Confluence-1: The new North-South route

Confluence-1: The new North-South route

28 May 2021 | Natalie Bannerman

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For Paul Scott, the journey to Confluence Networks started when the CEO was president of C&W Networks.

Having successfully established subsea connectivity links across the Caribbean and Latin America region, including Haiti, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, Scott identified an emerging challenge at the US gateway to the region.

Scott says that the particular challenge he saw was that much of the Latam, Caribbean and Americas traffic needed to get northbound in the US. The problem was that operators like C&W — and many others — were largely relying on 20-year-old north-south terrestrial long haul, with very limited dark fibre availability.

This north-south platform is often referred to as the I95 route, after the Interstate-95 route which runs from Miami along the US east coast through New York to the Canadian border.

Enter Confluence Networks. Though multiple providers who operate on this route have been doing a great job, Scott says: “Nobody’s figured out what it would take to create a highly robust all-underground network from Miami to New York terrestrial route, with a great latency profile, scalability and the reliability. I said maybe there’s an entirely different way to approach this challenge. Drawing on my subsea experience, my cofounders Valentina Gallardo and David G. Ross said yes, there’s industrial logic to this concept of an offshore subsea festoon-type solution. Let’s go explore.”

The result of that is Confluence-1, the 2,571km subsea cable that creates a diverse, more direct and more secure alternative to the land route, connecting New York to Miami, with intermediate branches into Virginia Beach, Myrtle Beach area and Jacksonville.

As the cable’s name suggests, Scott says there was a confluence of factors that buttressed the business case, one being a big step-change in technology moving from the standard eight-fibre pair repeatered system to 24 fibre pairs with a minimum 20Tbps per pair capacity.

“That affords us a very scalable platform to enable various carriers, internet content providers and other service providers to enjoy a very robust, diverse, scalable new platform,” he says. “That is not to take away from the terrestrial networks which are run very well and carry a ton of traffic. Confluence is really meant to substantially augment and improve the overall picture — because diversity is important so you don’t have a single point of failure.”

Other converging factors, according to Scott, include the high number of recently announced and projected transatlantic and other continental new cable systems that are going to continue to converge on the eastern seaboard of the US.

He says: “TeleGeography predicts something like 35 to 40 new transatlantic systems in the Atlantic basin over the next 10 or 15 years and they have to land somewhere. We believe the points where we plan to land have already demonstrated they are good locations to land cables, whether existing older cables, recently built or announced cables — or to-be-announced future cables.

“By virtue of us landing in these strategic locations, hopefully the Confluence platform can truly enable a much better network architecture for the industry.”

Since announcing the launch of Confluence-1 earlier this year, Scott says that the response from the market has been very positive, with many of the users of the so-called I95 saying this new offering is innovative and that it addresses the industry’s need for added diversity and less dependency on the terrestrial routes.

“This isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it is another major step change in improving overall architecture and there will be other initiatives too,” he says.

Response from government has also been strong because it is a domestic network that is the first of its kind to be offshore, delivering reliability and ease of scalability along with the inherent security that comes with being on the seabed.

“Across state and federal government and agencies, we seem to be getting positive feedback as well,” says Scott.

What about the trend of interconnected loop-based ring-protected systems and the possibility of Confluence-1 doing the same? Scott says: “If a transatlantic cable lands in various points, by virtue of our interconnect capability — across various key landing points — they could use our interconnect functionality between them as a protection scheme.”

Scott also says that the company is always prepared to work with other industry participants on collaborating on those loop-based, ring protection designs that ensure a lower likelihood of failure and interruption to service.

It comes as no surprise that Confluence-1 is leveraging SDM to maximise its capacity.

“Among those converging factors, SDM is a breakthrough which then enables more fibre pairs [to be used]. So, we are benefiting by that technology advancement, without question,” says Scott.

Scott categorises topics such as artificial intelligence (AI) or machine-to-machine (M2M), as advancements that are more and more cloud-based that will continue to drive up subsea capacity demands.

“We can now see areas such as the expanding global online gaming space. There clearly is an expanding need for multi-routes, scalable, with great latency, for media-rich, cloud-based apps. To do that they must rely on robust fibre-based connectivity which we hope will be part of the solution for such emerging growth areas.”

At the time of the announcement of Confluence-1 the company also confirmed that MasTec, a US-based infrastructure engineering and construction company, had acquired a controlling equity interest in the company and fully funded the project.

Scott says that decision to partner with MasTec — over choosing a traditional consortium-based model or even partnering with an OTT — was the desire to do things a little bit differently.

“From the outset we wanted to create a neutral platform and, by pursuing it as a private cable, we hope to enable all-comers to use and benefit from the network. We felt that to get to completion in the timeliest manner, a private cable with a likeminded, capable and focused financial sponsor like MasTec was the best route.”

MasTec is a publicly traded and highly profitable company, turning over $7-8 billion a year, with 20,000-plus employees with engineering, construction and telecoms maintenance skillsets that can be tapped into “so it really made a lot of sense to us”.

Scott wants direct, diverse and robust connectivity, pointing to direct links to data centres that he prefers over traditional cable landing stations. But all of this will be via collaboration and partnerships.

“We have the budget and the capability to stand up our own facilities in all five of our landing locations,” says Scott. “We do believe we can team and partner with established carrier grade facilities and industry friends in these locales and very much expect will strike a win-win accord.”

As we rounded out the conversation, discussion turned to the place of edge in relation to subsea in the wider infrastructure ecosystem. Good news: both are set for continued growth in the long-term, according to Scott.

“If I think of pre-pandemic and post-pandemic year-on-year bandwidth growth, it was remarkably high pre-pandemic and then it just went off the charts,” he says.

“Generally speaking, the internet content providers and OTTs have seen growth of 72%, 78% and in some case 100%, while more traditional carriers are approaching 40-50%. I believe the supply and demand as well as the demand drivers, things like 5G and ever intensifying media rich content, are going to even drive more bandwidth need.

“Edge is a critical piece because as users need and desire more bandwidth over a 5G platform or their fibre-to-the-home, that edge helps the architecture perform better and deliver that optimal user experience. But I think this edge activity also drives more traffic demand upstream. I think everybody is going to experience onward bandwidth demand growth across their networks.”

With Confluence-1 expected to be in service by the second half of 2023, the project has a “myriad of work streams currently underway”, says Scott.

The company has contracted with WSP and its subsidiary Ecology and Environment, an industry permitting specialist, “that has the resident competencies all up and down the eastern seaboard”, he says. “They are out there as we speak pursuing the requisite permits across various state, municipal, port entities such as state departments of environmental protection,” he says.

In addition, law firm Morgan Lewis in Washington DC is busy “performing their services at the federal agency level for permitting”, he adds.  

At the same time, subsea specialists SubCom is carrying out the desktop survey, to identify any challenges “we might face in landing in these locations and following that particular route”.

Lastly, there are negotiations with the various facility operators as to whether the company can reach satisfactory deals to co-locate in such existing facilities such as Virginia Beach compared with building new cable landing stations.  

“These myriad of work streams all form the basic building blocks for enabling our system to advance,” he says. “Provided we achieve them as planned, we feel pretty good about the latter part of 2023 as our ready for service date.”