STF Mag Feature: Keeping Continents Connected

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The management and maintenance of submarine cables evolves over time

By Ron Toten
July 22, 2022

The management and maintenance of submarine cables evolves over time to support Internet companies that all have their own infrastructure.

Submarine cable systems are recognized as a vital cog in the rapidly growing digital economy fueled by the world’s seemingly endless appetite for faster connectivity. For enterprises, this is due to the rise of cloud computing and a reliance on hyperscale platform vendors. For consumers, it’s the equivalent of entertainment, whether it’s streaming TV and music services or using social media platforms.

Faced with increased demand, there is pressure on submarine cable operators to mitigate the risk of outages which, as the citizens of Tonga can confirm, is a very real and magnified risk when a single cable connects a country to the web. In January, a submarine blowout severed the connection 23 miles offshore. It took over two months to repair, during which time the main island was dependent on an unreliable 2G wireless connection.

The slow response could reflect the economic challenge of maintaining a connection that only serves around 100,000 people. Elsewhere in the world, new undersea fiber optic cable projects are connecting continents on a scale that will require unprecedented levels of support if something goes wrong, not least because new entrants to the market will want the management and maintenance are as cutting-edge as the services. They provide.

Setting New Underwater Standards

The underwater market is witnessing unprecedented change as Meta and Google shift their focus from demand generation to supply generation. They have growth models based on connecting to Africa where their footprint is still relatively small. It’s part of a much bigger picture shift in the industry, tracked by TeleGeography, which shows how content providers are consuming more and more of total international cable capacity, up from 6.3% in 2010 to 69% in 2021, and is expected to reach 78% by 2027.

Relying on a combination of consortium builds and private builds, these hyperscale specialists drive growth and increase control over the cables they own. They rigorously focus on the capacity, reach and capacity of the cables they lay and expect them to be optimized throughout their lifespan, which includes doing everything possible to mitigate the impact of costly breakdowns.

It’s no surprise that these companies take advantage of advanced technologies to get the job done. In the case of Meta, a project linking Ireland, the UK and the Nordics uses the innovative Havhingsten cable system, which has an aluminum conductor rather than copper, and an improved burial plow for added protection in the busy sections of the North Sea and the Irish Sea.

Advanced technologies are now being used in cable-laying vessels to facilitate precise routing in harsh underwater environments, and progress is being made to make high-capacity fiber optic lines more resilient. The next phase is to continue to protect and optimize investments in submarine cables, to be very selective about who is in charge of the ongoing management and maintenance once they are put into service.

Multi-Layer Support Capabilities

The exponential growth of submarine traffic and the worldwide demand for terabyte per second speeds has caused a paradigm shift, not only in the way large-scale projects are planned and executed, but also in the way they are executed. afterwards. In the traditional submarine model, where a small group of tiered operators co-owned the infrastructure and collectively outsourced PFE (Power Feeding Equipment) and SLTE (Submarine Line Terminal Equipment) expertise as well as the Technical assistance services tended to be generic and come to an itinerant group of entrepreneurs.

Since new submarine entrants have their own cable, they have the flexibility to fine-tune the carrier to meet their specific technical requirements. Like all best-run service propositions, the main task will be to free them up to focus on their core business, which in the case of internet companies goes well beyond connectivity. It will therefore fall to the next generation of submarine support companies not only to manage and monitor the cable, but to define a roadmap for continuous improvement, which will involve taking advantage of the latest technologies.

Subsea system operators need to be proactive rather than reactive, and new technology is the big enabler. Real-time monitoring, timely reporting and timely maintenance are table stakes that require a dedicated underwater NOC (Network Operation Center), populated by underwater specialists who collect and collate data, triage every incident and share granular details with underwater repair contractors’ vessels. .

Undersea cables are susceptible to rupture and damage from man-made and natural events, from fishing and dredging activities to severe weather and earthquakes. A cut or damaged cable can typically take days or even weeks to repair, resulting in extended downtime (Tonga’s experience would not be typical). Once the clock is ticking, it’s all about having the right length and type of cable, and an available underwater repair vessel with the right tools on board to make the physical repairs.

Before sailing, engineers will try to identify the breaking point by measuring the time it takes for the light to bounce off the broken fiber. The challenge for a new generation of submarine system operators is to make imprecise fault finding more accurate, so that when the ship starts, the most important variable that could jeopardize repairs is the weather.

Back on land, there will be other jobs that also fall under the purview of the systems operator. They will need to be able to scale and provide on-site multi-vendor technical support, to ensure landing stations are always optimized and ready to connect to backhaul networks or directly to local data centers.

Skills of the future

The new submarine players are essentially extending a transoceanic network above the existing global network. It requires old and new skills. Proficiency in SDM, PFE and SLTE is a prerequisite. After an event, High Loss Loop Back (HLLB) repeater scans are performed on each fiber pair to determine if any cable or specific fiber damage has occurred. And the PFE voltages are analyzed to give a rough location of the cable anomaly. If a cable break is determined, COTDR (Coherent Optical Time Domain Reflectometry) should be used on all impacted fibers to pinpoint the exact size and extent of the problem, as well as inform the solution. .

Harder to find are the new skills and competencies that will mark the biggest shift in underwater managed services. Vendors will need security experts to tackle increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, data analysts and AI specialists to move maintenance from proactive to predictive. All will be needed to meet the expectations of Internet businesses that live and breathe these technologies.

Overcoming logistical challenges will be another part of the mission. Managing and maintaining the infrastructure that connects continents is a complex business, where parts must be available for delivery to remote corners of the world. When it comes to underwater repairs, they must be carried out correctly and cost-effectively, both in loading time, time spent at sea and the extent of the work carried out.

Just as internet companies have become disruptors in the undersea cable market, a new wave of undersea managed service providers must be ready to innovate on their side of the business. They must be able to combine top-notch engineering talent with cutting-edge technology, systems, and process automation. The world of underwater wiring has changed forever and everyone involved must change with it.

About the Author

Ron Totton is Executive Vice President of Strategy and Growth Markets at Indigo. Ron helps Indigo disrupt and transform telecommunications networks with initiatives such as the launch of Indigo Subsea which seeks to redefine and digitally transform how subsea networks operate.

He helped develop a subsea systems operator model, which includes a dedicated NOC to meet the growing demand for operational support services. He has spent more than a decade working closely with consortia including ISPs, CSPs and telecom operators, forging strong relationships in every corner of the world, from the Nordics to Southeast Asia.

Click here to read more articles from SubTel Forum magazine’s regional systems issue or read this article on our archive site here.


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