Manatua - A new age of connectivity

Manatua - A new age of connectivity

30 November 2020 | Natalie Bannerman

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So often we come across new cable systems that are built with the intention of diversifying existing connectivity, very rarely do we happen across systems that are key pieces of infrastructure and the only subsea cable available. Meet the Manatua One Polynesia Cable.

In the words of Dr. Ranulf Scarbrough, CEO of Avaroa Cable Limited (ACL) and co-chair of the Manatua Cable Consortium in which ACL is the second-largest investor, the system connects four Polynesian nations – the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and Samoa – “for two of those, it’s their first cable”.

“Prior to that, it’s all been connectivity based on satellite, which is clearly not up to modern standards and is insufficient for a modern economy,” he adds.

As for the other two “it was about diversity and backup routes; since both Samoa and French Polynesia already had cables”.

With small populations across the four nations, for example Cook Islands having 15,000 people, and Niue at around 1,200, Scarbrough shares that “for any one nation to try to build a cable alone was essentially unaffordable”.

“The unique aspect of Manatua is that it is four nations collaborating to invest together in something that any one nation would struggle to afford alone. It started with an international treaty which evolved into the build project,” he adds.

Unsurprisingly, the Manatua group has adopted the tried and tested consortium proposition. Each nation has its own national operator, each of which are investing in the system on behalf of the governments.

“They all contribute to capital costs and operating costs, and in return, each gets capacity, which is then used for national needs,” explains Scarbrough. “If there are other commercial opportunities on top then we can look to support those as well.”

As such a pivotal system for the four Polynesian nations, it should come as no surprise that the technology used, disregards all the previous conventions.

“You’ve probably got to throw away everything you know about the economics of how the industry does things. We’re taking the same technology and solution that’s been used to connect continents and major countries but to connect these really small nations,” says Scarbrough.

Approximately 3,600km in length connecting from Tahiti to Samoa, Manatua is hardly a small cable system. But in Scarbrough’s own words “there’s not a lot we want to connect in Tahiti or in Samoa, so it’s then about getting onward connectivity as well”.

“In our case, currently, we’ve got connectivity eastwards through to Los Angles, a major internet hub, and then we’ll be putting in place connectivity westwards to Sydney, Australia,” explains Scarbrough. “Both of those will go straight into data centres.  We need to source capacity on  intermediate cables to be able to do this.”

There are four immediate benefits to the new subsea cable system for the citizens of the nations it connects according to Scarbrough: “affordability, speed, reliability and reliance”.

As he elaborates, affordability is by far the biggest benefit saying: “retail costs have already dropped in terms of cost per gigabyte by over 90%. So affordability has already improved and there is further to go. Fortunately, there’s quite a lot of tourism here which helps the revenues tremendously.”

As for speed, he shares that although the existing networks are not bad “you don’t see 50-100-megabit speeds or gigabit speeds at all being available to consumers or businesses yet”.

In terms of reliability, satellite combined with tropical downpours means that the region experiences “all sorts of reliability issues that fibre and cable addresses”.

And lastly resilience “we do get cyclones,” he shares. “Infrastructure does get damaged and cable is much more resilient to that kind of thing”.

Looking at the bigger picture, he says that these four benefits are enablers and central to transforming those economies.

“There’s a big push to diversify here,” says Scarbrough. “The Cook Islands has had no Covid-19 but on the flipside, something like 70-80% of the economy is tourism and we haven’t had a single tourist since, February/March time.”

“I think that’s brought into sharp focus the need to diversify the economy to be able to have higher value, knowledge-based jobs and new sectors. People have tried those before but the satellite-based connectivity hasn’t really been able to sustain them.”

Alongside the investment in the cable, “the government has passed the Telecoms and Competition Acts” shares Scarbrough. “This has introduced a new regulator and with the aim of attracting  new market entrants to competition to the retail propositions and services. It’s a long-term project that I think will deliver well.”

