As seen on Subtel Forum magazine, July 2022. See page 35.
Keeping Continents Connected
Subsea cable management and maintenance is changing with the times to support internet companies that own all their own infrastructure.
Subsea cable systems are recognized as a vital cog in the fast-growing digital economy, fueled by the world’s seemingly endless appetite for faster connectivity. For businesses, it’s driven by the rise of cloud computing and a dependency on hyperscale platform providers. For consumers, it’s the entertainment equivalent, whether it’s streaming TV and music services or using social media platforms.
Faced with greater demand, the pressure is on subsea cable operators to mitigate the risk of outages, which as the citizens of Tonga can confirm, is a very real risk and amplified when a single cable connects a country to the web. In January 2022, an undersea eruption broke the connection 23 miles offshore. It took over two months to fix, in which time the main island depended on an unreliable 2G wireless connection.
The slow response might reflect the economic challenge of maintaining a connection that only serves around 100,000 people. Elsewhere in the world, new submarine fiber cable projects are connecting continents on a scale that will demand unprecedented levels of support should something go wrong, not least because new entrants into the market will want the management and maintenance to be as leading edge as the services they provide.
Setting new subsea standards
The subsea market is going through unprecedented change as Meta and Google shift their emphasis, from generating demand to generating supply. They have growth models predicated on connecting to Africa where their footprints are still relatively small. It is part of a much bigger picture transition in the industry, tracked by TeleGeography, which shows how content providers are consuming more and more of total international cable capacity, leaping from 6.3% in 2010 to 69% in 2021, and expected to reach 78% by 2027.
Relying on a combination of consortia builds and private builds, these hyperscale specialists are driving the growth and increasing the control over the cables they own. They have a rigorous focus on the capability, range, and capacity of the cables they are laying and will expect them to be optimized throughout their lifespan, which includes doing everything they can to mitigate the impact of costly outages.
No surprise that these companies are leveraging leading-edge technologies to do the job. In the case of Meta, a project connecting Ireland, the UK and the Nordics is using the innovative Havhingsten cable system, which has an aluminum conductor rather than copper, and an enhanced burial plough for added protection in the busy North and Irish Sea sections.
Advanced technologies are now being used in cable laying vessels to facilitate precise routing in challenging undersea environments, and strides are being made to make high-capacity fiber-optic lines more resilient. The next phase is to continue to protect and optimize subsea cable investments, to be very selective about who is procured to do the ongoing management and maintenance once they go live.
Multi-layered support capabilities
The exponential growth in subsea traffic and global demand for terabyte-per-second speeds has caused a paradigm shift – not just in the way large-scale projects are planned and executed, but how they are subsequently run. In the traditional subsea model, where a small multi layered group of operators co-owned the infrastructure and collectively contracted expertise in PFE (Power Feeding Equipment) and SLTE (Submarine Line Terminal Equipment) as well as technical support, services tended to be generic and come to down a roving group of contractors.
Because new subsea entrants own their own cable, they have an opportunity to fine-tune support to meet their specific technical requirements. Like all the best managed service propositions, the primary task will be to free them up to focus on their core business, which in the case of internet companies is about so much more than connectivity. It will therefore be incumbent on the next generation of subsea support companies, not just manage and monitor the cable, but to set out a roadmap towards continuous improvement, which will mean leveraging the latest technology.
Subsea systems operators need to be proactive rather than reactive, and new technology is the great enabler. Real-time monitoring, timely reporting and prompt maintenance are table stakes that demand a dedicated subsea NOC (Network Operation Centre), peopled by subsea specialists who collect and collate data, triage every incident, and share granular detail with the vessels of subsea repair contractors.
Submarine cables are susceptible to breaks and damage from man-made and natural events, from fishing activity and dredging to bad weather and earthquakes. Cut or damaged cable can typically take days if not weeks to repair causing extended downtime (the Tonga experience would not be typical). Once the clock is ticking, it’s about having the right length and type of cable, and a subsea repair vessel available with the right tools onboard to do the physical repairs.
In advance of sailing, engineers will try and identify the point of the break by measuring the time it takes light to bounce back from the broken fiber. The challenge for a new generation of subsea systems operators is to make imprecise fault-finding more precise, so that when the vessel sets off, the most significant variable that could undermine repairs should be the weather.
Back on land, there will be other jobs that also fall under the remit of the systems operator. They will need to be able to escalate and provide on-site, multi-vendor engineering support, to ensure landing stations are always optimized and ready to connect with backhaul networks or directly into local data centers.
New subsea players are essentially laying a transoceanic network on top of the existing global network. This calls for old and new skills. Proficiency in SDM, PFE and SLTE is a prerequisite. After an event, HLLB (High Loss Loop Back) repeater scans are performed on each fiber pair to determine if a cable or damage to specific fibers has occurred. And PFE voltages are analyzed to give a coarse location of the cable anomaly. If a cable break is determined then it’s about using COTDR (Coherent Optical Time Domain Reflectometry) across all impacted fibers to accurately locate the size and extent of the problem, as well as inform the solution.
Harder to find are new skills and competencies that will signal the biggest shift in subsea managed services. Providers will need security experts to take on increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, data analysts and AI specialists to advance the shift in maintenance from being proactive to predictive. All will be required to meet the expectations of internet companies that live and breathe these technologies.
Overcoming logistics challenges will be another part of the remit. Managing and maintaining infrastructure that connect continents is a complex endeavor, where parts have to be available for delivery to remote corners of the world. When it comes to subsea repairs, they must be correctly and cost effectively executed, both in time spent loading, time at sea and the extent of the work carried out.
Just as internet companies have become disruptors in the subsea cable market, a new wave of subsea managed service providers must be ready to innovate on their side of the business. They need to be able combine first-class engineering talent with leading-edge technologies, systems and process automation. The world of subsea cabling has changed forever, and everyone involved has to change with it.
Find out more at Subsea Systems Operator – Indigo (indigotg.com)