Network Effects | Part II

The nondisclosure agreements have lapsed. The Chicago to New Jersey microwave arms race has converged to a few winners. Many of the early participants must now be eying the runaway success (and the glaring shortcomings) of a certain HFT-associated bestseller, and thinking,  yeah, “I could do that.”

It’s a fantastic story, after all, and it hasn’t really been told yet. It seems like there are two basic approaches. You could write a cinema-ready page-turner heavy on the skulduggery. Antennas knocked out of alignment the night before the jobs number. Unlicensed broadcasting on cognitive radio. Itinerant con men peddling futures on networks that will never exist. Or you could try to write a book with longer-term importance that draws the details within the larger context and paradoxes of the modern-day United States.

*

A colleague in the tech industry was recently recalling his first encounters with the real Flash Boys.

“It was some time in the summer of 2010 when the calls started coming in,” he said, “It came on suddenly, and then it ramped up. Fast. All through the fall and then into 2011. They’d come on site, and it was clear they weren’t your traditional telecom guys. They were a lot younger, for one. Sandals, cargo shorts, T-shirts. They flat-out refused to say what it was they were actually doing.

“They talked gain margins, modulation, propagation physics, et cetera, but in an oddly theoretical way. It was as if they’d just stayed up late mastering a textbook. Every single one of them wanted to know about regeneration latency. Up to then I’d never given any consideration to internal latencies. Normally, on the digital signal processing side, you’re interested in error correction, and doing it absolutely as well as you can. Extra microseconds had never mattered, period.

“They weren’t staying at the Super Eight. They’d limo out, keep the limo waiting all day. Once, I said to one of them, ‘Hey, let me give you a lift back to the airport.’ Turned out he wasn’t flying commercial. I dropped him off at general aviation. I saw that a G4 was waiting on the tarmac.”

*

In early 2011, I attended an event, known as a research “Jamboree” where everyone – that is, the large collection of physicists working in the building – stands up in rapid succession and gives a one-minute talk while showing pre-loaded PowerPoint slides. Having already given several of these talks, I knew that my previous modus operandi, which had consisted of earnestly trying to explain too much research, and then getting unceremoniously cut off, Gong Show style, was completely ineffective.

When my minute came up, I went up to the podium. My slide was a screenshot of a maze of numbers; an asof joined kdb+ table of equity quotes – sample data that I had been using while learning the terse Q language.

The one-minute timer started. I looked at the audience, keeping my expression entirely blank. Five, six, seven seconds ticked by awkwardly.

“One minute isn’t very much time,” I said, finally, breaking the silence, “but it’s an eternity in the highly secretive, highly profitable world of high-frequency trading.”

I pointed to the numbers on the slide. “This is a time series of offers to buy and sell shares of stock. What’s completely amazing is that the data structure holding these ticks has a nanosecond field. Every one of the 23,400 seconds in the trading day is now potentially divisible into a billion individual increments. Kind of staggering when you compare with the fact that Earth is 4.5 billion years old.”

“A decade ago, talking about nanosecond stamps on the trade blotter would have been absurd. In the Dot-Com boom, you had day traders flipping shares of Xilinx, and sometimes they even managed consistent profitability. The fastest human reaction times are of order one hundred and fifty million nanoseconds.”

“Speed of light is a foot per nanosecond. Einstein’s theory of special relativity is now an economic issue. A few more orders of magnitude decrease in latency, and general relativistic time dilation starts to matter. In the future, to get a competitive interest rate, you’ll need to live deep in a gravitational potential well, and you’ll need to have your bank out in flat space time.”

My minute was up. Everyone was staring at me like I’d arrived from outer space.

“Well, Uh, OK…” the moderator said, “That was something different. Our next speaker is going to tell us about the accretion of gas onto galaxies at redshift Z=2.”

*

 The next day, I ran into a colleague, I’ll call him Tim, in the hallway, “Were you serious?” he asked.

“More or less,” I said, “General Relativity – gravitational time dilation – that’s for sure playing no role in the market right now, but special relativity is relevant in the sense that the distinction between timelike and spacelike events definitely matters if you are back-testing a strategy against historical data.”