Speaking of Covid-19 I was curious to know whether the global pandemic had affected the Manatua project, given it occurring so close to the system going live in September. Thankfully in terms of building the system with SubCom and Ciena for the technology solution, “the final splice on the cable was at the end of January, so we got that done just in time before COVID-19 really took hold,” Scarbrough says.

Aside from some delays with the commissioning testing the biggest impact has been on the commercial side of things.  

“Avaroa Cable is a wholesaler here in the Cook Islands and we sell to Vodafone, as the incumbent  operator while we wait for new entrants,” adds Scarbrough.

“Asking them to take on more capacity, move off the O3b satellite system, at a time when the economy’s been reduced by 80% and there are no tourists – has been tricky. Credit to them, they have taken capacity from us as they realise this is part of the future and they need to get on board.”

With 25 years’ experience in the telecoms market, with the likes of BT Openreach and Reuters, Scarbrough has been a part of the community and witnessed its many changes over the years. Speaking on the biggest trends in the subsea space he thinks that “video is  going to continue to be significant, embedded into everything”.

Further he says that although IoT is small amounts of data it is “very, very large numbers of devices, so I think we’ll see that start to grow as it spreads” adding that “gaming’s going to be important” and “5G, low latency and high bandwidth close to the end users is going to drive a whole set of sort of not-yet-imagined applications which will also drive capacity”.

Like most new cable systems, their landing brings with it the development of new ecosystems from new data centres, additional fibre backhaul, cable landing stations and internet exchanges. Scarbrough sees Manatua as being no different.

“We have to make a new economy happen here because that’s the whole purpose of doing this,” he says. “There’s no point investing such a large amount in new infrastructure if we’re just going to do the things we did before.  These network elements will be key to enabling that.”

But there still exists a change needing to happen with the end users because “poor historic affordability has meant they’re still not used to gulping down data like in the larger nations. You’ve got to change that habit of sipping carefully at the data available and get people using it much more, doing new things, and driving the benefits”.

With a consortium comprised of OPT French Polynesia, Samoa Submarine Cable Company, Telecom Niue and of course Avaroa Cable Ltd – Scarbrough shares that the Cook Islands involvement in the cable has been additionally supported by the New Zealand Aid Program, which is effectively the New Zealand Government, and the Asian Development Bank.

“Obviously, that mix of grant funding and development loan funding has been crucial. If we had to raise commercial money then we wouldn’t stand a chance trying to service the debt, so this has been absolutely key,” he continues.

Given his long-term presence in the sector, I questioned Scarbrough about the prevailing notion that added diversity of people, is needed in order to rescue the industry – especially in subsea with its aging workforce.

“The industry is going through a boom and certainly, when you look around the table at project meetings, the landings and so forth, you do notice that there is a demographic there for sure.”

“I think inspiring more young people into what is quite an exciting industry is important. I’m seeing some recent university graduates joining the industry.  I think the continued growth in the sector will see confidence grow in the major players, encouraging them to invest in a new generation of young people coming into the sector.”

2020 has been both a pivotal and unprecedented year globally, and for Avaroa this has been even bigger with the launch of its cable. Beyond this year, Scarbrough shared the company’s strategic priorities for 2021.

“ACL is essentially a start-up and we will now be carrying probably 95% of the nation’s communications traffic, so firstly we’ll be focusing on solid operations and maintenance practices, not just in the Cook Islands, but across the whole system.  We are at the heart of that as I co-chair the Manatua consortium across the four nations and also the Manatua operations and maintenance board.”

Beyond that, and rather unsurprisingly once the pandemic is over, there still exits the possibility for another system and further network diversity, because as Scarbrough puts it “there are another eight populated Cook islands to connect and a second cable for national resilience would be beneficial ” so he’s working on a plan and doing the homework because “when we go back to normality we want to be ready for the next steps in the evolution of Polynesian connectivity”.