Global digital connectivity is essential to drive future economic growth and coherence between countries. To this end, intercontinental network of undersea optic fibre cables has proved to be a critical global infrastructure, driving steady growth and facilitating the transport of data. Undersea internet cables represent the backbone of the global internet, carrying around 97 per cent of voice and data traffic across the sea floor between land-based stations. The recent growth of cloud computing has vastly increased the volume and sensitivity of data, from military documents to scientific research, crossing these cables. Meanwhile, companies have typically pooled their resources to collaborate on undersea cable projects, such as a freeway for all of them to share.
More recently, undersea internet cables have been using optical fibre technology to transport digital communications traffic and digital data. Each cable contains fibre threads capable of transmitting data at 180,000 miles per second, wrapped in steel armour, insulation and a plastic coat. These fibres have the capacity to transmit up to 400 GB of data per second (about enough for 375 million phone calls). A single undersea cable contains anywhere up to 200 such fibres. Governments, telecommunication operators and technology companies are, therefore, investing in fibre optic submarine cables to supply users with fast and reliable digital connectivity across continents.
According to Verified Market Research, the global submarine cable system market size was estimated at $18.58 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $52.75 billion by 2030 at a compound annual growth rate of 12.23 per cent from 2023 to 2030. First laid in the 1850s, undersea cables have over the years carried everything from telegraphy traffic to telephone traffic. As of May 2022, there are 436 submarine cables in service worldwide, stretching over 1.3 million km, according to the submarine cable map by TeleGeography.
Globally, the market is dominated by four main suppliers. Alcatel Submarine Networks, a subsidiary of Nokia, tops the list with over 650,000 km of cables worldwide. It is followed by the US-based SubCom with over 200 networks. The third is Japan’s Nippon Electric Company (NEC) with over 300,000 km of undersea internet cables worldwide. NEC is followed by Huawei Marine Networks, which controls nearly 10 per cent of the subterranean internet cable market, according to the 2021 report by the Tony Blair Institute for Change.
Evolving subsea ecosystem in India
Since a substantial amount of international internet data, including cloud and digital communication, are transmitted through undersea fibre optic cables, it is necessary for India to develop a strong submarine cable network as part of its critical national infrastructure. In August 2020, the prime minister inaugurated the first ever undersea optical fibre cable project for the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, enabling high speed broadband connection in the union territory. The Indo-Pacific region, in fact, is home to the fastest growing undersea communication cable networks. This makes it imperative for India to engage in projects and international collaborations when it comes to subsea cable infrastructure expansion.
Recently, Reliance Industries Limited has received approval from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to build submarine cable systems for high capacity and high speed internet connectivity from Mumbai to Europe and Asia. The cable systems, India-Europe-Xpress (IEX) and India-Asia-Xpress (IAX), are the largest globally and are expected to be ready between 2023 and 2024. The IEX in the Arabian Sea and open seas will connect Mumbai to Europe, with landings in the Middle East and Africa (Oman, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) as well as through the Mediterranean Sea with landings in France, Italy and Greece, further expanding to the US Coast (East). Meanwhile, the IAX consists of 12 cable landings in five countries with the main trunk from Tuas (Singapore) to Mumbai and branches to Chennai, Matara (Sri Lanka), Satun (Thailand) and Morib (Malaysia).
Also, Bharti Airtel has joined the SEA-ME-WE-6 undersea cable consortium to scale up its high speed global network capacity to serve India’s fast growing digital economy. The 19,200 Rkm SEA-ME-WE-6 will connect Singapore and France, and will be amongst the largest undersea cable systems globally. Through SEA-ME-WE-6 Airtel will add a significant amount of 100 Tbps capacity to its global network. SEA-ME-WE-6 will be fully integrated with Nxtra by Airtel’s large data centres in Mumbai and Chennai to enable global hyperscalers and businesses to access seamless integrated solutions and strengthen India’s position as an emerging data centre hub in the region. Recently, the operator partnered with Meta to develop undersea cable infrastructure, which will support high speed internet in the country and boost data-carrying capacities between geographies. The two companies, along with the Saudi Telecommunication Company, will bring the world’s longest subsea cable system 2Africa Pearls to India, at Airtel’s landing station in Mumbai.
Besides, the Department of Telecommunications has approved a telecom package for the Kochi-Lakshadweep submarine optical fibre connectivity project. The cost of the telecom development package is estimated to be Rs 610 million. This package includes the installation of 18 new 4G mobile tower sites, upgradation of 19 existing 2G sites to 4G services and laying of 225 km of optical fibre for providing fibre-to-the-home connection on the islands. Meanwhile, in a positive stride towards promoting subsea cable infrastructure, the defence ministry has extended clearance with one-year validity to telecom companies for laying and maintaining undersea cables. Earlier, telecom operators were required to seek clearance every six months for vessels and ships required for laying and maintaining undersea cables that are vital for internet and international telecom services.
Moreover, another big investment to the extent of Rs 10 billion is coming to Gujarat by way of an MoU signed between the Gujarat government and Lightstorm Company to build the state’s first submarine cable landing station under the Gujarat IT Policy, 2022-27. With the recent development, Gujarat will become the third such state to establish a cable landing station. As part of the project, a submarine cable will be established directly from Europe to Gujarat, which will further enhance data connectivity with Europe, the US and Asia. In addition, the 8,100 km long India-Singapore submarine cable system has recently received the central government approval for coastal regulation zone clearance, the landing point of which will be the Santhome beach in Chennai.
Meanwhile, according to sources, India and Saudi Arabia are pursuing a cross-country initiative carried by the tide of a new era of energy diplomacy and the Gujarat coast might soon be linked to the Middle East with deep-sea cables. The parties are likely to start talks on an undersea cable for an electrical grid involving South Asia and the Gulf nations, while investigating the project’s business potential. Further, the newly inaugurated Shillong Technology Park in Meghalaya is likely to be linked with submarine cable from Chittagong port and the state government is closely working with the centre and Bangladesh government to ensure the same. Nonetheless, the Indian arm of Japanese IT services major NTT Data, Inc. is exploring the idea of setting up a submarine cable landing station in Kolkata. The company is likely to roll out submarine cable landing stations in Mumbai and Chennai by 2023.
Challenges and the way forward
The subsea cable environment is a hostile and hard-to-reach terrain. Installing subsea cables around the globe can be incredibly challenging. For remote areas, it can be difficult to transport subsea cable components to their intended destination. Not only are subsea cable networks hard to build, but they are also difficult to maintain. Fishing trawlers and anchors can sometimes unearth cables and natural causes such as earthquakes can damage fibre optic cable systems. It is also possible for malevolent parties to tamper with or purposely damage cables. Meanwhile, data security continues to be a concern for subsea cable companies, as it is possible for adversaries to tap into cables and data systems to collect or delete sensitive information.
Challenges notwithstanding, subsea cable offers a potential alternative to meet the rising data demand and connectivity needs. Fast and reliable internet is vital for all walks of modern society, from private use to businesses, governments, and research and educational institutions. There is a constant need for more resilient subsea cable infrastructure to support continued digital transformation. Going forward, deep-sea cable connectivity will continue to be the chief driver of internet growth, owing to affordability and bandwidth advantages.
Anand Kumar Sah