Subsea Special: Filling the digital gap

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 paid.

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.

Dublin to London >>

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 years."

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 explains.

"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 on Dublin."

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.

Japan to Ogasawara Islands >>

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 in 1984.

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 balance.

NTT East was appointed general contractor, with NEC supplying most of the required equipment. Cable installation has just been completed.

"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 build’."

Seychelles to Tanzania >>

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 Communications (CWC).

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 internationally.

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 altogether."

Topics: subsea, niche routes, Dublin, London, Japan, Ogasawara Islands, Seychelles, Tanzania, Sea Fibre Networks