Submarine cable systems are crucial assets of a fast-paced digital global economy and the backbone of any country’s communication grid. These international cables carry approximately 99 per cent of the world’s internet traffic. The United Nations General Assembly in 2010 recognised submarine cable systems as “critical communication infrastructure”.
India has 17 submarine cables managed from 14 cable landing stations (CLSs), with the highest concentration in Mumbai and Chennai. However, the exponential growth in demand for internet services has resulted in an unprecedented surge in international traffic transmitted through submarine cables. This traffic is expected to multiply with the widespread adoption of 5G and the proliferation of data centres in the country. To meet this growing demand, submarine cable capacity will need to be proportionately increased.
In this context, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently released its recommendations on the licensing framework and regulatory mechanism for submarine cable landing in India. These recommendations are based on stakeholder discussions on TRAI’s consultation paper that was released in December 2022. The salient features of these recommendations are…
Changes required in licensing/regulatory regime
Submarine cable landings in India generally have a limited number of fibre pairs. The majority of the fibre pairs get terminated at a single CLS owned by an international long distance operator (ILDO)/internet service provider (ISP). These ILDOs/ISPs are either the owners of the submarine cable or members of the consortium that owns it. However, new-generation submarine cables with multiple fibre pairs (up to 24 pairs) can have more than one ILDO as an owner or member.
TRAI recommends that the ILD/ISP Category A authorisation licence should be amended to include two categories of CLS locations – main CLS and CLS points of presence (PoPs). The owner of the main CLS will be required to seek all the necessary clearances related to the submarine cable system landing. Additionally, ILD/ ISP Category A licensees will be permitted to access and extend their owned or leased dark fibre pairs in the submarine cable connecting the main CLS to their respective CLS-PoP locations. Meanwhile, owners of CLSs-PoPs will be required to fulfil additional security and regulatory/licence obligations, which include reporting requirements and the establishment of lawful interception and monitoring facilities.
Ownership of submarine cable laying
TRAI recommends that the ILD/ISP Category A authorisation licensees seeking permission to establish the main CLS should submit an undertaking stating their ownership and control over the asset within the Indian territorial waters as well as on the CLS on land. Such an undertaking should be supported either by proof of ownership of the submarine cable assets and the assets at the CLS or by a signed agreement with the submarine cable owner or consortium.
Indian-flag vessel for submarine cable operation and maintenance
At present, India has two main service providers based out of Singapore and Dubai that support all submarine cable maintenance activities in and around the Indian territorial waters. Currently, there is no Indian marine service provider, leading to high dependency on these entities for cable repair, which further involves a significant amount of time for the repair vessel to be mobilised from Singapore or Dubai. Repair vessels need to travel from their base depots to India, resulting in a transit time of 10-12 days, which consequently raises the cost of operations.
Considering these factors, TRAI recommends that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) should establish a committee comprising government representatives from the DoT, the Ministry of Shipping, Shipyards at Kochi/Visakhapatnam/Mumbai, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, and major ILDOs that have a stake in submarine cables. The committee’s purpose would be to study and recommend various financial viability models for Indian-flag repair vessels, including potential incentives offered by the government. As a stopgap arrangement, submarine cable ship repair operators in India could be approached to consider relocating and reflagging their repair vessels at suitable Indian ports as per requirements.
According to TRAI, cable depots should be identified along both the west and east coastlines for storing submarine cables and the necessary equipment for carrying out cable repairs. The depots should be strategically located near existing or upcoming CLSs to facilitate prompt response times for the completion of cable repairs and serve as a strategic base for Indian-flagged vessels in the future. Further, the proposed committee must suggest ways to facilitate and incentivise the establishment of these cable depots. These include granting a similar status to the depots as enjoyed by special economic zones and exempting repair materials stored in these depots from goods and services tax or customs duties. The possibility of collaboration with coastal states, as well as central and state port authorities, should be explored for the allocation of land and other facilitations for the establishment of these cable depots.
Domestic submarine cables
Submarine cable systems are widely deployed across countries for domestic connectivity purposes. In India, the Chennai-Andaman & Nicobar Island submarine cable was inaugurated in 2020, followed by the Kochi-Lakshadweep Island submarine cable. However, under the existing regulatory framework, there are no specific provisions for connecting multiple cities along the coastal line through domestic submarine cables. Additionally, there are no provisions within the framework for setting up CLSs dedicated to handling domestic traffic.
To this end, TRAI recommends that national long distance (NLD) licensees will be permitted to establish, own, maintain and operate domestic submarine cables connecting multiple cities along the Indian coastline as well as set up CLSs for the landing of such domestic submarine cables as per specific conditions. Furthermore, the regulator suggests that both domestic and international cables can terminate at the same CLS, while ensuring that each cable maintains its own separate network element or equipment. It is recommended that there should be a physical separation of terminating equipment for domestic and international traffic. Such CLS facilities should be owned and operated by integrated players who hold both ILD and NLD licences. Additionally, international submarine cables should be permitted to carry domestic traffic on dedicated fibre pairs provisioned between two Indian cities.
Terrestrial link between CLSs
Submarine cables are crucial for responding to unexpected spikes in demand, such as carrying the rerouted traffic from other submarine cables in the event of a cable fault. To efficiently fulfil the requirements within minimal time, establishing connectivity among CLSs of different submarine cables can prove beneficial. The direct connectivity between the CLS will provide reliability to an international network, improve network latency and provide route diversity.
Thus, TRAI recommends that the ILD and NLD licences should explicitly state that terrestrial connectivity between various CLSs is permitted. The ILD licence should clarify that international traffic, which is not meant to be terminated in India, is permitted to transit to other submarine cables through both terrestrial and submarine cable links.
Submarine stub cables are open-ended dark fibres which are pre-laid from a CLS through a beach manhole into territorial waters, via designated cable corridors. These cables serve as a cost-effective solution by providing spare infrastructure for future submarine projects. Some countries require the installation of these stub cables alongside ongoing projects to ensure infrastructure readiness for future projects and to limit approval requirements.
Considering these factors, TRAI recommends amending the ILD/ISP Category A licence to allow the laying of stubcables, allowing licence holders to either integrate them into their existing CLS or establish a new CLS with the prior permission of the licensor.
TRAI has issued additional recommendations to attract investments and enhance ease of doing business in India’s submarine cable systems. It recommends that, given the importance of submarine cable systems for connectivity and national security, CLS operations and its associated activities such as layout, maintenance and repairs should be accorded “essential services” status. These services should also be notified as “critical information infrastructure” and a corresponding section should be incorporated into the Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022.
The industry has welcomed the TRAI recommendations. According to the Cellular Operators Authority of India, these recommendations are positive and will help enhance the robustness of India’s submarine cable ecosystem. By strengthening the national infrastructure, these measures are expected to contribute to the growth of the digital communications sector.