I told him about the scheme to use a microwave relay to beat Spread’s Network. “Apparently, they spent of order $300M to trench the fiber. Wireless could be more than two orders of magnitude less expensive…”

“I’m in,” he said.

*

Even at 1% the expense of Spread’s fiber, a clandestine wireless relay spanning a third of the continent presents a daunting project. The urgent question at the start of 2011 was whether anyone had gotten there first.

“If it’s being done already, maybe it’s sitting in plain sight. Say they’re using licensed spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission [FCC] might have a searchable database?”

They do indeed. 

The geodesic arc from Chicago to New York never strays far from 41 N, and the FCC has made it easy to query for entities that fit specified criteria within a relevant geographic range. A first pass through the filters produced a jumble of familiar and obscure names:

AB Services LLC

airBand Communications

AT&T Corp

Cellco Partnership

Clearwise Spectrum Holdings II & III, LLC

Comprehensive Wireless, LLC

ECHOSTAR CORPORATION

FELHC, Inc.

FiberTower Network Services Corp.

FiberTower Spectrum Holdings LLC

Fundamental Broadcasting LLC 

HISPANIC INFORMATION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS NETWORK; INC.

IDT Spectrum; LLC

MCI Communications Services; Inc

METROPOLITAN AREA NETWORKS; INC.

MPX Inc.

New Cingular Wireless PCS; LLC

Norfolk Southern Railway Company

Northrop Grumman Systems Corp.

Open Range Communications

Telecom Transport Management; Inc.

TEXAS EASTERN COMMUNICATIONS INC

Thought Transmissions LLC

Towerstream Corp.

Trex Enterprises Corporation

Westwood One Radio Networks; Inc.

With the transect list in hand, it was straightforward to step through the firms and plot their antenna locations. A Chicago to New York line-of-sight-relay would presumably be obvious, even at a glance. First on the list was “AB Services”, but the FCC website had suddenly slowed to an infuriating crawl. We waited for nearly a minute. Finally a map appeared on the screen, triggering a mixture of awe and disappointment.

A quick back of the envelope calculation indicated that even with off-the-shelf radio latencies, AB Networks, as licensed in the FCC  database, was easily capable of beating Spread’s fiber. Google linked the LLC to Anton Kapela and Alex Pilosov, two gentlemen who, if nothing else, appeared to have a variety of marketable tech skills. A Wired article from 2008 reported on a presentation they’d given at the DefCon hacker conference: 

“…BGP eavesdropping has long been a theoretical weakness, but no one is known to have publicly demonstrated it until Anton ‘Tony’ Kapela, data center and network director at 5Nines Data, and Alex Pilosov, CEO of Pilosoft, showed their technique at the recent DefCon hacker conference. The pair successfully intercepted traffic bound for the conference network and redirected it to a system they controlled in New York before routing it back to DefCon in Las Vegas…”

Stepping through the list of licensees indicated that “Comprehensive Wireless”, “Fundamental Broadcasting” and, the creepily named “Thought Transmissions” had, starting a few months after AB’s appearance in September 2010, also licensed a network, using the different LLCs to help mask their intentions. Comprehensive-Fundamental-Thought had set up a more direct route, and if operative, would be even faster than AB’s. 

*

It was clear that an arms race was developing, with an end state winner destined to be a very straight network with very fast radios. To see how far along things were, we needed to look at tick data to discern how fast the information was propagating. Was anyone already up and already front-running Spread?

The Forbes article suggested that the fiber build was spurred by a trade involving “tiny discrepancies between futures contracts in Chicago and their underlying equities in New York.” Looking through the academic literature, a paper by Joel Hasbrouck, titled “Intraday Price Formation in U.S. Equity Index Markets” jumped out by virtue of having been cited hundreds of times. The abstract reads:

“The market for U.S. equity indexes presently comprises floor-traded index futures contracts, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), electronically traded, small-denomination futures contracts (E-minis), and sector ETFs that decompose the S&P 500 index into component industry portfolios. This paper empirically investigates price discovery in this environment. For the S&P 500 and Nasdaq-100 indexes, most of the price discovery occurs in the E-mini market. For the S&P 400 MidCap index, price discovery is shared between the regular futures contract and the ETF. The S&P 500 ETF contributes markedly to price discovery in the sector ETFs, but there are only minor effects in the reverse direction.”

