Digital transformation reaches the seabed

Submarine networks are critically important to global communications and when there’s no ‘Plan B’, innovation and constant transformation is a necessity, writes Ravi Mali, Ciena’s regional director. 

Most people haven’t even heard of submarine cables but they’re always there, silently carrying vital information between continents. In the Middle East, we sit at the intersection of several transoceanic submarine cables, putting the region at the heart of the global economy. Next-gen submarine networks connecting the Arabian Peninsula with France or Asia and the Mediterranean, make this an increasingly important geographical location. As a region of growing interest to content providers, we expect more network upgrade investments and new cable routes to further increase the available capacity, making international communications in the region more reliable, flexible, and better able to support growing demand from businesses and consumers.

For hundreds of years, ships were the only way to share information between continents separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean. This changed more than 150 years ago when the first reliable transoceanic submarine cable was established across the Atlantic Ocean.

This pioneering telegraph cable transmitted information at rates that we would laugh at today, but it was certainly a ‘game-changer’ and a leap forward in performance when compared to handwritten letters that were transported by ships, and could take weeks or even months to deliver.

We’ve come a long way in increasing the amount of data we can push across these optical fibres, which are the diameter of a human hair (housed in cables the diameter of a common garden hose) and laid upon the world’s seabed running for thousands of kilometres across oceans.

Why should we care about submarine cables?

We’re now very dependent on this critical infrastructure, which carries $10 trillion of transactions every day, over 95 percent of all inter-continental traffic, and is experiencing over 40 percent CAGR growth worldwide. While you may not know it, the seabed is changing dramatically as submarine cables undergo a transformation to keep pace with this demand. Most modern submarine cables are based on coherent optical transmission technology, which enables enormous capacity improvements over the early telegraph cables, and can reliably carry multiple terabits of data each second. The truth is this network infrastructure will only become even more critical in future.

What many may not realise is that there is no viable alternative to the world’s critical submarine cable infrastructure. Satellites cannot compete as they do not have the required capacity, performance, availability, security, or cost points of existing high-speed optical networks, overland or undersea.

No alternative means that we must continually innovate to increase the information-carrying capacity of these jugular veins of intercontinental connectivity, better protect them from inevitable faults to ensure continual availability, and improve the total cost of ownership to maintain pace with ongoing price erosion – often contradicting goals.

What’s next?

New technologies originally developed for terrestrial networks, such as coherent detection optical transmission and ROADMs, have already been adopted and adapted for submarine networks. This allows operators to create seamless end-to-end networks resulting in significant reductions in complexity, latency, and cost with noteworthy reductions in power and space requirements. Other terrestrial innovations, such as packet switching and software application development, is also being adopted and adapted for submarine networks driven by the industry-wide “openness” movement. Increasingly, the traditional lines between submarine and terrestrial networks are being blurred due to digital transformation.

The ever-changing, never-ending requirements placed upon networks mean that additional enhancements must be made on an ongoing basis to maintain constant industry challenges and opportunities. New and open submarine network solutions allow submarine cable operators to mix-and-match whatever components they require, thus enabling greater choice and the ability to create networks that are custom-made for the markets they serve for highly competitive transoceanic network services.

With massively growing demand, this level of network innovation must continue to ensure that we never need a ‘Plan B’.

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