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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Politics Tangling Telephone Lines

After Rascom, a Russian-U.S. joint venture, opened a fiber optic line between Moscow and St. Petersburg in March, in theory if everyone in Moscow who needed to make a telephone call to St. Petersburg decided to do so at the same time there would still be lines free. The line has a maximum capacity of 155 Mbs, which is enough to almost guarantee no shortage of telephone connections. But of course, in practice there are not enough connections to go around. Telephone capacity in a city has much in common with its water supply. The Romans built aqueducts into their cities and only the privileged few had their own channels. Today, access to running water depends not so much on there being enough channels but on how efficiently the entire flow is delivered. Telecommunications capacity is basically electronic signals. Though an individual telephone connection can be implemented through a piece of copper wire, delivering 1,000 telephone lines to a building simply requires one cable and a means of directing all of these signals to the right destination. As cellular telephones illustrate, it is not even necessary to have a wire at all. Everyone living in Russia develops an intimate feel for the telephone system. You know from the sound of the clicks on your line if your call is held up at the local exchange you are dialing (engaged sound after the first digit you dial) or if your call is able to leave Moscow (successfully getting a dial tone after dialing 8). You know that in mid-winter when the telephone lines are frozen the phones work better than in the spring thaw when water interferes with connections and greatly increases your chances of participating in impromptu conference calls. Virtually every company in the city has to bargain or even battle over the number of telephone lines it can occupy. Because the network is always so painfully evident, we see telecommunications here in terms of its nuts and bolts (or wires and hands sets), which is fundamentally wrong. Modern telephone trunk lines are made of fiber optic cable, which carries electronic signals as pulses of light. The number of calls a line can support depends more on the sophistication of the electronics on either end of it than on the physical capacity of the line itself. The problem in Moscow is not a shortage of telecommunications capacity entering the city. We in effect have our Roman aqueduct already. The fiber link to St Petersburg, a microwave link to Denmark via St. Petersburg established by Rostelekom and Telecom Denmark, combined with capacity provided by the international communications satellite providers Intelsat, Eutelsat and Intersputnik, means there is plenty to go around. One problem is politics. Telecommunications has always been a very political industry because it has traditionally involved state monopolies. Though state bodies no longer occupy such absolute positions here, they exert their influence in the way they grant companies the right to deliver this capacity or by attempting to create their own de facto monopolies by blocking all potential competition. The Moscow-St. Petersburg fiber link is a joint venture which includes the Russian Federation Ministry of Railways. The Ministry of Railways has its own telecommunications network which is completely independent of the public network controlled by Rostelecom. Since the two bodies have not agreed on how calls on the state network could be routed through the new fiber link, we are very unlikely to be able to take advantage of this fine piece of technology. The rivalry between the ministry and Rostelekom has also meant that this fiber line stops in St. Petersburg and so far does not go on to the rest of the world. This is because Rostelekom is jealously guarding its international link with Denmark and appears not to want to share it. Rascom is trying to organize a completely separate link through Finland. The other problem is the delivery cost. So far the only companies able to deliver tributaries and streams from the "aqueduct" entering Moscow are mostly relatively small foreign ventures. It is most efficient to do this work centrally: to bring these fiber optic connections to each telephone exchange or even to the end of every street. Since these ventures must connect individual customers to foreign and regional gateways, these services are -- and will continue to be -- too expensive for the vast majority of city dwellers. Moscow now has telephone capacity -- the wait is for the connections. Robert Farish is the editor of Computer Business Russia: (095) 265-4214.