- Demand for connectivity and bandwidth still growing globally
- Satellite systems can’t meet the need, only submarine cables can
- At least US$10bn to be invested in the three years to the end of 2024, according to Telegeography
- Cable systems invaluable but vulnerable to attack by the likes of Russia
The international subsea cable sector is booming. Today, more than 450 submarine cables carry about 95% (or more, the percentage is contentious and continually debated) of all international telecom service traffic, together with the ever-increasing data traffic generated by the hyperscale cloud companies and big streaming content providers. That’s why more and more new submarine systems are either being deployed or planned to help satisfy the insatiable demand for greater capacity, scale and reach. The globe is already spanned by more than 1.5 million miles of underwater fibre optical cables that are practical proof of the whimsical movie maxim “if you build it they will come”.
A recent industry report, A 2022 update on Interconnection Geography, by Patrick Christian, senior research manager at telecoms market research and consulting house TeleGeography, provides an update on “submarine cable landings, growth and trends of intra-European networks, as well as growth and trends of networks connecting to Europe.” For example, the data reveals that, since 2017, Africa-Europe connectivity has been at about 80% of total potential capacity. The difference between the North and South African international connections are marked: North Africa’s international connectivity to Europe is very close to 100% but sub-Saharan Africa’s connectivity to Europe has dropped to about 60% of total potential capacity.
The TeleGeography research also points out that Europe is of growing importance as a communications hub, which is more than can be said for Brexit Britain. Earlier this month, the Republic of Ireland, in pursuit of its Gateway to Europe strategy with regards to submarine cable systems and positioning itself as “a key international connectivity hub”, marked the completion of the IRIS high-speed undersea cable system. It is the first Irish submarine cable that is not linked to the UK and thus indicative of the UK’s diminished status after leaving the EU. The Irish government has ambitions to be a connectivity hub between North America, the north and south of Europe and on to the rest of the world, and regards the IRIS cable as the catalyst for “continued and expanding investment”.
TeleGeography’s latest submarine cable map also shows that the continuing growth of the subsea cable sector will continue to flourish, with more than $10bn set to be invested in the 2022-2024 period (see the chart above).
India and Africa beginning to compete to be key global telecoms hubs
Meanwhile, and elsewhere, India, which will overtake China to become the most populous country on the planet in 2023, is also expanding its involvement in submarine cable systems and plans to become a key comms hub in South Asia. To that end, Reliance Jio, the sub-continent’s biggest 4G and mobile broadband digital service provider, is set to land the next-generation multi-terabit India-Asia-Xpress (IAX) undersea cable system in Hulhumale in the Maldives. IAX consists of 12 cable landings in five countries, with the main trunk running from Tuas (Singapore) to Mumbai, with branches to Chennai, Matara (Sri Lanka), Satun (Thailand), and Morib (Malaysia).
Meanwhile, the India-Europe-Xpress (IEX) system connects Mumbai to Milan, via Savona, Italy, and includes additional landings in the Middle East and Africa (Oman, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) as well as in the Mediterranean, with landings in France, Italy, and Greece. Later plans call for connections to the US East Coast. Between them, IEX and IAX will form the largest subsea cable system on the planet and will provide at least 200Tbit/s of capacity and enable services with bandwidth up to 100Gbit/s.
Simultaneously, the 2Africa consortium, comprising China Mobile International, Meta, MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, STC, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone and the West Indian Ocean Cable Company (WIOCC), continues to build out to its planned 46 locations. First announced in May 2020, the 2Africa subsea cable system together with its ‘Pearls’ extension will, by 2024, connect Africa, Europe and Asia and provide high-speed international connectivity to some 3 billion people, that is to say some 36% of the global population. Telecom Egypt, in partnership with Meta, has just announced the first landing in Egypt, at Ras Ghareb on the Red Sea. The cable will next land at Port Said, giving access to the Mediterranean.
And on it goes. EXA Infrastructure, which already owns more than 70,000 miles of fibre network across 32 countries, has announced it will build a new, dedicated Open Cable Landing Station (CLS) in Mazara del Vallo on the island of Sicily, Italy, to increase its landing and backhaul capacity. EXA’s is the largest dedicated digital infrastructure platform connecting Europe and North America and its network connects 300 cities. Its submarine cable routes include three transatlantic cables, one of which is the lowest latency link between Europe and North America. The Mazara CLS will enhance subsea cable services to and from Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Vulnerability worries at times of international tensions
On the surface (if you’ll forgive the pun) it’s all looking very encouraging, but geopolitics is rearing its ugly head everywhere at the moment, not only with Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine (and Iran’s sly meddling in it) but also on the part of an increasingly aggressive China and even more than the usual deranged bull-headed bellicosity coming from North Korea.
Russia has already threatened to down US and European communications satellites that cover the Ukraine, and the submarine cables that carry much more data than the satellite fleets are equally (probably more) vulnerable to attack. There have been mysterious cable breakages, such as the recent one off the coast of Scotland that took the Shetland Islands off the internet for several days. It happened when the Russian “scientific research vessel” the Boris Petrov was close by.
In recent years, Russia has spent a lot of money and resources on developing the technology and unmanned subsea vehicles able to work at the kinds of depths that NATO countries have long discounted as being irrelevant and not worth spending a lot on to exploit or defend. Russia, and China for that matter, place less reliance on submarine cables and because of their sheer size and geographical locations rely more on terrestrial systems. On the other hand, Europe, the UK, Japan and South Asia are much more exposed to either blackmail threats or overt destructive attacks on their submarine infrastructure.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, the chief of the UK defence staff warned that the Putin regime has the equipment and the political will to cut cables, more or less at will. This is because, under Putin, decommissioned nuclear submarines have been scraped clear of rust, been fitted with new wooden watertight doors and put back into service as mother ships to newer, smaller submarines that are not only difficult to detect but also manoeuvrable enough to place explosive charges on or very close to cables on the seafloor for immediate or delayed detonation as and when the Russian state may deem it necessary.
China too is doing its bit potentially to threaten the west not only by continually expanding its submarine fleet but also by developing its own subsea cable sector. It is offering to lay cables at knock-down prices, though the knock-down price for the clients that accept such offers is the likelihood of being knocked-off the global comms networks if a government (or even a company) does something to annoy the Chinese government – like broadcasting Winnie the Pooh cartoons, for example.
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