Asia-America Gateway

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Seventeen major telecommunications companies signed a pact last week to construct a new undersea fibre optic cable linking Brunei and other countries in Southeast Asia to the United States. The project will greatly increase the capacity and diversity of internet access once it begins operations at the end of next year.

The 20,000km cable is expected to cost $500m and will involve a consortium led by Telekom Malaysia. Among the companies involved are Brunei's national telecom provider TelBru, AT&T from the US, British Telecom Global Network Services, Thailand's CAT Telecom, Singapore's StarHub and Australia's Telstra.

Telekom Malaysia announced that construction on the new cable link will begin immediately and will connect the West coast of the U.S with Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii as well as offering a "seamless interconnection" between these locations and Europe, Africa and Australia.

Although Brunei's investment in the project is yet to be disclosed, three of Brunei's primary telecoms service providers, Telbru, DST and AiTi are said to be contributing $50m each.

Brunei's current internet access is obtained via cable link to Singapore that connects to the US. The new cable, dubbed the Asia-America Gateway (AAG), will mean Brunei has direct access to the US.

Abdul Saman, secretary general of the national chamber of commerce and industry told OBG, "Brunei has experienced a few problems in the past with having a connection pass through Singapore in terms of internet speed and reliability. Brunei has the capital to link directly to the United States so the Asia-America Gateway will be a great opportunity for us in improving interconnectivity to the outside world."

The new cable system will have a capacity of up to 1.92 terabits per second of data bandwidth and is designed to provide a more secure link. The initiative came after the earthquake off Taiwan last December severed communication links and caused widespread disruption in the region. This new cable will follow a low-risk route by avoiding volatile zones in the Pacific Ring often prone to sub-sea volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

The speed of Brunei's Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) service ranges from 512kbps to a maximum speed of 1mbps through ADSL broadband and is one of the most expensive in the world at $220 per month. Currently, only 10,000 people out of a population of 380,000 have access to the internet. Broadband coverage has, however, spanned the whole of Brunei since the release of "E-Speed-2", which allows customers to talk on the phone while also being connected to a high-speed internet server.

Malaysian Communications Minister Lim Keng Yaik said that the cable will strengthen communications and business ties between Asia and the US by ramping up international broadband capacity at a competitive cost.

Saman told OBG, "This would be hugely beneficial because in terms of technological advancement, we need to be on par with other developed countries in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] like Singapore and Malaysia. We need to move towards providing widespread wireless access across the country and follow in the footsteps of Taiwan for example."

"This impressive joint effort will go a long way in increasing broadband uptake in this region, which will in turn increase the overall appeal for global investments and increase the competitiveness of the countries," Lim said.

Diversification is high on the government's agenda to lessen the country's dependency on oil and gas reserves. Developing Brunei's internet and communications technology capabilities and improving internet penetration are ways the government hopes to attract business investments into the country. Brunei's core sectors are also on board; local banks are now offering finance schemes to small- and medium-sized enterprises in an effort to encourage sustained development and diversification.

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