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Sub-sea cabling: Are the arteries of the internet age getting blocked?

Access to the internet and data is seen in the developed world as a vital service. For many, it rivals utility services. Internet downtime can even cause more hysteria than temporary electricity blackouts.

Yet, how many people fully understand what is required to bring this service to their houses?

In his novel, Tubes: a journey to the center of the internet, author Andrew Blum takes readers on an insider’s tour of the internet, detailing everything that is required for it to operate and keep up with demand. After reading, most people don’t open emails the same ever again.

As global data centre infrastructure continues to expand, meeting consumer demand, there are growing concerns that the existing sub-sea cable system is struggling to keep up. As a result, some of the big technology companies are taking matters into their own hands: the likes of Facebook and Google are looking to lay their own fibre.

This raises the question of whether existing sub-sea cable system is robust enough to support the growing data centre demands put upon it in the mid- and long-term?

Running out

Current global submarine cable infrastructure is “woefully insufficient” to support medium-term capacity requirements, according to Tim Stronge, VP of research at research and consulting firm, TeleGeography.

Thanks in large part to content and cloud provider capacity requirements, he says that the sector as a whole is “running out of spare fibre pairs” but adds that “fortunately, this problem is being addressed. There are lots of cables being built with more planned.”

Others believe the rapid digital evolution taking place will also reinforce the need for cabling infrastructure.

“Our industry expects power consumption and data processing to triple in the next five to 10 years as one billion more people come online in developing countries, and the ‘internet of things’ (IoT), driverless cars, robots, video surveillance and artificial intelligence grows exponentially,” says Peder Nærbø, founder and chairman at industrial group, Bulk Infrastructure.

“Although universal wireless internet and information sent by lasers through thin air may sound appealing, we believe a fibre infrastructure is the immediate future of fast internet.”

Future-tech data consumption

Transatlantic fibre route

Bulk – alongside companies including Facebook and Google Cloud – has invested in the brand-new Havfrue transatlantic fibre route between the US and Scandinavia.

“When Havfrue is up and running in Q4 2019, it will improve scalability to the region and open up great opportunities. Both regional and interregional large-scale data and cloud service providers will have the opportunity to offer their services on pure green sustainable power,” says Nærbø.

Meanwhile, Stronge points out that, although much innovation in the past has focused on increasing the amount of capacity that can be transmitted down a pair of optical fibres, the industry “seems to have centred on the conclusion that we are reaching an end to major gains in that area”.

Instead, he reveals that most current strategies are focused on reducing the cost per fibre pair in cables, with the “most obvious way” being to find ways to install more fibre pairs in a long-distance cable.

“We’ve gone from 6-8 fibre pair systems to, soon, 12-fibre pair and even 16-fibre pair systems.  There’s even talk of 24-fibre pair systems. There are other innovative ideas being explored to reduce cost. For example, Facebook has been pushing the idea of using aluminium rather than copper as a conductive material inside cables,” he says.

Future-tech data centre fibre optics

Gigantic requirements

When considering the ability of the sub-sea cabling sector to keep up with these ever-growing demands, two key challenges remain: cost and government regulations.

Stronge believes that large content providers have gigantic capacity requirements, and that their growth hasn’t really slowed in several years – meaning it is clear that they will need to keep building cables to keep pace with this traffic growth.

“As a result, they are focused right now on squeezing cost savings out of cables – and they’re challenging vendors to innovate,” he says.

In addition to cost, government regulations, specifically those relating to permitting, are also a problem and it is very difficult for sub-sea cable providers to be flexible with network planning “when grabbing all the necessary permits can take two to three years,” according to the VP of research.

Moreover, he observes there is often a lack of government transparency when it comes to dealing with the sub-sea cable industry. This is because a cable operator typically needs to acquire permission from what he describes as “a whole layer of government authorities, starting from the municipal level and on up”.

“And at the top – national – tier, transparency is still an issue. To land in the US, it’s not as simple as filing an application with the FCC then following a well-advertised procedure. You also have to deal with a somewhat amorphous government group called ‘Team Telecom’ – which is a cross-agency grouping comprising the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and others,” he says.

“It’s often hard to predict what Team Telecom will require, and how long it will take to give its stamp of approval,” he adds.

Future-tech data centre demand

Cable boom

Stronge also reports that cloud providers are currently the main driving force behind new builds on the largest-capacity trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and intra-Asia routes.

“Without these companies we’d be seeing far less cables going into the water – we’d still be in a market lull. The major danger here is that a majority of industry demand is consolidated in just a handful of buyers. If these content providers’ internal traffic requirements suddenly fall off, the industry will hit a very dry cycle. For at least the next two to three years, however, we’re definitely in the midst of a cable boom. The content providers are still growing like crazy,” he adds.

It remains to be seen whether or not populations will ever know, or feel the need to know, what infrastructure is required to feed their growing data thirst.

Clearly, concerns regarding the sub-sea cable system is forcing major content and cloud services providers to take matters into their own hands.