So it appeared that we were in familiar territory! We were effectively faced with a particle physics experiment, which was soon diagrammed on a whiteboard: 

E-mini trades in Chicago propagate more than a thousand kilometers, at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, before slamming into data center “detectors” in suburban New Jersey. We could measure the latency by correlating the SPY order book response to E-mini price-changing trades. After obtaining data, sorting out FIX and ITCH, and building the order book — hassles all – we could see how fast trading was occurring.

To get a baseline, we first sifted data from the period around the end of April 2010 leading up to the Flash Crash. Those were among the now long-gone glory days of HFT. Huge volumes, huge volatility, and no sign whatsoever of anyone trading at a rate that could beat Spread, whose construction crews were racing to bore the tunnels for their fiber through the resistant Precambrian basement of the crystalline Appalachians.

 

Walking home that night, a Vampire Weekend song that rotated randomly into my earbuds seemed somehow apropos:

The pin-striped men of morning
Coming forward to dance
Forty million dollars
The kids don’t stand a chance

*

Network Effects | Part I

INTRODUCTION

Since every microsecond nanosecond counts in our life, at the present time I have to spend each microsecond to other works rather than writing here about high-frequency trading and/or the world of microwave. That’s the reason I decided to offer the opportunity to different people involved (or not) in the HFT industry to write here. I thought the motto of this blog may become “Where capital markets speak” but another organization already took the headline – too bad. Anyway, I’m happy a couple of people agreed to replace me. Here is the first part of a new series, Networks Effects, written by my first guest I’m delighted to welcome here. I only slightly edited the text (a couple of photos, a few links, etc.) and added comments within [brackets], signed SIM. Happy reading.

 

NETWORK EFFECTS | PART I

Early last month, a reporter called me with a curious question.

“I’ve learned that Jump recently purchased a 31-acre field just across from the CME’s match in Aurora. And they paid a lot. Like $14 million, apparently. Any idea what could be going on?”

Prime Illinois farmland produces of order 200 bushels of corn per acre per year. At 4 dollars a bushel, Jump Trading LLC – the opaque high-frequency powerhouse, with the blank silvery website and the Twitter account with no tweets – could be looking at a cool $25K in yearly agricultural revenue from their parcel. 

“Which side of the data center?” I asked.

“It’s due North.”

Carteret, Mahwah, Secaucus, 350 Cermak and CoreSite all lie east or slightly southeast. North is not on the geodesics.

“Could be a shortwave set up?” I ventured, after a pause, but more or less completely at a loss. “Maybe they’re encrypting the E-mini ticks on one-time pads and broadcasting them worldwide. Tokyo, London, Frankfurt, Singapore, Sao Palo. Hey, are you on-line?”

He was.

“Pull up the Google Images of the `Rampisham Short Wave Radio Station’,” I said, “You’re looking for something like that; a field growing antennas instead of corn. If you drive out to Aurora and take pictures, it’ll give a sense of what they are up to.”

The next day, the photos popped up on my screen.

Source: Brian Louis/Bloomberg

Jump’s newly purchased field was a bleak unplowed expanse, a jumble of early spring weeds. In the distance, trucks are visible, roaring by on I-88. Fermilab is just over the horizon, having produced, for tiny flickering moments in the defunct 2 kilometer-wide Tevatron, temperatures that existed during the first microsecond of the Universe’s existence.

In the extreme southeast corner of the field stood a Kohler portable generator, a short, stubby pole with a millimeter-wave radio unit, and two small dish antennas pointing northeast.

