SEA-ME-WE 5: Going strong, a year on

As the SEA-ME-WE 5 subsea cable hits its first anniversary, the consortium reflects on how its flexible approach has helped open up the telecommunications market

Right from the start, the SEA-ME-WE 5 cable showed its potential. Straight after going live a year ago, it started to become loaded with heavy traffic – indicating the need for this type of system on that route. 

Dubbed by the 19-member strong consortium that runs the 20,000km cable as a “matchless, PoP-to-PoP, multi-regional data superhighway”, the network was completed last December. It connects 17 countries across three continents, from the Far East and on through South Asia and the Middle East to Western Europe. It represents the fifth generation of a series of intercontinental cable systems that began in 1985.

The strong group of members behind SEA-ME-WE 5 has already delivered positive results over the past year. “The system has helped alleviate the dependence on existing cables, and allowed greater voice and data traffic between regions. The project has been a success story right from its inception and continues to make headlines in the industry,” says Abdullah Alsamhan, chairman of the management committee at SEA-ME-WE 5. 

Designed with the latest upgradeable 100Gbps DWDM technology, Alsamhan says SEA-ME-WE 5 provides the “highest quality” voice, data and internet traffic, with minimal transmission delay. The flexibility and scalability of the network, as well as its ability to be remotely configured, have also helped to keep opex down, he says. 

In addition, the cable has provided much-needed extra capacity between regions. “SEA-ME-WE 5 has eased the strain on the heavily loaded networks that connect Western Europe, the Middle East, East Africa and Southeast Asia,” says Alsamhan, “as well as offering an extra layer of network and further enhancing the diversity and resilience to the heavily loaded Asia-Middle East-Europe route.”

Aside from this, there has been a massive surge in demand for capacity in burgeoning global markets such as countries in the Far East, creating a growing need for extra capacity options. SEA-ME-WE 5 also offers major cross-connection possibilities with other submarine cables in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Sri Lanka – creating the promise of many exciting opportunities.

And on top of all that, latency on the new network has dropped by tens of milliseconds compared with earlier SEA-ME-WE networks between major end points. For instance, between Singapore and Marseille the latency has significantly improved compared with the previous network from 163 to 135ms, and between Singapore and Palermo from 148 to 124ms. Such key improvements offer a significant edge in a highly competitive market.

Flexible and open

One of SEA-ME-WE 5’s key differentiators has been its highly flexible and open nature, with the provision of easy access to carrier-neutral international points of presence (PoPs) through fully protected terrestrial extensions from cable landing stations onward to these destinations in Marseille and in Singapore, as well as a carrier-neutral PoP in Italy. 

This means the core network is terminated in major PoPs and virtual meet-me rooms rather than in landing stations, allowing cross-connects with other cable systems and interconnection between carriers in a competitive environment. It also further boosts competition by offering a greater choice of capacity providers than has traditionally been available on submarine cable systems, with the ability to buy from various operators rather than just the landing-station owner.

“A major thing that makes SEA-ME-WE 5 different to many other cables is that this is a real PoP-to-PoP system,” says Alsamhan. This means it gives members a kind of free choice on where they would like to terminate their capacity in the core system. Consortium members can also drop traffic where they like along the network, including in any branches, based on bilateral agreements between parties. This offers a high level of flexibility in terms of where consortium members use their capacity entitlement across the system.

At launch of the system, about 100 x 100G waves were lit on the network in all PoPs in Singapore, in Palermo and in Marseille from different stations. The second light-up for the network is now under way and is set for completion around March 2018, increasing the number of initially lit waves by 75 WLs in all PoPs from different cable stations in those locations, in line with increased intensive usage. 

Most of the consortium members have activated a high proportion of their lit capacities, says Alsamhan. Meanwhile, planned ongoing light-ups of the system are expected to make it more cost-effective for all consortium members and even more competitive.

SEA-ME-WE 5 had an initial design capacity of 24Tbps, which is easy to upgrade by deploying the most advanced transmission technology such as 200G SLTEs, because the smart design of the network is able to quickly adopt any new transponder technology. Some parties have already used a high percentage of their capacity from year one, says Alsamhan. 

