30 years: Wild west to wild ride!

It is hard to believe that it is 30 years since the Arelion story began, back then we were part of Telia Company. The AS1299 network was first listed in 1993, with the fiber backbone network we know today starting to be built in 1998.

Over that time, the technologies of our network and the services that we’ve provided have changed remarkably. In the early years, the landscape was dominated by X.25, frame relay, ISDN and other legacy protocols. At the same time, Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) was starting to replace Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy equipment. Even though SDH was a great technology, the lack of flexibility, and the physical size and power hungry requirements have made us phase it out in favour of more flexible solutions. Nowadays, our network is therefore completely SDH free.

Standing the test of time

Around the start of our company, DWDM technology as we know it today appeared on the stage and has been a fundamental component of fiber networks that now, is being pushed to known limits. The cost point for a wavelength on those fibers has dropped so much from those early days too. I can remember us selling our first wavelength in 1998 to a customer for $180,000 per month, which may seem outrageous today when prices are around the $400 mark! At the time, though, this was cutting-edge and expensive technology.

Today, we are close to reaching Shannon´s Limit (the maximum physical limit to the amount of traffic that can pass through a fiber). New developments are still needed including even higher baud rates, new modulation formats, and maybe even using frequency bands outside of the normal C and L band.

While some technologies have disappeared, some from those early days have truly stood the test of time. A fiber built in 1993 can almost carry traffic as well as when it was first installed, even if some plastic casings can become brittle, making it fragile along its length. TCP/IP and Ethernet too, of course, are more important than ever, and the only significant change has been from IPv4 to IPv6 when address space was maxing out, but a significant switchover is still to happen with the majority of traffic still on IPv4.

One of the biggest changes on the Internet itself was the emergence of cloud services and the hyperscaler companies that run them such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft. Whether providing cloud services for businesses, content, social media, or gaming, the hyperscalers have been a fundamental part of how we have developed our business, its own cloud services, and the AS1299 network.

During these 30 years the world event that put our network to the biggest test in a way we could never have imagined was the COVID-19 pandemic. AS1299 saw a year’s traffic growth in just three weeks, at a time when huge restrictions were on place that affected our staff on many levels, including their ability to maintain the network. We were so grateful for the culture we have built as a business at that time, and that we have always approached our network planning by ensuring excess capacity is available for unforeseen events.

Let’s work together

Probably the biggest and most welcome changes in our industry have been around interoperability and sustainability. Today, new standards and agreements across the industry mean that equipment from different vendors can be mixed, though is still not as easy as it could be. Information related to faults and performance can also be shared across networks. A more open equipment market too has meant increased competition, lower costs and improved performance for both network providers and customers.

I still remember in the early years of the dot-com era, all anyone really cared about was how much traffic you could shift and how much capex you spent. Throughput was the most important thing when it came to equipment, because more bits and more fiber miles meant more bragging rights – results and profitability were secondary!

Today’s market is very different, with the compactness, flexibility, energy and cost efficiency of equipment as important to network providers. This is not only to meet their own sustainability goals – customers have expectations too. And, rightly, under EU and other rules, all are expected to report on their impact.

Fond memories and a cringe or two!

Incredibly, when we started out, we had to place some equipment in some strange places. One of our first amplifier sites was in the toilet of a petrol station and it worked phenomenally well for many years!  To this day, we still have parts of our network in “non-network-like” locations. Why change something that works well!?

There have been some great learning experiences too. We once purchased a fiber pair from a company in Romania that had installed a cable. When we later checked the cable, we discovered that parts had not been installed correctly, including a section laid across the tarmac of an operational parking lot! When time was of the essence many installers used short cuts to sell and hoped they would never been found out.

In 2001, a new consultant that had joined the company to help sort out our finances, could together with us not understand why our revenues were down when we seemed to have been growing so much. Following some investigation, he discovered that nobody had thought to send out any invoices to our customers for the last 12 months!

The wild west ended in 2002 when the dot-com bubble burst, which affected many and thankfully, today, the industry takes a much more present, conscious, and responsible approach to growth.

The wild ride ahead

Looking forward, it would be a fool’s errand to try and predict with any accuracy what the future holds… as the past 30 years have shown clearly! As an industry, we certainly could not predict it in 1998 and, with technologies such as Quantum computing and AI emerging, there really is a whole new chapter of the Internet’s life beginning.

Today, the most powerful companies in the world are based on the experience provided by fiber networks, and ours remains the largest Internet backbone in the world. The wild west days of the Internet may be a dim and distant memory, but we can all be sure that the next 30 years will include some more wild rides from time to time.


Mattias Fridström, Chief Evangelist


PS. We recently launched an interactive map of AS1299 which let you drill down into individual routes and PoPs, and get detailed service and bandwidth availability for every location. Check it out!