***

More than a decade ago, I did know about Getco, and indeed, had marveled at the sheer audacity of that name. A friend of mine, a fellow physicist, worked at a 1990s-era desk that pioneered statistical arbitrage and early versions of high frequency trading. In that now-distant time, split-seconds, open phone lines, and human reaction times were all still relevant. I knew that servers were migrating to co-location in data centers to gain proximity to the exchanges. I’d heard the delicious rumors of the staggering PNLs that a collection of firms, mostly located in Chicago, were generating. “$1M per day”, “Effectively infinite Sharpe.” [Once I read in a court document that a big “HFT” firm in Houston, in its early stages, around 2001, had a Sharpe ratio of a 20 to 40, “which is extraordinarily high” – SIM].  In late 2007, a person, perhaps in position to know, and after one too many margaritas, let slip what sounded like a key to a castle, “ETFs, Man, we’re unpacking the ETFs and arbing ‘em against the underlying.’ A few weeks later, a successful trader, completely sober, remarked cryptically, “Order of magnitude, you need to think in dollars per millisecond.” Another, “Read Lefevre’s book. Everything in there still works.” It was a view through an imperfect, entirely incomplete window into a mysterious exhilarating world that was completely out of reach.

Can a sprawl of clues and misinformation be arranged to form a glimpse of how HFT actually works? A few simple principles appeared to interpolate consistently through the rumors. (1) If latency is an issue, then the time scale over which one’s predictions are valid has to be short. That is, if you can somehow predict where a stock is going to be priced next week, then your concern is with order working and market impact, not with microsecond latencies or nanosecond time stamps.  (2) There’s simply no time to solve complicated equations during production. In the co-lo cage it has to be about heuristics and lookup tables. (3) The Central Limit Theorem and the Law of Large Numbers will work to one’s advantage. Diffusion scales with the square root of time, so VIX of 20 deannualizes to price-changing tick on the E-mini every few seconds. So queue positioning must be critical, and market making, or its high-tech equivalents must be a core component of HFT.

***

The infamous Forbes article about Spread Networks was published in September 2010, but I didn’t see it until the first week of November, and so it’s clear that others had long since formulated all the thoughts I immediately had upon reading it: For a fiber that was so straight and so expensive, why was the Chicago to New York round trip travel time so excruciatingly slow? The distance is about 1200 km, so the minimum one-way signal propagation time should be about four milliseconds, not seven. Then I remembered from second-semester physics that the index of refraction in glass is something like n=1.5… Confusion.

Isn’t it faster and cheaper to send the signal through the air?

 A crash Google course in radio-frequency communication – a topic that I knew literally nothing about – suggested that there would be no show stoppers to either relaying a signal with a chain of microwave radios, or, at almost zero cost, using meteor burst communication. After convincing myself that I’d done enough due diligence to not make a fool of myself, I sent an e-mail floating those two schemes to a retired communications engineer whom I knew slightly. A week or so later, he wrote back.

I think that the idea of using a radio link seems a good idea and could work, but I believe there may be some problems with doing it by meteor scatter. To my way of thinking, a standard microwave relay link chain may be the best bet, and there’s a possibility of using a two-hop tropospheric scatter link.

Keep in mind that radio has two separate issues: technical feasibility and obtaining use of the spectrum. For something like this, I’d guess cost would not be overwhelming. Another issue is whether the protocol used requires a response from the distant end, or whether that can be eliminated through some cleverness so the latency is essentially “open loop.”

First, about meteor scatter. The standard meteor scatter link has the unusual characteristic that the reflection from the ionized line doesn’t have the same geographic coverage as an ionized plane would, and so the number of useful meteor trails between two locations is greatly less than the total rate of meteors. Typical links are very narrow band, partly because they are generally low power. So a higher power link might resolve the burst rate issue, but even then, I believe there would not be sufficient aligned paths to provide real-time service.

A more sure-fire way would be to use the relay sites that were once employed in the old AT&T Long Lines 4 GHz and 6 GHz networks.

Many of these were up for sale a while ago, and I’d guess they have been acquired by outfits that lease tower and building space. In this situation, you could expect to have reasonable bandwidth, and the latency would of course be determined by the velocity of light in air, plus a little for the plumbing and circuitry. Modern equipment for this service is available, as are the antennas and feedlines. Because of the greater bandwidth and flexibility, and lower cost, of optical fiber, there hasn’t been a market for this particular technology. But I think the Chicago-New York one-way latency would be in the range of 4 ms for the 700 mile distance. See http://long-lines.net/places-routes/1st_transcon_mw/LL0949/02.html

There are unlicensed 5 GHz bands that could provide this service, or it could be in the licensed bands of 4 and 6 GHz. There would possibly be some fade outages, but the system could be engineered against that.

