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10 January 2013
| Guy Matthews
TE SubCom has spent decades perfecting new ways to minimise the risks facing submarine cable systems. Guy Matthews talks to VP of marine services, Frank Cuccio, about the dangers facing this essential infrastructure.
TE SubCom has a substantial legacy
in the undersea communications game. It has to date deployed
more than 490,000km of subsea cable, enough it claims to circle
the earth more than 12 times at the equator.
Back in the rock and roll era of the mid-1950s, it built the
first transatlantic telephone cable system, and went on to
develop and implement the first transatlantic fibre-optic link
More recently, it has pioneered new fibre technologies to meet
the needs of submarine cable investors. In an internet-powered
world, cable performance and resilience matter like never
before, which is why dealing with the considerable dangers that
face undersea assets is so important.
Frank Cuccio, VP marine services with TE SubCom, is an
authority on the risks that cables face, and on the right steps
for mitigating those risks.
"My role gives me the opportunity to think about risk on a
daily basis," he says. "Cables face a lot of it – both
natural risks, such as trenches, landslides, currents and
volcanic activity, and man-made risks that come from fishing,
dredging, mineral and oil and gas exploration and the anchors
Mitigation, he says, is all about proper engineering and
meticulous advanced planning, which is why when TE SubCom first
sits down with a potential client, that’s where
the conversation starts.
"Once the client has commissioned us, the first thing is to do
a desktop study, which involves pulling together a lot of
information on the intended route, doing all the homework we
can," says Cuccio.
"A lot of the risk faced by a new cable, whether man-made or
natural, is fairly well documented, so with a bit of effort you
can avail yourself of that information."
Risk cannot, of course, be completely avoided, but there are
practices in place to minimise it, he explains. There might be
an unexpectedly steep underwater slope somewhere, or an unknown
landslide, so the appropriate strategy is to take the shortest
route around those dangers.
Much depends on the quality of the equipment that goes into the
water, which is why so much of SubCom’s R&D is
deployed in perfecting this facet.
"We have a family of different cable types, like the SL 17 for
the deep sea portion of a cable," says Cuccio.
"It’s lightweight and robust and designed to work
well in the deep. The deep part of the ocean is actually the
most benign part of a route. When you get up to areas where
there’s exploration or fishing is when you need to
start to add protection. We can add a steel case to protect
against rough seas and chafing on rock. Beyond that we have an
armoured package for the cable."
The bulk of man-made subsea danger
takes place between zero and 1,500 metres in depth, he says,
and the best protection in that zone is to bury the cable on
the sea bed.
"To this end our ships are equipped with ploughs so the job of
burial can be done as we are installing," he explains. "For
this you need sediment on the bottom of course. The survey
vessel will be looking out for that."
The submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is an essential
complement to the armoury of cable laying hardware for
situations where delicacy is required.
"The ROV is a complement to the plough," says Cuccio. "If we
come across a pipeline or another cable, then we
don’t want to plough through that. We then lay our
cable across the existing installation and with the ROV we can
come back and put everything into a trench."
Making a cable as secure as possible is naturally a trade off
between engineering and accounting interests. The safest cable
in the world will probably not be the most profitable.
That’s why much discussion is needed with a client
before a build can commence.
"The typical client will put out requirements and
specifications so the vendors can bid," he explains.
"There’s lots of back and forth then with a trade
off between the suppliers’ ability to carry out
the armouring and burial. This is also the chance to ensure
costs are minimised and performance maximised.
You’ve got to make smart choices. If you push too
hard on cutting costs, it’s a decision you might
regret when their cable gets chopped up. If you do it right,
you get fewer faults."
The aim is a value proposition whereby proper and carefully
costed installation procedures give the best results over the
course of a cable’s life. Second chances to get
this right on the undersea portion of a network are rare.
"Once the wet part of the system has been invested in and
installed, it’s really the last time you see it
for 20 to 25 years of design life," Cuccio says. "But as
technology advances, it’s the dry bit of the
network that can be upgraded. You can add multiple wavelengths
onto the system, depending on its design. Over time we can take
a system from 10G to 40G to 100G, right at the cutting edge of
what is possible undersea."
Cuccio’s depth of
experience in subsea matters has been gained from a career
which has seen him play a part in some momentous industry
After graduating as a marine engineer in 1982, he ended up
working for a small oil exploration company: "That made me
realise that I really wanted to be working for a bigger
company," he recalls.
"In 1987 I joined AT&T, and that was my entry to the world
of subsea cables. My boss at the time said 'We’re
going to get into the fibre cable business and build a lot of
ships’. He told me he didn’t have an
office job for me, but offered me the chance to go on a cable
laying ship for a year and learn the business from the bottom."
Thinking that this would be an excellent route into a bigger
role later, Cuccio accepted. He learned about everything from
coaxial cables to analog repeaters, and then graduated onto
"It was great timing really, because a few months after I took
this role, AT&T built the first transatlantic fibre link,"
he says. "This was all a tremendous experience, getting to
participate in something so ground-breaking. I finished that
project in 1988 and went back to Baltimore. Then it was off to
France to work on a French cable ship, landing the cable there,
then a British ship landing another leg there. This was a great
chance to see how other companies did their cable work."
Ten more years as a marine engineer saw him work on cable ship
construction, before a posting to New Jersey "to learn
something different". He got into the project management side
of cable laying, volunteering for any "big and difficult"
projects that were going so that he would be challenged as much
Challenged he indeed was when assigned to the Flag project, the
first ever round the world cable system, built and run by
Indian firm Flag Telecom with AT&T as contractor.
"By the time Flag was completed, I was senior project manager,"
he says. "This provided me with a sound lesson in the area of
client relations. At the time, this client was about the most
difficult person I’d ever worked with. He was
astute, clever and very demanding, forcing me to step up a
gear. I met the same guy years later and he offered me a job.
He said 'We put you under a lot of pressure and you never
cracked, so I figure you’re worth
Cuccio says he looks back and can see that he gained experience
then that he still uses to this day, long after AT&T sold
its marine interests to Tyco, which eventually rebranded to
become TE Connectivity, parent of TE SubCom.
He says he still finds challenges to add spice to his career,
latterly moving onto the 'dry’ plant side of the
business to manage the upgrading and maintenance elements:
"This is probably not my strong suit," he cheerfully admits. "I
defer to other guys who know their stuff in this telecoms part
of the business. I provide the leadership, they provide the
muscle. Between us we get the job done. There’s
always more to learn in this game, which I like."