The Null Device

The $25 million millisecond

One of the dividends of the melting of Arctic ice is on its way; this summer, three flotillas of icebreakers and cable-laying ships will begin laying submarine cables crossing the Arctic, from London to Tokyo. The cables, which will go through Canada's Arctic Archipelago and skirt the Russian north coast, will cost between $600m and $1.5 billion each and will reduce the latency between London and Tokyo (a link which now goes either through the Indian Ocean or the long way around, through North America) by 30%, shaving 60 milliseconds off; which translates to up to $25 million per millisecond saved.

As important as network links are in today's hyperconnected world, the fact that some three or so billion dollars (a sum which could buy a lot of other things, from providing millions of people with clean water to patching up bridges and power plants) was easily found for a 60-millisecond speed increase is mostly to do with being massively useful for high-frequency algorithmic trading. Objectively, it makes no difference whether a transaction between London and Tokyo takes 170 or 230 milliseconds to take place—though whether the transaction gets in before or after the rest of the market is the difference between profit and loss. Already, a significant part of the global financial system resembles a game of Core Wars played with real money; large amounts of wealth are conjured into being in finance houses by wartrading bots created from GPUs and FPGAs by extremely well-renumerated geeks, and many of the brightest minds of our age are eschewing the vows of poverty which go with the academic life or the modest salaries promised by pure science and medical research and instead going into creating the bots that will outcompete the current generation of bots. As such, there's all the money in the world for faster network links between global financial centres, and the Arctic link should tide the traders of London and Tokyo over until someone opens a finance house on Novaya Zemlya or in the Canadian arctic and beats both sides to the punch. After all, 299,792,458 metres per second is not just a good idea; it is about as iron-clad a law as there is.

The article suggests that, while algorithmic trading will benefit from the link, it will also be open to general traffic. Though, since the reduced latency is a competitive advantage worth countless millions, I wonder whether civilian access to the cable will be specially configured to slow packets down by a few milliseconds.

There are 2 comments on "The $25 million millisecond":

Posted by: Fazal Majid Sat Mar 24 01:19:24 2012

No, it's not to speed up algorithmic trading, as even 60 milliseconds is way too much. Japanese firms willing to trade in London just install servers in London, and vice versa.

The market for this is probably from arbitrageurs and forex currency traders, people who notice that a stock (or more likely foreign exchange rates) is slightly more expensive at the LSE than it is in Tokyo, buy stock in Tokyo and sell it in London. Finding out about price differences faster than your competitors is a significant edge.

Unlike HFT, arbitrage does have a (slight) redeeming social purpose, as it is essentially no different from international trade, just in financial products and currency rather than goods or commodities.

Posted by: Greg Thu Mar 29 20:13:49 2012

The last paragraph of the comment above is an argument often made by financial traders: Arbitrage of financial instruments is a form of international trade, trade is good, therefore arbitrage is good.

But the analogy between moving food and essentials from where they are cheap and plentiful to where they are needed, and using the Internet to take advantage of tiny split-second differences in the prices of financial instruments in different places, is very slight indeed.

And once there is someone willing to "smooth the market" by arbitraging it, spending a squillion dollars on a new network cable so that someone else can do it faster, is just waste.

I think ACB's argument holds.

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