Another possibility is a two-hop troposcatter link. This requires big antennas and high power, but that’s all been developed for satellite earth stations. There are 20 MB military systems, but the maximum range per hop is 400 miles, so you’d need an intermediate point. Given the reliance on the troposphere, there can be some outages, but the availability might be enough to be useful.

This reply seemed encouraging. I kept digging. Being two-hop, and nearly geometrically optimal, the troposcatter scheme looked like it would be the fastest option. A survey of the troposcatter provider websites, however, showed infrastructure that invariably ran to armored Humvees, ominously large dishes, shipping container-sized generators, and camouflage netting. The prospects of orchestrating the parking of such rigs in downtown Chicago seemed remote.

Microwave dishes on communication towers, however, are ubiquitous. They are so much a part of the landscape that one hardly notices them [that’s the reason I got interested in the HFT microwave world – SIM]. I sent out more inquiries, floating various ideas. Looking back through my notes, I have a printed-out e-mail from an engineer friend, dated December 8, 2010, that was remarkably prescient:

Very interesting.  It got me thinking of other ways to pull it off.  Here’s an idea that is even less far-fetched. You could just use unlicensed spectrum, such as that used for Wi-Fi, and set up a mesh network and the number of hops you need.

I did some poking around online. There’s a company that sells spectrum license-exempt base-station equipment with up to 30km range.  The main purpose is enterprise or municipal/rural Wi-Fi networks.  But with that kind of range you could conceivably set up around 40ish hops to get from NY to Chicago.  I’m not sure how much latency would be introduced on each hop, but I’m guessing no more than 20us.  At my previous job I worked on hardware processing of the entire network stack (TCP/IP) and the internal latency was well under 5us.  Using a conservative figure of 20us per hop adds an additional 800us (1.6ms round-trip) to the 8ms speed-of-light time.  Still brings you in under 10ms total, which compared to the 13ms in the article is certainly a competitive advantage.   Also, the bandwidth should be respectable, something on the order of megabytes.  Nothing like fiber, but certainly enough to communicate trade information for some limited set of symbols.  The other advantage would be that it is somewhat scalable.  You could build multiple point-to-point hop links.  Since this stuff is line-of-sight, you could easily have parallel networks along very similar paths.  This would not only increase bandwidth, but add redundancy and reliability to the network.  The cost of this solution would be pretty minimal if the available products have reasonable performance.  I found another company, American Tower, that rents antenna tower space for cellular and radio (think of it as antenna hosting, similar to data-center hosting).  It seems like all the pieces are there to just go out and slap a solution together.  I’ve got to think the big players have done this, but again it’s one of those things that you could read about in the paper some day and think holy shit, we talked about that! After all, we talked about the tunnel to Chicago, and it turns out someone built it. And the minute it gets out that someone has done it, there would be a flood of people doing it, since it’s low-cost and straightforward.  The Wi-Fi spectrum along the straight-shot from NY to Chicago would get so crowded that nobody in rural Pennsylvania and Ohio would ever be able to use their Wi-Fi.  I’m sure at that point the government would have to step in.  So even if someone is using Microwave, I’m guessing the Wi-Fi idea is less likely.  There’s nothing liking hiding a top-secret super-low latency network in plain sight!

My last notebook entry from 2010 is a fragment with no attribution that had been forwarded, as if by a two-hop troposcatter link, from someone who was reportedly working in the industry.

Actually… There is a Chicago firm that uses microwave to go over a town/area on the way from Chicago to NYC. (apparently some telco firm controls the switches in this area and they would have to go around so they decided to go over) supposedly their times are 13.9 vs 15 for the Spread Network direct line (and 16.5 for regular line)

Something about that last entry must have seemed confusing and daunting, and my interest drifted elsewhere for the next ten weeks.

