ANALYSIS: SEA-ME-WE – The demand for five

Market watchers have thrown weight behind the SEA-ME-WE-5 cable, following initial suggestions that there would not be enough demand for the infrastructure.

SEA-ME-WE 5 will link south east Asia, the Middle East and western Europe

The cable, which is due to launch in early 2016, will complement the existing SEA-ME-WE-4 system and provide connectivity between south east Asia, the Middle East and western Europe, with approximately 17 landing points along the way.

SEA-ME-WE-5 was the second large subsea cable to be announced this year, following an agreement between 17 companies to construct the AAE-1 cable, also addressing connectivity across Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

15 consortium members will make the investment in SEA-ME-WE-5 with Japan-based NEC and French company Alcatel-Lucent the official vendors for the project.

Analysts have commented that demand still exists for such cables because there are several countries that are still behind on targets for fibre-to-the-home deployment.

“You need the redundancy and you need the connectivity; therefore investment in further submarine fibre systems is definitely good because it will drive and enable more broadband growth in the region,” said Jawad Abbassi, founder and GM at Arab Advisors Group.

SEA-ME-WE-4, which launched in 2004, lands in 16 countries across the same continents as its younger brother – so is another cable really necessary?

“There is absolutely enough demand,” confirmed Rob Bratby, managing partner of analyst firm Olswang Asia. “The transition from low to middle-income economies is leading to significantly increased usage of, and spending by consumers on telecoms.”

Philip Bates, principal at Analysys Mason, added that the credibility of building the cable could also be confirmed by the status of those investing in it.

“A number of large operators – such as Orange, Telecom Italia Sparkle, Saudi Telecom and SingTel – have invested in both cables [SEA-ME-WE 4 and SEA-ME-WE 5] so presumably they believe there is enough demand,” he said.

SEA-ME-WE-5 will have landing points in previously underserved countries – including Indonesia, Yemen and Myanmar – with the consortium also attempting to tap into enormous market growth over the past 12 months. In terms of technology, the new facility will also be significantly more advanced, to accommodate higher speeds and demands for bandwidth. It is expected to use 100Gbps wavelengths from the outset, giving it a design capacity approximately four times that of SEA-ME-WE 4.

“In the technology curve, every system becomes more efficient, more effective and faster; therefore owners and operators can offer better and lower rates on it,” Abbassi said.

Increased capability
Abbassi believes technology on SEA-ME-WE 5 will follow this “technology curve” and enable the delivery of much-needed, advanced communications services.

“It will give operators more wholesale bandwidth to use and sell to prospective ISPs and consumers in the regions,” he added.

Bratby and Bates see the SEA-ME-WE 4 and 5 cables being largely complementary to one another. “I see some capacity on SEA-ME-WE 5 being sold as back-up for SEA-ME-WE 4,” Bates added.

According to Abbassi, the deployment will also serve to create healthy competition around subsea cable capacity and drive down prices: “Sometimes you need to look at whether the capacity of the other system is already taken, which means that a new system is not necessarily competing with an old one, it is just meeting new demand.”

One such new demand on a prestigious cable like SEA-ME-WE 5 is security, following reported NSA spying on the SEA-ME-WE-4 system. Last year, NSA documents on SEA-ME-WE 4 were discovered, stating that “more operations are planned in the future to collect more information about this and other cable systems”.

While this will be in the minds of all those involved in the cable’s deployment and operation, analysts have differing opinions on how the issue will be handled. Bates says the new system will be as secure as any other international submarine cable system and noted that information revealed during the SEA-ME-WE 4 spying scandal was only concerned with its management system, rather than on actual data flowing through the cable.

Bratby highlights the global trend of data and traffic encryption as a method of preventing interception, and expects this to come into play on SEA-ME-WE 5.

“It remains to be seen whether the favoured implementation will be at the cable layer or higher up the application stack,” he added. Ultimately, says Abbassi, the threat of a security breach will depend on the governments of the respective countries that SEA-ME-WE 5 passes through.

“Governments across the world are wary of foreign governments eavesdropping on their citizens,” he added.

He expects many governments to demand that all telecoms equipment is hosted in their own geographical jurisdictions to allow for further access to, and protection of the system.

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