Commentary
TELECOM & INTERNET | Contributed Content, Hong Kong
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John Hawkins

Keeping businesses connected in Hong Kong's skyscrapers

BY JOHN HAWKINS

Now home to more than 3,000 buildings that qualify as skyscrapers, Hong Kong’s first structures of notable height stood just six stories tall. Although less impressive today, these so-called high rises of the early 20th century brought about an age in which Hong Kong and the world fell in love with skyscrapers.

Of course, skyscrapers have two main things going for them – they’re impressive to look at, and they make a small footprint work really hard. But therein lies the biggest challenge facing skyscrapers in the 21st century. Hard-working buildings, and their hard-working business occupants, depend upon an infrastructure that can work hard too.

Famous for its iconic skyline, Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than any other city in the world. These skyscrapers are home to a multitude of businesses, many of them dependent on high capacity, fast internet connections, without which their competitive advantage could be undermined.

All businesses are now reliant on data and connectivity, with the likes of financial services firms, digital production studios, and media and entertainment businesses accessing, exchanging, and manipulating vast amounts of data in the course of their everyday operations. And as cloud computing services become ever more ubiquitous, much of the heavy lifting is being done in external data centres, with powerful networks feeding information back to corporate offices, increasing the reliance on connectivity.

It’s not merely the capability of the network that is of concern here, but the way in which in-building connections are managed; between fiber’s point of entry and the individual access points throughout the whole building. Fast wireless 5G services have the potential to eradicate most of those access issues, and may be rolled out in Hong Kong as early as 2020. But until that is a widely-deployed reality, the challenge remains a real one.

Ultimately, this is a challenge that finds its way to the telecoms firms delivering the backbone of business networks. Meeting the needs of business customers in high-rise, some landlords and building management companies are even acting as de facto or pseudo operators, bundling connectivity in with other property services, which can further increase the need for reliable, manageable, and measureable access for all tenants.

An equitable division of capacity
There are two important considerations here. One is that tenants receive access to the connectivity they need. Networks must be able to perform adequately, especially for clients in a financial hub like Hong Kong that engage in data-intensive and time-sensitive work.

Delays, downtime, and glitches are not acceptable. So it may be that a building is serviced by multiple providers, to mitigate against potential bandwidth capacity constraints.

But simply ensuring the network is running is not enough on its own. Not for operators, anyway. For the second important consideration is ensuring that service provision per storey, per tenant, or however it is divided, can be managed properly.

This includes ensuring that provision matches the fees being invoiced. In a scenario where multiple operators serve a particular building, which is made possible through the application of individual SLAs detailing what each customer or subscriber will receive and what they will be charged accordingly.

All-you-can-eat
This may be a scenario many are familiar with at home – once several people are accessing the home wi-fi simultaneously, service degradation is unavoidable. Even in Hong Kong, which enjoys some of the fastest broadband connections in the world, speeds slow down if everyone is using data-heavy services.

However, a minor inconvenience in the home translates into a serious problem for businesses if the same issues arise.

Some businesses have a high requirement where network capacity is concerned and will eat as much bandwidth as they are given. It is bad news for their neighbours if their appetite goes unchecked, as it can quickly eat into other tenants’ allowances.

SLAs will establish the parameters of how great a share of the capacity each tenant within a building is entitled to. Effective policing of that agreement is an important next step, and one which can be handled perfectly adequately in most managed buildings.

If the building has a modern packet network (which could be Ethernet- or MPLS-based), this would allow for each subscriber to be restricted to the appropriate amount of bandwidth. But it could also allow for that to vary on demand, possibly pre-determined by time of day, or the day of the week.

It would also establish parameters such as delay or delay variance (sometimes called “jitter”) that can affect some applications. Violations of the SLA may result in penalties to the provider and thus are important to monitor and avoid. Similarly, outage times may be captured in the SLA as well so they too are commensurate with the price paid for the service.

Building to building
Managing connections, contention, access, and billing to multiple tenants in a single building can be highly complex. That complexity grows exponentially if instead of just one skyscraper there is an estate of several buildings to manage – even more so if a single organisation has different business units across multiple buildings within that estate.

If each service, for each customer, in each building is managed individually, the scale can be daunting and costly to maintain.

We are living in a data-driven age, and Hong Kong’s skyscrapers must optimise the allocation of bandwidth if the city wants to keep up with regional rivals like Singapore and Shanghai. In December, Bloomberg reported that Singapore is “beating Hong Kong in Asia’s fintech race,” but the good news is that Hong Kong has the means and the innovative minds to catch up – as long as strong, optimised network service is in place.

As businesses’ reliance on data and high-performance computing continues, and as Hong Kong leverages its position as a financial hub to drive the future of fintech, the demands placed on business networks will only continue to grow. Meeting those growing needs is, of course, a challenge in itself. However, through effective management of those needs – service provision and reliability without contributing unnecessary complexity – providers can continue to deliver the connectivity that businesses expect, no matter how many users are logging on from within the same skyscraper.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Hongkong Business. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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John Hawkins

John Hawkins

John Hawkins is Ciena's resident Carrier Ethernet expert. In his many years in the industry, John has held board/chair positions for a variety of IEEE and MEF committees related to Carrier Ethernet.

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