Project Koete: Oceania’s £1.5bn infrastructure hub

Project Koete: Oceania’s £1.5bn infrastructure hub

28 May 2021 | Natalie Bannerman

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March saw the announcement of a sizable infrastructure project to be built in Western Australia and the country’s Northern Territory.

Project Koete is the US$1.5 billion development that will see the construction of a 10,000km-long subsea cable and three Tier IV data centres, delivering data and internet connectivity between Perth and Darwin, and providing additional onward connectivity to international business hubs in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and beyond.

Peter Bannister, group managing director at Fibre Expressway Pty Ltd (FEPL), the developers of the new digital hub, told me what led to the planning of this new ecosystem and what it will mean for the market.

Starting with the why, Bannister says that in his 20-25 years of living in the region — he lives near Perth — there has always been a lack of capacity back-up to Asia, a demand that needed to be met.

“We live in the most geographically isolated city in the world and yet north of us there’s 4-5 billion Asia-Pacific customers,” explains Bannister. “So, the West Australian government and the Northern Territory have long been trying to become more of a competitor to the likes of Singapore.”

He adds: “Although we work with them [Singapore] together, that would never have been possible until we had this type of connectivity here. So that was the original driver.”

Aside from this need to connect to its Asia-Pacific customers Bannister says that it’s the stable governments of Western Australia and Northern Territory, as well as the fact that the area isn’t prone to earthquakes, and the good weather that make the location even more appealing.

“The second thing is that a while back Singapore put a moratorium on no more data centres builds. We are closer to Singapore than Sydney, so that’s an interesting proposition for financial services companies and content providers to come and open up operations here in Western Australia,” he says.

In support of this Bannister says that the Northern Territory’s government and Western Australia have been very supportive. This, coupled with the fact that the Northern Territory has great power and cooling facilities and that in Western Australia “we probably have more land and space to do this than you would see anywhere else in the world”, means there is huge opportunity there.

Bannister is a regular attendee at three of the biggest telecoms conferences, PTC, ITW and Submarine Networks World, and these provided the perfect test ground for market interest in Project Koete.

“We’ve had great interest through that engagement with one of the largest funding groups in the world to look at raising $1.5 billion for us,” he explains.

He added that as part of this FEPL is working with several financial advisory companies based in the Asia-Pacific region to raise $10 million in development capital to take a minor share in the project.

Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 has also played a part, slowing a few things down for the project “because you can’t physically get in front of people”, he says, “but that also has driven that demand for what we do. The bandwidth demand has gone through the roof.”

He adds: “To raise $1.5 billion to do this, I would say is relatively easy. There’s money looking for projects like this, but you know to do those things, you get in front of people. Since the pandemic everything is done on Zoom and while that’s driven the demand, it has slowed some of that process down.”

Some were taking a wait-and-see approach: they were unsure of where to invest when the lockdown took hold, with.

“Covid came and people weren’t too sure where to invest or how soon. Some of the people were already set to go and then Covid came and they said we’re not sure where do this yet,” he explains.

Every piece of new infrastructure is undoubtably a huge benefit for the nations it connects, as well as the local communities that live there. In the case of Project Koete this include the indigenous communities.

In the first instance Bannister says they were planning on giving free bandwidth capacity to indigenous communities, as some of their biggest needs are e-health and e-learning.

“But the biggest thing we’ve discovered is giving them something for free is great, but they also need more job opportunities, so we will use their ICT companies up in those regions to support this afterwards.”

Project Koete has been designed to include Subsea Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART) and Ocean Bottom Observation Systems (OBOS) in its subsea cable enabling the early detection and warning of earthquake and tsunami activity.

No stranger to Capacity, this technology is the work of the Joint Task Force (JTF) which represents the combined efforts of three United Nations agencies, the International Telecommunication Union, the World Meteorological Organization, and the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, led by Professor Bruce Howe.

Bannister says, “it’s nice to give back”, of their decision to collaborate with the work on this new project,

“We sit just south of Indonesia, which has a massive problem with such tsunamis. A system with this SMART technology now predicts the next tsunami for them. In 2018, tsunamis and earthquakes killed thousands in Indonesia. They had had somewhere near 130,000 deaths, because of the lack of a tsunami warning system. The question is: why wouldn’t we want to do it?”

Bannister describes the subsea system as a high-capacity, national cable that will use repeaters every 100km or so due to its length.

It will include 16 fibre pairs and will feature the heavily touted SDM technology deliver 250Tb of capacity and “it gives us that competitive edge”, he says.

The cable will connect at points to cable landing stations and data centres, with all interconnected, creating a one-stop shop for services.

“We can give a single point of contact, single stop shopping, SLAs for any content or any client wanting that across data centres and subsea cable,” adds Bannister.

Once built, sustainability, power and cooling will be key to the running of these data centres, a feature that Bannister says has been built in.

“There’s a big push for solar and hydrogen energies down here,” says Bannister. “Our data centres will be Tier 4 rated but we won’t have the traditional powering and cooling. Australia is getting quite far ahead with sustainability, green energy and renewables, so it’s about working within those groups that we’re working with now to provide that.”

On the relationship between subsea cables and edge computing, Bannister says that the acceleration of IoT as well as other emerging technologies will only lead to bigger capacities.

“As an example, these floating LNG [liquified natural gas] assets sit out in the ocean here. One of them has 32,000 sensors on it, so everything from a well head to a toilet door for health and safety — things they want to remotely control from the other side of the world, and they cannot do that without the subsea cable. I think the subsea cable will increase in capacity and be built smarter.”

With a ready-for-service date of the end of 2025, the cable’s next stages of development include “getting this through the financial close, reconnecting with the people that we’ve been dealing with and with our suppliers”, says Bannister.

Permitting and route studies, and the desktop study map are already completed or underway. Other tasks include deploying cable ships that were also slowed because as Bannister puts it “crews can now go where they couldn’t go before”.

Often projects of this scale face a sea of hurdles and roadblocks that can sometimes mean they can take a long time to come to fruition — but, in the case of Project Koete, “having the support of your government is the biggest thing behind you.”