Frank Cuccio, TE SubCom: Taking risk management to new depths

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 in 1988.

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 of ships."

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."

A vessel for success

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."

A career in cables

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 milestones.

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 fibre splicing.

"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 as possible.

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 hiring’."

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."

Some of TE SubCom’s latest projects

  1. The Main One Cable, which runs from Portugal to Lagos in Nigeria, has been one of the most important developments in west African wholesale telecoms, helping to match capacity available on that side of the continent to that on the now well-served east side. TE SubCom was the constructor of the original cable, which when completed is planned to extend down as far as South Africa. This year SubCom has upgraded the lit capacity of the system with an additional 20Gbps, with the deployment of an additional 10Gbps of wavelengths ready for implementation when needed. It is the third upgrade to the cable since it launched in June 2010, and represents, say the cable’s owners, the rising tide of demand for bandwidth between Africa’s stronger economies and Europe. Main One now offers the highest lit capacity in west Africa, with around 12 times the capacity of the incumbent-owned system that used to be the only option on that route.

  2. Earlier in 2012, TE SubCom completed the TGN-EA (Jeddah) and TGN-Gulf undersea cables for Indian operator Tata Communications. TGN-EA (Jeddah) connects Saudi Arabia and Egypt with India, while the other system links Oman, India, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. Both signify surging capacity demand in the Middle East, and the hunger for connectivity among its main business hubs, says Tata. It says the new cables will stimulate further terrestrial broadband developments across the Middle East in addition to supporting multinational enterprises who want connectivity between the region and South Asia. The cables also add diversity in a part of the world where a lack of alternatives has sometimes proved costly following cable damage, with so many networks following identical paths through dangerous bottlenecks.

  3. TE SubCom has continued to provide support and upgrade help to south east Asian cable company Matrix. Back in 2008, it partnered with Matrix as it built a system designed to unlock the underserved and rapidly growing Indonesian market. Not only does the system help to light up the huge Indonesian archipelago, but it has to operate in competition with well entrenched incumbent investments. The 1,000km Matrix Cable System also connects Indonesia to Singapore and the rest of the world, and is made up of a four-fibre pair trunk between Singapore and Jakarta, with a branch to Batam in the Riau Islands Province. The system’s capacity is nearly 2.6 Terabits between Singapore and Jakarta, and there are an additional four fibre pairs between Singapore and Batam, providing another 2.6 Terabits of DWDM capacity.

  4. The Pacific Ocean, it goes without saying, spans some huge distances. Connecting Sydney with Guam, for example, took the construction of a 6,900 km undersea cable system, undertaken by PIPE Networks and TE SubCom in 2009. The PPC-1 cable has brought important added competition and diversity to the undersea cable market in that part of the world. PIPE claims in fact that after launch, PPC-1 had the effect of reducing international capacity costs in Australia by between 70% and 80%. Subcom has been providing ongoing support for PIPE, for example helping with the application for permits allowing the cable to branch into the many small island groups in the Pacific. There has also been the technical hurdle of laying part of PPC-1 in the Marianas Trench, the deepest underwater trench in the world.

Topics: TE SubCom, Frank Cuccio, subsea