To Infinera and beyond
Despite exiting Russia and experiencing supply-chain issues, Infinera has seen heightened demand for its ICE6 solution. Rob Shore, senior vice-president of marketing, tells Saf Malik that he remains optimistic despite potential challenges for subsea moving forward
Infinera’s ICE6 coherent 800G solution was recently selected by the Asia-Africa-Europe 1 (AAE-1) consortium to double the capacity of one of the world’s largest cable systems. AAE-1 is a 25,000km submarine communications cable that runs from southeast Asia to Europe and has a capacity of 40Tbps.
It was launched in 2011 by China Telecom and Telecom Egypt and involved an additional 17 carriers including BT, Etisalat and Omantel.
The California-based Infinera claims it is the largest ever upgrade for AAE-1 as it aims to provide diverse, resilient connectivity across the European, Asian, African and Middle Eastern markets.
Not only that, but it aims to increase its lifespan by offering five to 10 years of new services, according to Rob Shore, senior vice-president of marketing at Infinera.
Shore, a veteran in the industry, began his career with Tellabs in 1993 before it was acquired by Marlin Equity Partners and integrated with Coriant (see timeline).
Infinera was founded in 2000 and was already making its own waves in the optical networking sector with its ICE solutions before acquiring Coriant in 2018 – making it one of the largest optical network equipment providers.
Infinera has since grown to serve more than 1,000 customers across six continents through its open networking solutions, but its flagship product ICE6 has garnered much of the attention in recent times.
Shore says the AAE-1 development was a “big accomplishment” for the company, given that 17 people across the carriers involved had to agree that ICE6 was the best technology for the cable.
“And these cables are ridiculously expensive,” Shore says.
Alongside extending its lifespan, there are several other benefits that ICE6 presents to subsea cables.
“ICE6 is designed to minimise cost by enabling carriers to transmit the most amount of information over the greatest distances with the least amount of hardware,” he says.
“For right now, there are a lot of network operators that can see the value of adopting this generation of coherent technology, either by providing more services or lowering the overall cost of services.”
Yet it wasn’t just selected to increase its lifespan. Shore says the most important thing to the consortium was spectral efficiency – the information rate that can be transmitted over a given bandwidth into a specific communication system.
ICE6, he says, has 30% better spectral efficiency than the next best solution on the market.
“And that’s everything for subsea cables,” he adds.
Alongside that, ICE6 was selected by Zayo Group for the longest known terrestrial 800G optical wavelength in a commercial network – approximately 1,044.51km in length.
The route runs from Springville in Utah to Reno in Nevada and makes services more cost effective and capable to end users. 800G is the highest capacity commercially available in production networks but its waves have historically been limited by distance.
It’s important to note, though, that even after 1,000km, these optical engines can be reduced to a lower speed in order to travel further distances.
“Being able to transmit high speeds at long distances is so valuable because it enables network operators to carry the amount of bandwidth they need to while buying fewer engines,” Shore says.
This consequently means less cost, less space and less power all at the same time. ICE6’s unique benefits mean that Infinera is winning business in regions where “infrastructure is valuable”.
“In submarine networks, for example, the value of the fibre is massive and it’s so expensive to put in additional fibre that it becomes paramount to choose a technology that enables as many services over that fibre as possible,” he says.
Infinera works with several customer segments in those locations in both the horizontal and vertical markets.
In terms of horizontals, most of the demand is coming from subsea and long-haul metro networks which are growing at around the same rate, Shore says.
Most traffic now is centred around data centres, according to Shore, and with more data centres comes the growth of additional services.
“And anything that drives demand is good,” he adds.
In terms of geographical locations, Shore has his eyes on the Asia-Pacific region, due to the “diversity of the market”, and the Middle East – an area which has experienced a surge in data centres in recent years.
The data centre market in the region is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.4% during 2021-2027, according to a report from ResearchAndMarkets.com.
