Digicel goes digital with Deep Blue One
Big Interview

Digicel goes digital with Deep Blue One

Peter Hobbs - Digicel.jpeg

Natalie Bannerman speaks to Peter Hobbs, group director of international and wholesale business at Digicel Group, about the company’s Deep Blue One subsea cable and what it means as part of Digicel’s digital-first roadmap.

Digicel’s soon-to-be-built Deep Blue One subsea cable was announced in September 2021. Connecting French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, the 2,000km system has five branching units with the ability to provide offshore rigs with two to eight fibre pairs in each segment, offering a minimum of 12Tbps of capacity per fibre pair.

According to Peter Hobbs, the company’s group director of international and wholesale business, there were three key drivers behind the decision to build Deep Blue One. The first is the fact that Digicel has just celebrated its first-year anniversary of being a digital operator.

“Through our transformation to becoming a digital operator, the demand from our customers for data and international connectivity is only increasing,” he says.

The second is the fact that the region is underserved with subsea capacity and “Deep Blue One is very important to addressing that and also to providing economic benefits to the countries to which it connects”.

Third, and finally, Hobbs says that “oil and gas requirements in the region and their need for connectivity, we believe, is going to be very significant – and Deep Blue One is very well placed to support those requirements”.

Overall, it is Deep Blue One’s subsea capacity plus Digicel’s own business solutions and capabilities, that create “quite a compelling proposition”.

It’s not often we hear of a subsea cable system connecting the smaller island nations that isn’t led or financed by local government – mostly because of the smaller business case for such systems, compared with the large-scale transatlantic subsea projects.

But as Deep Blue One is 100% a privately owned cable, Hobbs shared some of the commercial opportunities that exist with this system in this region.

“The economies in some of those markets are booming,” he explains. “We are a digital operator and therefore we have to support our customers’ requirements. If you look at what is there today, and what will be there in the next five years in terms of capacity, there is a gap – and that gap is a significant risk.”

As a result, whether it be Digicel customers or other carriers in the region, Hobbs believes there will be a requirement from all of them for subsea capacity.

“I think it’s a very solid business case and one that we believe will provide great value for Digicel. But just as importantly, it’s about providing the means for our consumers to be able to live their digital lives,” he says.

As well as providing resiliency, Deep Blue One will connect to Digicel’s existing Southern Caribbean Fiber (SCF) network, which runs from Trinidad up to Puerto Rico.

“What that means is we can provide a one-stop shop from Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, up into our SCF network and then up to Puerto Rico and on to the US. So, it complements what we have today very nicely,” says Hobbs.

In addition, the component between Trinidad and Tobago creates a new path between the two locations, which provides much-needed resiliency. At present, communications all go in and out of the same place. In Tobago, this will create a new cable landing station.

Comparing cables to roads and motorways – as discussion turns to whether Deep Blue One will connect into any data centres – Hobbs says: “This region doesn’t have the scale of data centres. It doesn’t have those sorts of motorways and the number of roads coming off those data centres.”

Specifically, the system will go into Digicel’s existing SCF cable landing station in Trinidad. As mentioned, they will be building their own in Tobago — and in Guyana and Suriname, it comes to sort of a digital headend. And then in French Guiana, it also goes to the cable landing station.

But it’s not likely to stay this way for ever, because “as the economies of the region grow, then at some point in time that may well change”.

Interestingly, Hobbs says that Deep Blue One will be bucking the trend of Spatial Division Multiplexing (SDM) technology – because, simply put, there is no need for it.

“There’s no demand for it in the region,” he explains. “It is a 2,000km cable, it has between two and eight fibre pairs, depending on the part of the system, and each fibre pair has 12Tbps. That is, for the region, a significant amount of capacity.”

At the time of the announcement, Digicel confirmed that Orange will act as landing party in Cayenne for the French Guiana branch and will operate the cable landing station on behalf of Digicel, while its subsidiary, Orange Marine, will be responsible for laying the cable.

Hobbs says this decision to partner with the French incumbent telco was a continuation of a long-standing working relationship with Orange and the expertise in subsea.

“Orange is already a partner of ours on the SCF network, so we have a strong relationship with Orange that exists already,” he says.

“They themselves had a requirement in the region – and if you looked at their requirement and our plans there was a clear natural synergy and value creation for both parties. This, combined with their experience in subsea cables, made it a bit of a no-brainer.”

In a world where we are learning to live with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, although Hobbs doesn’t believe the crisis has had any direct impact on the Deep Blue One project, he does acknowledge the change it has had on data consumption.

“You could argue that Covid has moved where and how people access data – for example, from offices to the home,” he says.

“But has it fundamentally shifted the requirement for data? While, yes, there has been growth, it’s not necessarily the same as it would be for, say, the US or Europe – where people were travelling significantly, and, suddenly, they are not travelling as much and they are doing the calls over Zoom. Therefore, while the data exponentially increased in some instances, that isn’t necessarily the case in all of these markets where we operate.”

So, while it hasn’t shifted the business case for the cable, it certainly supports the business case and the need for the very data-hungry way in we operate in this “new normal”.

Content continues to be the biggest consumer of data globally, and while it’s not necessarily on the same scale as other regions, the Caribbean is beginning to catch up.

“The region is behind in its development, compared with other parts of the world, but the thirst from people is the same,” he says.

But in the end, Hobbs says, the domestic networks need to be able to support this growth in data before it gets to the subsea components.

“There are certain parts of the Caribbean where satellite is the preferred choice simply because of the remoteness. So, it’s a far more complex region than most other parts of the world because of the geographical diversity of people.”

Digicel is now well placed to manage this incoming explosion of data and the needs of the digital age. After 20 years as a telco, starting off as a pure mobile operator in Jamaica, it was roughly one year ago that the company relaunched its business across all of its 32 markets to become a digital operator.

Driven by the fact that telcos across the world have been haemorrhaging money because of OTTs and the move from voice to data, this shift means that Digicel is committed to “power digital experiences to our customers every minute of every day”, explains Antonia Graham, Digicel’s head of group communications.

“We do that via really great LTE [long term evolution] networks. We offer a suite of eight apps, covering everything from music, streaming, messaging and marketplace and cloud storage, to name a few. We also now have a home and entertainment business called Digicel+. One of our other big growth pockets is business solutions, which is a huge, burgeoning business and we are selling the full range of managed solutions, security solutions, and so on.”

On the topic of OTTs in the region, Hobbs returns to his road analogy. “There just aren’t enough cars on the road for them [OTTs] to say, at this point, we are really going to do A, B and C in the region.”

In addition, he says that dealing with multiple governments and multiple regulators may be a little complicated for the hyperscalers, commenting that it not “an easy bet”.

Don’t count them out completely, however. Hobbs says it will “absolutely” change – maybe not in the next 12 months, but sometime soon.

With ASN as the builder of Deep Blue One, priorities for the project are to get it live and operational as soon as possible, in line with the tentative RFS date of early 2024.

“Our key focus is making sure that the delivery date is the latest date, not the earliest date and making sure that we have everything in place to enable that to happen,” says Hobbs.

But Deep Blue One is just the beginning, continues Hobbs. “We need to look at where else, what else do we need to do to exceed our customers’ expectations? And what do we need to support their requirements? This involves looking at other parts of the region to see where to go next?”

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