A we say in French: “à suivre…”

HFT in the Banana land | Part 7

This unexpected new episode of the “HFT in the Banana land” series may also be coined “HFT in my backyard | S02E01”, or “S22E45”, or in more simple terms “Going to the Signal to get signals faster”. This blog has been silent for a while as I really didn’t have the time to write here, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to say (in fact, there is a lot to write about but as I’ll explain later, I decided to withdraw the season 2 of “HFT in my backyard” as I’ll write a whole book about all my investigation on the wireless networks the HFTs love). But I couldn’t resist to add this new episode of “HFT in the Banana land”, even if it’s not about the banana – but a consequence of what happened in Richborough where the two giant masts Vigilant and New Line Networks wanted to erect there were harshly refused by the Dover District Council (read the previous episode).

Here is the story as I understand it. Let’s start with a general view of the current situation, from Frankufrt to Slough. I take the Vigilant route as the Canadian firm was the first to bid in Richborough to get this beautiful nearly perfect straight line between Frankfurt (FR2 data center) and Slough (LD4 data center):

Entete

Here are the details of the Vigilant towers…

Click to enlarge

… one by one, starting from Frankfurt :

Capture d_écran 2017-05-23 à 10.27.37

From Frankfurt the path goes to Weibern where there is a high tower perfectly located close to the straigh line between FR2 and LD4 (the good old German industry). Then from Weibern the signal goes to Simmerath, at the Belgium-Germany border:
It seems most of the microwave players (Vigilant, Optiver, McKay Brothers, etc.) put dishes in Simmerath. The wikpiedia page about this tower is amusing. It says: “Am 6. September 2013 wurde der Sendeturm aufgestockt. Der genaue Grund für die Aufstockung sowie die aktuelle Gesamthöhe sind nicht bekannt. Bis dahin betrug die Gesamthöhe 66 Meter.” In short: “in September 2013 the tower was expanded”, as shown on this photo I found in a German newspaper:

The wiki page states that “the exact reasons why the tower was expanded are not known”… but the explanation is quite simple: there was not enough space anymore for all the HFT players, so the tower was adapted to receive all the dishes, as shown on this (wiki) picture took just after the tower was rebuilt: 

HFT dishes colocated in Simmerath

From Simmerath the Vigilant signal goes to Welkenraedt and then to Tienen:

You can watch the Vigilant dishes in Welkenraedt on the antennasite; in Tienen they are probably on this strange water tower:

From Tienen the path goes to Merchtem and Egem:

Since the Merchtem tower is located 6 kilometers from my new home in Brussels, I paid a visit to this tower months ago, and it looks like that:

Here is now the Egem tower, which is the tallest structure in Belgium (if you want to know more about Egem, read again this old post about my trip there, where I wanted to have a coffee in a place which appeared to be a sadomasochist brothel (?!).

From Egem, the ideal Vigilant route would go to a building in Oostduinkerke (ideally located very close to the straight line between FR2 and LD4), and then to Richborough (cf. the previous episodes of “HFT in the Banana land”)…

… but the Vigilant mast in Richborough was refused. The Egem-Oostduinkerke-Richborough path is a dead end (at least for now ;). That means the Vigilant route, from Egem, has to go South to Dunkerque (or to Coudekerque-Branche, where Vigilant has dishes on a tower) before going North to UK (in Tilmanstone, where Vigilant will expand a small tower to cross the Channel – from the grain silo where McKay has dishes in the port of Dunkerque?):

This is the kind of path HFTs don’t like: not a straight line but a triangle, meaning they have to make a detour and that’s not good for latency. The most important detail here is the high-frequency traders can’t cross the Channel with a path close to the straight line (Oostduinkerke-Richborough); they have to do it from (around) Dunkerque (or Houtem, where Jump purchased a now-very-famous giant tower for $5M). The consequence is: if you want to build the best/fastest network from FR2 to LD4, you need to have a straight path from Frankfurt to (around) Dunkerque (the big path in red in the picture below).

