Cabling the oceans

15 November 2010 | John Hibbard

John Hibbard looks at drivers for the phenomenal development in Asia-Pacific over the last decade, and how they set the stage for the next 10 years.

Looking back on the last 10 years, one thing stands out as the driver for many of the Asia- Pacific developments: greater accessibility to the internet generated by the roll-out of broadband. Higher speed and wider availability have been the key to greater usage and better access to applications, internet browsing and e-business of all types; the consequent demand has put pressure on the capacity of our networks, both domestic and international. Combine this with the emergence of China, India and the Middle East on the global communications stage, and you can see why the Asia-Pacific region has become a significant focus for the world. The Atlantic region no longer dominates thinking or telecommunications demand.

The demand for international connectivity in the region has continued through the decade largely unabated. While growth has languished in the Atlantic with an over-supply of capacity, any excess in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean has been rapidly consumed. This has seen continued need for further capacity, either from new cables or upgrades of existing cables. The obvious importance of good connectivity in the competitiveness of nations has seen many countries get their first cable. We have seen novel ways to provide these, including the recovery and reuse of cables retired prematurely after an over-build to meet the exploding demand.

Here, for me, are the ground-breaking events for Asia-Pacific in the last decade.

One of the great achievements has been the development of independent upgrade technology to expand the capacity of cables. The emergence of the 10Gbps wave a decade ago heralded the desire to replace 2.5Gbps waves. And then there was the ability to light just a few waves on a new cable and subsequently add more as the demand for capacity grew. Originally such upgrades could only be done via the original supplier so it was very expensive. The revelation came when non-OEM suppliers brought competition to this segment of the industry. Prices plummeted from over $5 million per wave to $1 million per wave, and have since fallen to several hundred thousand dollars. This has been the means for accommodating the consequences of the global broadband roll-out.

Prior to this decade, only major traffic centres could justify submarine cables; everyone else had to use satellite. This was especially the case with island nations in Asia-Pacific. Satellite prices were not falling as fast as was needed to service demand so international connectivity was constrained and internet access was slow. Customers and governments demanded better service. Cables were the answer but how could a small country afford such a significant capital expenditure? Recovered cables were one means. PNG set the process in motion with the recovery of 1,800km of retired PacRimWest. The two Samoas followed with the reuse of PacRimEast. New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Marshalls, FSM and CNMI got new cables, as did Mauritius, Reunion and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Recognising the importance of cables for country development, the aid agencies realised that the glass highway can do as much for a country as the bitumen highway. A mighty trend is underway.

The development of the optical add-drop multiplexer (OADM) branching unit - where one or a few wavelengths can be picked off and spurred into a passing country - has provided the platform for more communities to get fibre access.

The Unity cable, with its unique ownership structure where fibres are shared, has provided a means by which parties might more effectively share a cable. It is too early to say whether it will work effectively or not, but Unity brought Google directly to the submarine cable stage. This was a major milestone for the industry and we all wait to see what the consequences will be. Will this change the customer arrangements? Will we see Yahoo or even Microsoft follow suit?

If one event caused a major operational rethink it was the 2006 Taiwan earthquake. No disaster planning had ever assumed two simultaneous cable breaks, but here we had something like 16. Every cable from southeast Asia went through the Luzon Strait so there was massive disruption. Back-up alternatives were few and far between. Cable ships sought to repair the breaks, often with the challenge of determining which cable they had recovered for repair. The impact on business was enormous and it caused a substantial review of what was considered appropriate redundancy. It reinforced plans for cables across the Indian Ocean to Europe as the alternative route, and terrestrial routes across Russia and between India and China were implemented. These efforts at network security were rewarded in 2009 when another Taiwan earthquake caused minimal disruption, despite the fact that there were over 20 cable breaks. Back-up paths worked and mutual sharing of capacity occurred. It was a credit to our industry.
There are other events over the last decade that warrant a mention but the above are the ones that I see have the real potential to set us on the right path into the next decade.