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Beneath the surface

submarine-cable-mapSubmarine (or undersea) cables have had a profound impact on third-world countries and isolated continents, who once had to rely on land-based systems and satellite transmissions.

No limits exist for the length of cable which can be laid to link up other countries and remote islands, and the application of submarine cable has increased the amount of bandwidth flow, allowing huge communication transmission through single cable networks that can instantly carry terabytes of information. This has reduced the cost of communication access and stimulated increased economic growth.

With the first cables laid in 1850, there are now 280 in use worldwide, and it is estimated that they carry 98-99 percent of international data traffic, with satellite communication carrying the remaining one percent.

As expected, the cables themselves are extremely durable and resilient to a variety of damage causes. They are multilayered, and feature steel wire armouring, coming in a variety of thicknesses – simple, single, double, and extra heavy – and are roughly 80-90 mm in diameter. Rumours have circulated online that the cables are prone to damage from shark bites, but academic research has dispelled them.

Physical security doesn’t just remain wrapped around the wire itself. Governments have designated corridors of oceans which are no-go zones for fishing and anchoring, which both have the capacity to damage cables.

“There is a breakage or cut in an undersea cable approximately every three days, but most of these go unreported,” says Colin Anderson, Submarine Networks Marketing Director, Ciena. “Most cables usually sit on the seabed in water of a depth of around 2000 metres, and towards the shore they are heavily armoured, and often buried up to 3 metres deep.”

Contrary to popular belief about the potential of individuals to sabotage the cables, the biggest causes of fault are equipment reliability, anchor damage and earthquakes, while roughly 70 percent of damage to undersea cables is caused by earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides.

The impact of damage to a submarine cable – particularly to a less developed country – could have a large impact on its ICT and infrastructure. In September, the 20,000 km long AAG cable – one of four running into Vietnam – that connects South-east Asia with the U.S. mainland, was found cut at its S1l section, and took two weeks to be fully repaired. S1l connects the Vietnamese coastal city of Vung Tau and Hong Kong, and is connected to the US across the Pacific Ocean via Guam and Hawaii. It was reported that the damage had been caused by an anchor, and that up to 40 percent of Vietnam’s Internet connection was cut as a result during the two week period. Unfortunately for Vietnam, this was the third time the cable had been cut since 16th July. The cut shows the damage that could be inflicted on the country’s infrastructure during that period.

“The role of submarine cables has changed a lot in the last five years,” Anderson says. “They were thought of as connections between two beaches, but this has dramatically shifted. Whereas before it may have been beach-to-beach communication that was the go-to link, presence-to-presence connections are now in high demand. Changes in network architecture have catalysed this demand. A connection between London and New York, for example, has to traverse sections of land and does not just stop at the coast.”

The emergence of Coherent Transmission technology within the last four years has enhanced their ability to achieve this. The deployment of 100 gigabit Ethernet cables in long haul optical networks has enabled vastly higher data rates to be transmitted over distances of around 2,000 km, and is a precursor for the introduction of software-defined networking. SDN stands to be a disruptive force in the world of submarine cables, potentially changing the architectures of terrestrial networks. This could move communication from a point-to-point model to making points part of an international terrestrial network. “This could bring changes in terminal behaviour,” Anderson says.

The Middle East is currently forming part of two cables that will connect Asia to Europe, adding to the 48 that already feed into the region. Confirmed on 27th January, AAE-1 (Asia-Africa-Europe 1) will be 25,000 km long, spanning from South East Asia to Europe, and will cross Egypt. It will connect Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Egypt, Greece, Italy and France, and is due for completion in 2016. It is anticipated that cable will eventually connect more than 40 percent of the world’s population. Each trunk fiber-pair in the cable’s segments – supplied by TE SubCom – will have a minimum cross-sectional capacity of 80 x 100Gbps and each branch will be implemented with optical add/drop multiplexing (OADM) nodes containing TE SubCom’s wavelength re-use technology.

In a similar vein, 20,000 km SEA-ME-WE 5 will connect 17 countries through points-of-presence from Singapore to the Middle East, then to France and Italy, with a system capacity of 24 Tbps. The consortium consists of 15 telecom operators, and was agreed on 7th March, with Alcatel Lucent supplying the Sri Lanka to France part of the cable, and NEC completing the Sri Lanka to Singapore segment. The construction of three other major cables across the Pacific Ocean has also been agreed in 2014.

Looking forward, the vast increase in data quantity and traffic means that undersea cables will become more widespread in years to come. “The compound growth rate for submarine cables is staggeringly high,” Anderson says. “Network capacity is expected to grow five times over the next six years. The industry is currently growing at 30-40 percent per annum so that gives you an indication of how prevalent the technology is.

With enhancements in technology including the rise of third platform computing, as well as the spike in demand for mobile, video and on demand content, the need to provide capacity to end users, as well as backing up data around the world is a key driver in this expanding market.
“More than 40 percent of international traffic is currently delivered by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter,” Anderson says. “Over the last seven years their presence has hugely increased, and there is now a colossal amount of social traffic that is being pushed by these companies.”

The key role these firms play is likely to increase their involvement within the undersea cables world. With the cables themselves falling under the bracket of consortium or non-consortium-owned – with most falling into the former category – it becomes increasingly likely that technology giants will become key stakeholders in them, setting up specialist teams to work with vendors.

Although some would dismiss the issue as wishful thinking, one could be forgiven for asking if, given the nature of public information that passes through the cables, they could become publicly owned in the near future. Anderson is in no doubt that this won’t be the case, “Telco providers will surely remain the major stakeholders,” he says.

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