All in all, he says, the system has established itself as highly flexible, through facets such as its reach into carrier-neutral PoPs and its cross-connection possibilities. “All these flexibilities have led to faster and higher system utilisation, and provide diversity and resilience,” says Alsamhan. It is also well-placed to meet the high level of demand created by digitisation. This is important given the huge rise in use of services and applications in areas such as the internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

High-class connectivity

The SEA-ME-WE 5 PoPs in Marseille and Palermo hold the promise of access to high-class connectivity to major European cities, as well as interconnection opportunities with major transatlantic and West African cables.

Meanwhile, aside from the major markets, an increasing number of waves have been lit up at other ends of SEA-ME-WE 5, such as new access points to Europe in Marmaris in Turkey and Djibouti in Africa. These offer interesting alternative options to landing stations in the traditional major markets.

The access point in Turkey effectively provides a third route into Europe from the hotspots of Italy and France. For players seeking to target locations away from markets such as London and Frankfurt, and plot a path through up-and-coming markets in regions such as Central and Eastern Europe, this offers a shorter route.

In turn, the submarine pathway offered by SEA-ME-WE 5 provides redundancy for certain terrestrial routes – which is important given that earthquakes can present a hazard along some of these, leading to potential cuts. 

Indeed, this avoidance of natural hazards was also built into the design of the cable’s pathway. “The SEA-ME-WE 5 cable route was deliberately designed to avoid areas prone to earthquakes and other hazardous areas,” says Alsamhan. The result, he says, has been that the cable has encountered fewer subsea faults than otherwise – with the good histories of previous SEA-ME-WE cables on similar routes providing further reassurance.

Added protection

Meanwhile, the network itself uses technology that provides extra layers of protection against potential faults and problems. This ROADM technology protects the core against cable cuts on the branches of the network, with the ability to enable flexible rerouting of waves between the core and the branches. So combined with the deliberate positioning of the cable in a relatively secure area, this offers even more of a defence against potential issues.

And not only does the technology help with these kinds of issues, but it enables the consortium to efficiently utilise the fibre spectrum. “Using ROADMs, SEA-ME-WE 5 members can quickly alter the branch’s capacity into the core and vice versa, as needed,” points out Alsamhan.

As a professionally managed project that has kept to all the deadlines and expenses within its planned budget, SEA-ME-WE 5 won the Best Subsea Project award in 2016. The cable also won the Best Subsea Innovation award in 2017 for being one of the most ambitious and successful cable projects, applying the most innovative technology to connect three continents (Asia, Europe and Africa).

Apart from the clear advantages of the cable already outlined, the appearance of SEA-ME-WE 5 has also been a boon for the telecoms market in that it has led to a “tremendous” price drop for capacity.

Competition will be even further enhanced as other cable systems get a foothold in the market too. This type of competition between major cables will be healthy for the future of the industry, helping to not only further improve prices, but also the quality of networks as that becomes an ever more important factor in gaining an edge.

The make-up of the consortium behind the SEA-ME-WE 5 cable, meanwhile, certainly provides plentiful reassurance and the promise of reliability for those looking to make use of the network. This is because it involves team members who are major players in the industry and have a track record of delivering results through the successful completion of previous large-scale and complex SEA-ME-WE projects. These parties have provided strong commitment and support for the new cable, driving towards getting it up and running and spurring usage.

“The system has successfully relied on a strong commitment and partners in all regions, proven financial stability and recognised technical know-how from its consortium members,” says Alsamhan. These are all qualities that without doubt offer promise for the future, given that the foundation of a strong, robust, reliable cable will always be the team behind it.

The 19 SEA-ME-WE 5 member companies 

Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited (BSCCL), China Mobile International (CMI), China Telecom Global (CTG), China United Network Communications Group Company Limited (CU), Djibouti Telecom, Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (du), Myanmar Post and Telecom (MPT), Ooredoo, Orange, PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia International (Telin), Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Singapore Telecommunications Ltd (Singtel), Sparkle, Sri Lanka Telecom PLC (SLT), Telecom Egypt (TE), Telekom Malaysia Berhad (TM), TeleYemen, Turk Telekom International (TTI) and Trans World Associates (Pvt) Limited Pakistan (TWA).

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