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Why we’ll see Internet giants getting even more involved in building subsea cables in the next five years

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About 10 years ago, Internet giant Google created a flurry across news outlets with the announcement of their involvement as a consortium member in the Unity subsea cable project, a new trans-Pacific system linking Japan and the West Coast of the United States. A first for the company after several rumours surrounding its undersea ambitions, its participation in Unity alongside telecom carriers Airtel (Bharti), Global Transit, KDDI, Pacnet (now Telstra) and Singtel would set a precedent for other major Internet players in years to come.

Amidst speculations of this being part of the company’s long-term plan towards becoming a telecommunications provider, the official (or at least most straightforward) answer was simply this: their global bandwidth requirements were fast outgrowing the rate at which new cables were being put underwater.

As we’ve seen from subsequent investments by Microsoft (New Cross Pacific, MAREA), Facebook (Asia Pacific Gateway, MAREA, Pacific Light Cable Network, Jupiter) and Amazon (Hawaiki Cable (major customer), Jupiter), this trend is unlikely to slow down, and their involvement has spurred a submarine cable construction boom quite unlike the one seen by the industry in early 2000s.

cable-map-1069 Visual Capitalist

Submarine Cable Map courtesy of Visual Capitalist

Apart from being able to obtain capacity directly instead from a third party (and therefore at a lower price) in order to fuel their ever-growing and unpredictable traffic requirements, owning subsea fibre pairs also gives these companies the flexibility to upgrade when they see fit, rather than being confined to a thirdparty cable operator, which has been the de facto business model in the past.

Getting directly involved as the projects’ investors and owners has also given the cloud giants more control over the technology deployed in their systems, and, following the likes of the Telecom Infra Project and the Open Compute Project, a drive towards more open architectures and greater innovation in order to reduce the cost per bit of submarine transport.

At the same time, diversity is also a key priority, so the new cables that are built in the coming years will almost certainly reach places that have not been considered before.

Content providers wanting to own fibre pairs on several systems instead of one entire cable would also mean that demand for new cables would continue to grow, with areas containing major data centres of these content providers receiving the most attention. At the same time, diversity is also a key priority, so the new cables that are built in the coming years will almost certainly reach places that have not been considered before.

New cities, new opportunities

That also means new opportunities for cities with the conditions in place for cables to land, as evidenced by Virginia Beach (for MAREA and BRUSA), as well as the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia whose aim is to provide an alternative to the four cables landing in Sydney. Having a cable land in your city would not only bring an instant boost to international connectivity, but also economic benefits as they become more attractive to companies looking to set up an office. At the same time, cities where content providers have chosen to set up their data centres will continue to remain attractive landing points for new cable systems.

Major Content Provider Data Center Locations, courtesy of TeleGeography

Major Content Provider Data Center Locations, courtesy of TeleGeography

With global data traffic expected to reach 1.3 ZB by 2020, and technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, 5G on the horizon – all forming the infrastructure of an Internet of Things ecosystem –  operators and content providers alike are gearing up in anticipation of the expected explosion of data demand as more communities also come online. Eyes are also on lookout for the entrance of Apple – the remaining hyperscale cloud giant that has yet to enter the subsea fray – as well as the Chinese players (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) who’ve been aggressively expanding their data centre operations in recent years.

It’s certainly a fascinating period for the industry, and an even more exciting time for those in it. As one CEO put it at the 20th Submarine Networks World which took place in September, “We’re going through a significant change in the industry, with the new investors coming in and that’s really driven by the need for connectivity throughout the globe…but also the changing consumer habits with social media and online activity that’s driving a new family of investors, so it’s a fascinating time for the industry.”

To learn more about the world of submarine cables connecting populations and its role as the global economy’s infrastructural backbone, download this this recently released free report, Submarine Networks Projects 2017. Featuring interviews with 15 project owners and operators in charge of building systems around the world, the stage is set as the industry builds fatter, faster and further to service the world’s global connectivity demands.

Download your free copy of Submarine Networks Projects 2017.

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