“The Middle East is a sizeable market and there is a huge amount of investment going into the region,” Shore says.
“It is essentially a lynchpin between very big markets between Asia, Europe and even Africa.”
And that is the key for Shore, noting that the Middle East is “strategically located”, allowing for interconnecting routes and acting as a gateway for wider projects.
In its latest financial results, Infinera reported a net loss of US$41.9 million, despite high product demand for ICE6.
This was largely down to “uncontrollable and previously unforeseen supply chain developments” at the end of the last quarter, according to the company’s CEO David Heard.
The suspension of its operations in Russia hindered its revenue by around $5 million and another $15 million was lost from project delays.
There was a smaller impact on its supply chain resulting from the pandemic, although continuing shortages of semiconductors could hamper the company even further.
“Processors – those are certainly the hardest thing to get a hold of and they impact us as it does everybody else,” Shore notes.
He remains optimistic, however, and believes it is important that Infinera improves the resiliency of its supply chain. Shore says that when a particular region is hit with issues, it could present problems for a particular type of technology, disrupting an entire business segment in some cases.
“An entire platform can be held up because of one resistor,” he explains.
But for Shore, there is a relatively simple solution – stop relying on parts from just one part of the world.
“We always work to have multiple suppliers for every part that we possibly can but what we haven’t spent as much time on is the geographical diversity of suppliers,” he says.
This is integral for Shore, given that a diverse range of suppliers from different regions would help the company to withstand potential supply-chain disruptions in the future.
But there is plenty more on the agenda for Infinera in the coming years beyond supply-chain issues.
In 1948, American engineer Claude Shannon wrote a paper that showed that any communications or fibre-optic-based subsea cable is characterised by bandwidth and noise.
Shannon demonstrated how to calculate the maximum data rate over a cable without incurring transmission errors and referred to it as the channel capacity.
It is expected that future advances in silicon technology will help push performance towards the ‘Shannon limit’ – the maximum rate of error-free data that can be theoretically transferred over the channel if the link is subject to random data transmission errors.
“ICE6 is pretty close to being at the Shannon limit,” Shore says
“Which means it is going to be very difficult to have any meaningful amount more than that on any fibre unless there is a radically new type of technology.”
Shore adds that the next generation might offer a 10-15% improvement but after that the improvement in spectral efficiency will be minimal.
While adding more fibre in metro and long-haul networks is possible, albeit expensive, it isn’t possible for subsea.
“Subsea is going to be challenged going forward,” he adds.
But that hasn’t deterred Shore from looking to the future with optimism. “This is one of the things we’re thinking about as an industry – how do I continue to increase the capacity I can put in my network?”
One way to do this is through spatial division multiplexing (SDM), which is based on MIMO (multiple-input multipleoutput) technology where antennas as both the transmitter and receiver are used to carry multiple data streams at the same time and within the same frequency band.
“Essentially, it’s adding a lot more fibre pairs in the cable, but to do this across the entire subsea network, networks would require amplifiers and that requires much more power for greater distances,” Shore says.
Modern submarine cables have around four to eight fibre pairs while SDM offers 12 to 16 fibre pairs and potentially more to come in the future.
Shore adds: “Subsea cables are remotely powered, meaning you’ll have a pretty finite amount of power in the submarine cable, which means that even if more fibres are put into the cable, we can only get a certain amount of power over those amplifiers.”
The first ever in-service undersea cable featuring the 12 fibre SDM design was the Google-owned Dunant submarine cable system, which runs 6,600km connecting Virginia Beach in the US to the French Atlantic coast.
While ICE6 continues to exceed spectral capacity expectations, SDM could be the primary direction for cable development in the future.
Shore says that while there will certainly be an ICE7, he remains non-committal on whether there will be an ICE8, noting that if there is, it could look “quite different”.
“Where ICE7 is another iterative step forward from ICE6, what comes after that is a bit more curious,” he says.