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Submarine cable boom fueled by new tech, soaring demand

By Julia Gabel
Fri 23 Mar 2018
FYI, this story is more than a year old

It’s been 160 years since the world’s first submarine cable linked a remote corner of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, with Valentia Island on the west coast of Ireland in 1858.

That telegraph cable failed after three weeks, but a new method for trans-ocean communications had been established, and today submarine cables are a critical piece of digital infrastructure that’s fast expanding in prevalence and prominence globally – though not yet quickly enough to meet voracious demand for capacity.

Between 2013 and 2017, the subsea cable industry has added an average of 32% of capacity annually on major submarine cable routes, according to the industry magazine SubTel Forum.

Still, the industry needs to do more. “It will have to increase activity to stay ahead of demand,” SubTel Forum said in its annual report this year.

The industry is doing just that, right now. But there are some big differences between this and past periods of accelerated submarine cable growth, besides the exponentially greater amounts of data moving on this infrastructure.

First, telecommunications firms are no longer the primary interests driving submarine cable construction – now, it’s hyperscale cloud companies and large content providers.

This drastic change hasn’t occurred over decades, but just the last few years. In addition, improved cable technology has lowered project costs while increasing efficiency and capacity. One emerging model allows cable operators to land cables directly inside multi-tenant data centers, where their customers have proximate, private connections to the various ecosystems there.

The power of the interconnection this enables is just starting to be tapped.

Big companies, bigger projects

Today, 99% of international communications touches a subsea cable, and with data traffic volumes accelerating at breakneck speed (Cisco projects global IP traffic will hit 3.3 zettabytes by 2021) the need for more submarine cable systems is obvious and increasing.

SubTel Forum projects global submarine cable capacity will increase up to 143% between 2017-2022, and it also notes that a construction boom is already underway. Last year, 62,000 miles of submarine cable was added globally.

This, after global averages didn’t crack 19,000 miles of added cable between 2013- 2016.

The names of the companies out front on a sampling of recent and pending projects illustrates the shift away from telecoms as the primary investors in new submarine cables systems:

  • Google led a coalition of investors that sponsored the new Monet cable linking Florida and Brazil, and last month announced it’s backing three projects set to come on line in 2019.
  • Facebook and Microsoft both funded construction of the Marea cable connecting Virginia and Spain, which was completed in September.
  • Amazon is one of the key investors in the Hawaiki Submarine Cable, which will connect Australia to the U.S. west coast via New Zealand and Hawaii, and which is scheduled to go live in June.

According to TeleGeography, the international capacity deployed by companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon rose 14-fold between 2012-2016.

That was just the start because this trend is a response to a fundamental shift by businesses in a digital age to a cloud-first approach to IT.

Content giants like Facebook now depend on the ability to access cloud services anywhere, because there’s no other way to quickly deliver the content (video, audio, news, etc.) their global customers demand.

Meanwhile, cloud companies like Amazon Web Services need to be able to provide those services. Subsea cable systems are critical to making this possible. By investing in them, these mega-companies get them built faster. They also get a level of control over construction, maintenance and operation that’s ultimately more economical than becoming a paying customer on a telecom’s cable.

New tech, new possibilities

Even with the ubiquity of cloud computing and subsequent involvement of content giants and hyperscalers into the subsea cable business, the ongoing boom couldn’t be happening at its current scale without technological advances that have made it cheaper to build systems with far greater bandwidth.

Consider that new systems averaged 9 terabits per second (Tbps) in 2013, but multiple systems planned for 2018 and 2019 will have design capacities of 60 Tbps.

For example, one of the most significant advances lessens or eliminates the need for the “regen” equipment that regenerates – or refocuses – the light wave carrying the data as it disperses and weakens over distance.

Now, lasers are powerful enough and the glass is clean enough that the signal can sometimes travel the ocean with no need for regen equipment on the submerged portion of the cable. That gets rid of layers of cost and complexity that come with installing, powering and maintaining this equipment, and it allows for more investment in more projects.

Innovations in optical transmission have also cleared the way for a new interconnection model in which the cable lands directly inside a multi-tenant data center, rather than a traditional cable landing station (CLS) on the beach.

Terminating a cable inside a data center not only removes the need to operate and manage a CLS, it also removes delays by eliminating the backhaul between the CLS and a data center or other interconnection hub.

That means cheaper, lower-latency connectivity, and it gives the cable operator the ability to offer customers fast, direct and secure access to cloud, network, content and other industry ecosystems inside a multi-tenant data center. That’s an important differentiator.

More submarine cables, more interconnection

The demand for interconnection – private data exchange between businesses – is a fundamental component of the continued proliferation of submarine cables systems.

Companies in a global digital economy must collaborate with partners instantly, across oceans, and they also need to meet user expectations for high-performance connectivity anytime, anywhere.

That’s impossible for firms tethered to traditional IT architectures, in which data is shuttled back and forth between users and distant, centralized corporate data centers. They need interconnection, and the expansion of submarine cable infrastructure offers just that.

Subsea cables bring companies to the digital edge, and the ability to land the cables directly inside data centers enables these systems to deliver the close, direct, many-to-many global connectivity that is the essence of interconnection.

The demand for interconnection may not be as old as the submarine cable industry, but they are linked now, both in their accelerated growth rates today and the ways they will empower businesses tomorrow.

Article by Jim Poole, Equinix Blog Network

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