This is what the competitors name the “South route”, opposed to the “North route”. The North route was annihilated by the decision of the Dover District Council about Richborough, so the operators need to improve the “South route”. Here is the real beginning of this episode.If you want to build the best path from Frankfurt to Dunkerque (the “South route”), forget Simmerath (which is too far north). You have to find another tower further to the south, inside the square in red in the picture above:

And you know what? There is such a tower there: the famous Signal de Botrange. The Signal looks like that:

In Belgium the Signal de Botrange is very famous for many reasons. First, it’s the highest point of the country: 694 meters above the sea level. Secondly, it’s one of the few ski resorts of Belgium. Thirdly (in my opinion), this is one of the most beautiful places of Belgium. I went there a couple of times to explore the “High Fens”, or “Hautes Fagnes” in French, a very nice nature reserve. 

There is an amazing story about Botrange: for a long time there was nothing in the highest point of Belgium (actually it’s the highest point of both Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands), but in 1923 the local governor Herman Baltia decided to erect a 6 meter stairs :“Apparently, clocking the country’s highest point in at just shy of 700 meters was simply too tantalizing, and so in 1923, a 6-meter (18-foot) stone staircase was constructed atop the peak. From its height, on the top step of the seemingly nonsensical staircase, visitors can survey the land from exactly 700 meters above sea level.” The ridiculous thing looks like that:

Eleven years later, in 1934, an observation tower was built, reaching a height of 718 meters above sea level: the Signal de Botrange. Now here is the story of the HFTs around Botrange. I don’t remember who talked to me, three years ago, about a new project of mast in Botrange reated to HFT but last December I have been asked by a firm not to share (here on this blog) the public documents I would find about this project, as the firm didn’t know how many competitors would be aware of what was going on. I said “ok” and instantaneously started to find intel about a story I could not tell about until yesterday. I was surprised when I found this video interview of the local mayor made by a local TV:

Note that the interview as made in November 2013, and the title of the video is “A new 50-meter tower to suport financial operations between London and Frankfurt”, and I think this is the very first press coverage in Belgium on the microwave networks (too bad I missed it before). In short the mayor says that the local community have been contacted by a Canadian firm (that smells Vigilant), by an American firm (that smells Jump, now New Line Networks), by a consortium including French, Dutch and German firms (the French one should be McKay Brothers, the Dutch firm is strange – that could be Optiver or Flow Traders, but both the Dutch firms don’t work with McKay…). The mayor explains the different competitors wanted to erect a towers in Botrange because the fibre is too slow, so HFTs use microwave, etc. At least the local people know exactly why some firms need new towers… The mayor also says that a request for proposals would be made as the total budget is €M2-3. It’s not clear if the mayor states that all this money would be distributed to the local community, but he seems to be very happy with the project as the new 50-meter tower would be higher than anything in Botrange. A new record!

So, back in 2012, some HFT firms were already lurking around the Signal de Botrange. It seems it took quite a long time before the request for proposals was released… on March 3, 2017. The public documents are here. Among the usual boring administrative stuff (but where we learn that the minimum bid amount is €50,000 a year), there is a map of the Signal de Botrange with the location of the future tower:

 

I did a quick simulation with Google Street (of course, the winner will have to put all the different telco dishes which are around the Signal on the new tower). 

The competitors had until last Friday (May 19th) to submitt an offer, and yesterday the Collège communal (the municipal college) started to open the enveloppes. I called the local office to know more about what’s going with the offers, but the clerk told me that they can’t communicate now as the Conseil communal (an other administrative college) will have to discuss the offers too, etc. I was not even able to know how many offers were sent to Botrange. But the local authorities should decide soon about the next dead-lines. Who will be the winner? One can assume the Canadian firm, the American firm and the French firm submitted offers but perhaps there are other HFT lurking around Botrange too… We will see. Anyway, that’s amazing the HFTs want to be on the Signal to get signals faster. Thanks to HFT, soon the highest point of Belgium will be higher than ever, and that’s pretty cool for such a small country!

In the meantime, on the other side of the network, in Houtem, @Nuklearexperte had fun by peeing on Jump’s ground. That is what happens when a man drinks too much Belgian beers…