ANALYSIS: Double or nothing on the transatlantic

Transatlantic subsea cables are a bit like buses. You wait 12 years and two come along at once.


No sooner had the waterproof paint dried on the highly anticipated Hibernia Express, then AquaComms confirmed its next-generation transatlantic subsea cable will be ready early 2016. 

America Europe Connect (AE Connect) will link New York to Dublin, London and greater Europe, through a 5,536km route across the Atlantic.

It is said to feature the latest optical technology of 130Gbps x 100Gbps per fibre pair, and is specifically designed to meet the growing bandwidth requirements of global data centres, carriers, cloud-based networks, financial services market participants and content providers. 

In particular, it will support Ireland’s booming data centre and enterprise market. Through favourable corporation taxes, Ireland has been extremely successful in attracting major content players such as Google, Apple and Facebook to set up European headquarters there. 

According to Greg Varisco chief operations officer at AquaComms, the Irish government welcomed the AE Connect project with open arms: “They wanted to make sure they had world class cables landing in Ireland,” said Varisco. “I would say the Irish government has been extremely cooperative in assisting us. It has been very well received.”

AEConnect appears to know its target audience. Microsoft signed up as an initial anchor customer in May, while leading carriers such as AT&T and CenturyLink are also on-board. 

In August it also signed a partnership with data centre operator Equinix. The move will see Equinix’s New York and London International Business Exchange (IBX) data centres serve as carrier-neutral network access points for AquaComms to connect its low latency subsea cable route.

In both New York and London, Equinix offers direct connectivity to leading cloud service providers including AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform via the Equinix Cloud Exchange. “Responding to the demand AquaComms is seeing for high capacity, high reliability connectivity between North America and Europe, we made a strategic decision to deploy with Equinix. Their data centres in New York and London act as major international hubs for network traffic, offering our customers the ability to extend existing networks or expand into new markets,” said Varisco.

Interest is continuing to grow in the cable, particularly as the project has gained momentum. Unlike Hibernia Express, which was forced to suspend work on the cable between 2013 and 2014 due to growing tensions between the US and China, AquaComms is attempting to deploy its cable in just eight to nine months. “The way we are working has been very integrated, in order to ensure such quick execution,” said Varisco. 

“The way the industry works now is very different and innovative compared to 12 years ago. There is a much higher level of coordination.” 

In December 2015, AquaComms announced that it had completed the final splice of AE Connect, completing the marine segment. The development puts AE Connect firmly on track to make it ready for service deadline of January 31 2016. 

TE SubCom dedicated three vessels to the surface-lay, burial and post-lay inspection of the subsea cable, including the cable ships Reliance, Decisive and Responder, with the former executing the final splice. On both the US and European sides, the cable is said to transverse the minimum length of shallow water along the continental shelf, while additional armouring and deeper burial was obtained. The cable also avoids major fishing grounds and shipping anchorage areas that are known to expose subsea cables to damage. 

Like Hibernia Express, the cable also claims to deliver one of the lowest latency crossings of the Atlantic. Yet Varisco does not view AE Connect as in direct competition with Hibernia Express. “Of course we compete [with Hibernia], which is healthy and good for the industry. But we do focus on different markets. Hibernia is focussed on the lower latency side and we see ourselves as a higher-capacity system with direct connectivity to the US,” he said. 

On completion, the 100G-compliant system aims to deliver an impressive 5Tbps of available capacity. More striking though is that it aims to combine optical technologies with a control plane based on software-defined networking (SDN) technology to serve bandwidth-intensive applications. 

Varisco views the SDN component as critical in the modern marketplace: “To be able to provision quickly is critical. It is very important for customers to be able to move capacity where they want when they need it,” he said. “On-demand connectivity is part of our mission in order to show we are a very responsive international operator.”

The SDN capability forms part of AquaComms partnership with Ciena, which is facilitating 100G connectivity on AEConnect. 

It will deploy Ciena’s GeoMesh solution, which includes the 6500 Packet-Optical Platform, powered by WaveLogic 3 Extreme coherent optics, to provide 100G services between PoPs. “Initially we are operating at 100G but of course we can see that going forward as other speeds become available, utilising super channels and other technologies to get as much as possible out of every fibre pair,” said Varisco. 

The innovative design of the AEConnect system is said to allow AquaComms and its customers to take advantage of advanced modulation schemes such as 8QAM and 16QAM that provide greater spectral efficiency and reach.

Additionally, Ciena’s OneControl Unified Management System together with PinPoint Advanced Fiber Analytics and OneConnect Layer 0 Control Plane will provide end-to-end network management, visibility and restoration on the terrestrial segments. This is said to help AquaComms proactively resolve unexpected issues and maintain network reliability.

According to TeleGeography, demand for data traffic crossing the Atlantic is forecast to grow by 41% between 2014 and 2021. Before the arrival of these new systems, all of the unlit potential transatlantic capacity was on cables that are more than 10 years old. 

More cables and capacity simply makes sense: “If the industry needs at least four transatlantic cable to provide diversity, and each system lasts 20-25 years, then that works out as a new cable every five years,” said Varisco.

“So why haven’t we built any new cables in the last 12 years? That’s because the financial community was so burnt. 

And now a huge gap has emerged and new cables are being welcomed back by all these companies who are consuming capacity.” 

His counterpart at Hibernia is equally confident there is large pent-up demand for additional capacity. 

“We always knew that the capacity demand would be there. We made a decision to design the cable not just for capacity but for latency as well. The market hasn’t seen a cable of such diversity for twelve years. This is what people have been waiting for,” said Hibernia Networks’ CEO Bjarni Thorvardarson.

He is also confident that the demand is long-term “with no end in sight”, largely driven by the growth in online video traffic and cloud computing.  

“In addition, machine to machine traffic is reported to increase over 70% each year – that’s the traffic that data centres are sending between themselves. M2M and cloud computing are driving over 40% growth in traffic year over year,” said Thovardarson. 

“Our customers are largely drivers of that capacity in the Atlantic. They have welcomed a route that will now be able to provide them with the diversity, latency and capacity they need.”


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