, which has prompted them to temporarily stop signing up new customers wanting the fastest Web hookups.
LavaNet Inc., for instance, recently started a wait list for customers seeking digital subscriber line service, which is used for high-speed Internet access.
LavaNet does not want to add more customers without adding more bandwidth; otherwise it fears service to existing customers could suffer.
Likewise, the online arm of Verizon Hawaii, the state's dominant phone company, is not offering DSL service to new customers until more bandwidth hits the market.
Industry officials say the shortage is especially evident at the higher ends of the bandwidth spectrum. The higher ends have the fastest and broadest capacity for data transmission and are used by companies like Verizon and LavaNet to serve hundreds or even thousands of Internet users simultaneously.
Length: 13,125 miles
JAPAN-US CABLE NETWORK
Cost: $1 billion
Landing points: Japan, Oahu, California
Initial launch**: Second quarter 2001
Maximum design capacity*: 640 gigabits per second
Owners: 33 companies, including AT&T, Sprint, WorldCom and Verizon
Length: 19,375 miles
SOUTHERN CROSS CABLE NETWORK
Cost: $800 million
Landing points: Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Oahu, Big Island, California, Oregon
Initial launch: November 2000
Maximum design capacity*: 160 gigabits per second (enough capacity to transfer nearly three feature-length movies every second)
Owners: Telecom New Zealand, Cable & Wireless Optus, WorldCom
*When fully operational
At those high ends, basically starting from so-called DS3 circuits and above, virtually all the existing capacity between Hawaii and the mainland is leased or spoken for, industry officials say.
"It's kind of like a refrigerator shortage," said Yuka Nagashima, LavaNet president. "You don't really notice it until you have to buy a fridge."
Or until you surf the Web in heavy traffic.
During periods of peak Internet usage here, generally between 6 p.m. and 1 a.m., the five main fiber cables running along the ocean floor to the mainland can become so congested that Web surfers experience slowness or difficulties with downloads and other Web functions, industry officials say.
"I believe all the ISPs in Hawaii are suffering the same fate," Leo Nikora, an executive with Pacific Global Communications, a Maui ISP and e-commerce Web site developer, said of the congestion problems.
Yet so many factors can affect Internet browsing -- such as a glitch with a Web page or with the service provider -- that determining what is behind a problem can be difficult, officials say.
"You don't always know what causes the slowdown," said Kit Beuret, spokesman for Oceanic Cable, which offers high-speed Internet service via cable modems.
While Internet usage here is expected to continue growing at rapid rates -- roughly 43 percent of local homes now have access -- two pending projects could begin easing Hawaii's bandwidth crunch, perhaps as soon as next month.
On Nov. 15 a new transpacific cable network linking Australia to the U.S. mainland via Hawaii is expected to become operational, said Ross Pfeffer, director of the Asia-Pacific market for Southern Cross Cable Network. A portion of the two cables connecting Hawaii to the West Coast will be dedicated just to Hawaii-mainland traffic, Pfeffer said.
"Come November, there will be a big sighing" of relief, said Nonie Toledo, vice president and general manager of Sprint Hawaii.
By the end of March, Pfeffer said, the Southern Cross network will provide more than double the bandwidth capacity that currently exists between Hawaii and the West Coast.
The Hawaii-mainland portion eventually will be capable of carrying 160 gigabits per second, enough capacity to transfer nearly three feature-length movies per second.
And during the second quarter of next year, a cable network linking Japan and the West Coast --also running through Hawaii -- is tentatively scheduled to go online, local executives have been told.
Officials with the Japan-US Cable Network, which is designed to be even faster than the Southern Cross system, could not be reached for comment.
A third project, called FLAG, is in the works but not scheduled to be operating in the Pacific until 2002 at the earliest.
Pfeffer would not say how much capacity will come online from his network in November. But some industry executives expect the new supply to immediately ease Hawaii's crunch.
Others say pent-up demand is so strong that whatever bandwidth becomes available quickly will be snapped up.
"The jury's still out on that," Pfeffer said.
Until more bandwidth hits the market, some executives believe they will have to continue paying premiums for whatever space they can find.
Kiman Wong, general manager of Oceanic's Road Runner Internet service, said bandwidth prices have jumped about 50 percent the past six months. Oceanic recently boosted its Internet capacity by roughly 40 percent, mainly from orders the company placed several months ago.
Wong said he is confident Oceanic will be able to accommodate its rapid growth -- 700 to 800 new Road Runner customers a week -- until the Southern Cross project comes on line.
But with the current shortage, Wong said, he is scouring the market for companies that have bandwidth to sell. "I'm looking for anybody."
Hawaii's high-speed bandwidth crunch is the first of its kind here, officials say. In the past, shortages have surfaced for undersea cable space, but those involved lines for voice transmissions. That is why residents making long-distance calls to the mainland sometimes got recorded messages saying all circuits were busy.
But Hawaii's bandwidth crunch is not unique. Other places, especially island states or nations, are experiencing shortages.
"There's a huge bottleneck here in Australia," said Southern Cross's Pfeffer.
The reasons for the bottlenecks are varied. No one came close to predicting the explosive growth of the Internet, and new applications -- such as downloading audio and video clips -- take up much more bandwidth space.
Moreover, telecom companies have not been able to build facilities fast enough to keep pace with demand. Planning undersea cable projects has been especially difficult, partly because of environmental and financing hurdles.
"You just don't go out and lay a new cable. It takes years of planning," said Sprint's Toledo.
Ironically, Hawaii's bandwidth crunch surfaced as the state was aggressively pitching itself as an attractive place for high-tech businesses.
But a company needing big chunks of high-speed bandwidth would be hard pressed to find it today.
"This (shortage) is a big black eye" for Hawaii's high-tech image, LavaNet's Nagashima said.
Joe Blanco, Gov. Ben Cayetano's technology adviser, said the bandwidth crunch is only temporary and has not affected companies' interest in Hawaii.
Cayetano, however, recognizes that the state needs more fiber links to the rest of the world, and has been streamlining the permitting process to lure projects, Blanco said.
"One can never have enough bandwidth," he said. "It's like horsepower under your hood."