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10 January 2013
| Guy Matthews
Submarine cable projects that address small communities don’t always make the headlines, but nevertheless have the ability to transform lives through the power of fibre connectivity.
A great deal of fanfare inevitably
attends the launch of a major submarine network. The lighting
of an IMEWE or an EASSy is, quite understandably, the subject
of much press coverage, amid talk of important stimulus for
developing economies in need of either added cable diversity or
increased international capacity.
The rationale for these multi-terabit projects tends to speak
for itself. Less obvious at times is the business case for the
dozens of smaller fibre launches that take place largely
unheralded each year.
In fact, outside of the often very small communities these
cables are built to support, virtually no attention is
Between them, though, these smaller systems are quietly filling
in the digital gaps on the world map, empowering populations
that have been marginalised by reliance on high-priced
satellite connectivity for decades.
Here we examine a sample of three of the less celebrated
submarine projects of the past year to see what drivers
underpin them, considering also what effect they will have on
the populations they are designed to serve.
Not all smaller subsea projects are in out of the way
locations. Nor are they all connecting populations for the
first time. But that does not necessarily make them easier to
establish a commercial rationale for.
The CeltixConnect fibre gateway connects Dublin to London and
was rolled out in 2012 by Sea Fibre Networks. Its aim is to
double the existing data capacity between Ireland and the UK,
arguably running against the prevailing image of Ireland as in
the economic doldrums.
Diane Hodnett, CEO of Sea Fibre Networks, claims that
CeltixConnect is actually well timed and well positioned to
satisfy demands for capacity and low latency driven by growing
digital and financial services industries in Ireland. To that
end she is launching Bright Fibre, a dark fibre-based services
platform for operators and enterprises.
Hodnett concedes though that CeltixConnect is unusual in
certain respects: "There’s been a huge amount of
building in developing areas of the world, as opposed to Europe
which has seen a lot less," she says. "But when we looked at
demand in Dublin for connectivity with the UK, we realised
there was a need for a new cable. There was a time when there
was a lack of terrestrial backhaul to justify that, but
that’s improved a lot."
The two major cables already connecting Ireland with the UK are
no longer enough to meet the needs of service providers and
their customers, she claims. "There’s also a
demand for greater security, diversity and resilience, and
three cables is, I would say, the minimum now," she believes.
"The reliance on these cables is such that customers
can’t afford to wait the week or so it takes to
repair a cable, or even the short time it takes to fail traffic
over from one to another."
The performance of the cable is not in the same league as some
of the high-speed links across the Atlantic from
Ireland’s east coast, but it does not need to be,
says Hodnett: "On this route, low latency is nice to have, but
not as essential as it would be on a route between London and
New York, dominated by trading." She says the aim is not to
compete with carrier customers, but to retain neutrality:
"We’re looking for contract terms of five, 10 or
15 years, so our shortest time before a return is about five
Hodnett believes the economic rationale is based in large
measure on selling dark fibre to customers in the greater
Dublin area, where a burgeoning data centre sector is emerging,
going on to London and then to Amsterdam and beyond. "We serve
a lot of data centres, or large customers in data centres," she
"Data centres in Ireland are a big growth area going forward,
which is something I’ve been preaching to the
government about. My argument is that while they are not
necessarily big employers in their own right, they are the
centre for a lot of very valuable tertiary business, a honey
pot for larger businesses coming to set up in Ireland. At the
moment it’s somewhat curtailed by being so centred
She says Sea Fibre Networks is planning a new direct cable
linking Cork in the south of Ireland to France. This she
believes will help spread the country’s digital
heartland beyond Dublin when it launches, at present scheduled
for Q1 2014.
The Japanese-owned Ogasawara Islands are located in the Pacific
Ocean, around 1,000km south of Tokyo and 1,500km north of Guam.
Subtropical in climate and geographically obscure, they are
home to a number of rare species. With a total population of
just 2,400, they are also rather anomalously part of the
municipality of Tokyo.
Ogasawara is not only physically far removed from the rest of
Tokyo, it has until recently been digital light years away from
mainland Japan as well. Direct dialling telephone services were
only introduced in 1983, with television broadcasting following
Mobile telephony made an appearance in 1999. All these services
have historically been provided over links with a number of
satellites. The government of the islands, dissatisfied with
the cost and quality of communications services enjoyed by its
people, and unhappy that regular high-speed broadband was
denied, began in the early 2000s to lobby Japan’s
central government for a fibre link with the mainland.
To act as a driver, the islands’ authorities went
ahead with an ambitious plan to transform terrestrial
connectivity, creating an intra-island network to carry
services like distance learning, telemedicine, high-speed
internet and digital TV. By the end of 2006, FTTH had been made
available to all Ogasawaran households. Still missing though
was the submarine cable connectivity to the mainland that would
really light up this outpost.
Japan’s government, following pressure,
commissioned a study into the possibility of creating a
submarine link, but despite the obvious advantages, it was
still felt that the creation of a 1,000km undersea link would
be too expensive. Two more years passed, and
Ogasawara’s leaders continued to press.
In the end, submarine equipment vendor NEC joined forces with
them, helping to devise and present more economical ways for a
cable to be built and run. This eventually proved decisive,
with Japan’s central government agreeing in 2009
to fund 67% of the cost of fibre construction, with
Tokyo’s local authority providing the
NTT East was appointed general contractor, with NEC supplying
most of the required equipment. Cable installation has just
"The islands had to lobby the Tokyo government hard for a long
time before the cable was built," says Simon Webster, head of
submarine networks with NEC. "A number of objections had to be
overcome. In the end it was probably the people of the island
building their own FTTH network that swung it. They could go
back to the government saying 'We’ve removed any
last mile bottleneck, and there is now no excuse not to
The Seychelles is well known as a sunkissed upmarket holiday
destination in the Indian Ocean. What it has not been known for
to date is the strength of its digital economy, and might well
never have been but for the landing of the Seychelles East
Africa System (SEAS) submarine cable this year, linking Beau
Vallon on the main island of Mahé with Dar es Salaam in
Tanzania. It is the country’s first subsea
connection, severing its 100% reliance on satellite.
The new subsea connection has been particularly welcome news
for Seychelles’s incumbent telephone services
provider, a local division of Cable & Wireless
In preparation for the new subsea link, Cable & Wireless
Seychelles has spent two years building a fibre-to-the-curb
(FTTC) network project on the archipelago. CEO Charles Hammond
says the countrywide network will enable fixed and mobile
broadband usage across the islands, as well as providing better
telecoms connections for businesses both locally and
Internet penetration until this year covered only around 30% of
households and businesses. "There were a number of recurring
problems with the copper network as it was," says Hammond. "We
wanted something instead that could deliver modern services in
a way that was flexible and up to date. We also wanted to save
on the cost of operating our network, and deliver new types of
services, like TV. We knew we didn’t want to go
live before the launch of the cable though."
The all-important SEAS system landed in May of 2012, and the
FTTC network duly went live in August. "We now reach 20,000
households, which is about 90% of the island’s
population," claims Hammond. "These developments between them
will stimulate the local economy. Already the ITU rates us the
number one country for ICT in Africa, 70th in the world."
As well as services for homes, he says CWC is also delivering
MPLS-based networking for enterprises and a range of business
services from data to voice.
"The Seychelles is a lot more attractive to businesses now," he
adds. "We’ve been able to transform our company
too, moving in the direction of managed services.
We’ll soon be providing IaaS and SaaS, moving us
beyond being just a telco to being a different sort of company
Sea Fibre Networks