Big Interview

The lockdown trans-Pacific cable project

Brian Evans Inligo.jpg

While exercising during Melbourne’s long, hard Covid lockdown, Brian Evans conceived the idea of a new subsea connection between east Asia, Australia and the US. Alan Burkitt-Gray asks about his grand plan

A new Asia-Pacific cable, the Asia Connect Cable System (ACC-1), is on target to have its contracts in force by September and should be ready for service in early 2025, says Brian Evans, chairman of Inligo Networks, which is putting the project together.

ACC-1 will connect the north of Australia with Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, the US and islands in between.

One of its central aims seems to be avoiding Chinese waters. “The opportunity was for capacity between south-east Asia and the US, not transiting the South China Sea,” Evans says. Later in the interview he expresses concern about not wanting to be in territory where there are “cables that might get turned off”.

At the moment, Inligo is “working with providers and vendors” says Evans. “The technical design is pretty much complete and we are now working with constructors. We’ve had some quotes back and we’re refining the requirements.”

Current funding is from “founders, some third parties and family funds, pretty much all private equity”, says Evans. He adds that Inligo has “got funding to take [ACC-1] to the next stage”, and it will be looking for series A funding in “equity and debt” for further project financing.

ACC-1 is a direct product of the Covid-19 lockdown, Evans tells me from Melbourne. The city has endured some of the most rigorous pandemic restrictions in the world, having experienced six lockdowns totalling 262 days between March 2020 to October 2021.

Fortunately, the city is now opening up again, and its elected lord mayor Sally Capp is publicising a series of grand events, such as food and wine festivals, to get residents out of their homes and visitors back to the city.

Exercise régime

During the lockdowns Evans used his strict one-hour-a-day exercise window to think about his future in the industry.

“I’ve always enjoyed building networks,” he says, although until now his focus has been on terrestrial fibre. One of his projects was Digital River Networks, a Melbourne company that fell victim to the pandemic in 2020.

But as he took his hour-long exercise one day, he says he thought, “I’d never done subsea before. I hadn’t done anything in the ocean.”

Inligo? Why Inligo, I ask. It’s Latin, he says, and indeed it is. A variant of illigo, says a Latin dictionary, meaning “I fasten” or “I bind”. The two i’s are short, the dictionary adds – in-ligg-oh, not in-leye-go – but Evans says Inligo people use both pronunciations.

Colleagues in the industry alerted him to the need for more resilient connections between Australia and south-east Asia, and the opportunities of linking US islands such as Guam and the state of Hawaii and the US mainland.

“We think the demand will be 1,900Tbps” within a few years, Evans says. ACC-1 aims to provide “the low 200s” in terms of terabits a second. “There will be quite a demand for capacity. We’re pleased with the level of interest we’ve had. It’s exceeded our expectations for what we can light when we’re ready for service. This is strong demand.”

His conversations with colleagues showed a number of gaps in the market, including Timor-Leste. Also known as East Timor, this country became independent in 2002, after breaking away from Indonesian control in 1999. “Timor-Leste has no connection to any subsea cable,” says Evans. “We realised they relied entirely on satellite and could probably do with fibre.”

Inligo worked with local service provider SacomTel to build a cable landing station for ACC-1 near Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital and largest city. It would provide the government, carriers and other organisations with directly connected international capacity to Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and the US, and connect with SacomTel’s local data centre in Dili.

Landing in Darwin

ACC-1 will land in Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, and will be connected to the rest of the country via a terrestrial cable called Unite, that will run to the southern city of Adelaide.

Darwin was chosen over Sydney, where most Australian cables land, because it is closer to the countries of south-east Asia. It’s 500km to Timor-Leste; 1,700km to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; 2,700km to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia; and Singapore is only 3,400km away. “There are 500 million people within 50 milliseconds of Darwin,” says Evans.

Added to that, he says, “there are people who want a non-Sydney connection to Australia. Sydney is quite risky in terms of connectivity. The Pacific cables all come into Sydney”. If something happened there, it would be difficult, he says.

The other main landing station in Australia is Perth, on the west coast, “where there are three cables, all to Singapore”. But Perth is a long way south, Evans points out. If your target is the south-eastern cities of Sydney and Melbourne, Perth is a bit out of the way, he suggests.

Distance has always been a problem for Australia. Evans throws in the information that the first ever international telegraph cable from the rest of the world landed in Darwin, then called Palmerstone, and it was connected to Adelaide by a 3,000km overland cable, the Overland Telegraph Line.

The subsea and the overland cables connected Australia with London – capital of the British Empire, of which Australia was then a part – from 1872. Evans tells me of a Darwin historian, Derek Pugh, who is planning to re-enact that connection of subsea and terrestrial cables in August this year.

The Overland Telegraph Line cable was carried on 36,000 poles, “20 to the mile”, according to Pugh’s website, crossing lands that Europeans had first seen only a decade before; previously they had been the homes of Aboriginal Australians.

Business in Indonesia

Beyond Timor-Leste is Indonesia. Evans has recruited John Thompson as a non-executive director.

Thompson worked at Vodafone, including as chief technology officer of the former Vodafone Japan, now Softbank Mobile, and led consolidation of the group’s European fibre, IP and data centre networks in 14 countries.

He also helped consolidate Vodafone’s integration of its subsea network with Cable & Wireless’s global submarine, satellite and terrestrial networks. Most recently he worked at Indosat and was an advisor to the CEO and CTO of Indonesia’s XL Axiata.

Evans says Thompson, “has extensive subsea experience and he knows how to do business in Indonesia”.

Earlier this year Inligo reported a memorandum of understanding with Indonesia’s Indosat Ooredoo Hutchison to be to be its exclusive partner within Indonesia and the rest of the Pacific region. This will enable Indosat Ooredoo Hutchison to expand its network, particularly into eastern Indonesia, and increase network capacity for B2C and B2B services across the country.

All this activity in the area leads Evans to suggest that Inligo “might see the western segment lit first”, so that perhaps the Australia-Indonesia-Singapore link will be ready for service before the long haul across the Pacific to Hawaii and the rest of the US.

Another non-executive director is Tim Gigg. He runs a consultancy from the UK, but has also worked for Vodafone in technological areas, first in Ghana and then as head of international transport programmes worldwide. Earlier he worked for Flag Telecom – now Global Cloud Xchange (GCX) – and Global Crossing.

Others on Evans’s team at Inligo include Simon Zettl, chief revenue officer, and his CTO Anthony Callanan.

Evans says that Zettl, who was was global account director for BT Global Services during 2010-2015 before joining Vodafone, has “worked on large projects for BT in Australia”. Meanwhile Callanan overlapped with Evans at Dimension Data and Digital River Networks.

“To be successful you have to have the right team,” says Evans.

Open cable plans

So who will build this cable? Evans and the team have yet to procure the cable landing stations and the cable itself. “We want an open cable,” he says, using Inligo’s own submarine line terminal equipment (SLTE).

Evans will not say who will build and lay ACC-1, only that there are a couple of contenders. He does give one hint, from which you can draw your own conclusion: “The cable is in Asia, isn’t it?”

Because ACC-1 will land on US territory, Inligo must also secure a licence from the Federal Communications Commission. “We’ve appointed an attorney in the US and FCC licensing is under way. It can take up to 280 days,” he forecasts. And by the time those 280 days are up, Evans should know whether the project is on course.

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