Unarguably the landscape of transoceanic submarine cables has been very interesting for the last 5-years. It’s transformative impact to create digital, social and economic proximity globally is well understood and accepted unquestionably. While the leaps in photonics, optoelectronic integration and modulation techniques in submarine optical transmission likely to flatten progressively, the next 5-years going forward equally interesting,

in fact more. It will be driven by a two-pronged approach. One is simplified architectures and modular mix-and-match design with open multi-vendor interoperability that will make submarine cables more investor and operator friendly. The other is aggressive play of risks and rewards with conviction and foresight on market trends that combines brute faith with make-it-happen determination. Unmistakably this points to entrepreneurial ingenuity of independent infrastructure providers, their fund-raising capability and magic of deeply networked relationships. The hyperscale OTT heavyweights and their continued global play with money and muscle along with towering arrogance and tactical secrecy will continue to be unavoidable enabler of new submarine cables. 

At the same time, it is going to be increasingly challenging to develop new submarine cables, create relevance for new subsea routes, get funding with lower cost of capital (compared to datacenter build) and signup anchor tenants committed to acquire one or more fiber pair. With these dynamics playing in the market, what can bring further momentum to develop new submarine cables and make more of them see light of the day. It must be the confidence that new submarine cables are worthy investment to fulfill a genuine need and if any part of it does not keep pace with technology progression or economic vendor alternatives, it should be possible to integrate new developments and new vendors. That is precisely the promise of standardization of open cable systems.

While it’s being talked about widely across the submarine cables ecosystem, the synergy between standardization and openness remains subjective as standardization is yet to be structurally defined and extent of openness is largely vendor specific. Put together there isn’t a shared understanding on standardization of open cable system. The confidence in standardization of open cable systems to bring about a change in the way cable systems are designed, procured, deployed, operated and upgraded, is yet to ring loud enough for actionable progress, collectively and unavoidably. In this backdrop I had the opportunity to present a perspective on standardization of open cable systems in Submarine Cable World 2019 in Singapore last month. This article presents the though process shared with the audience.

Standardization in Open Cable System

Clearly standardization has to drive development of more submarine cables on existing and new subsea routes, optimize Wet Plant commercials, phase out Dry Plant procurements to choose best of breed equipment at the right time, develop open API for single pane of control and supervision and that put together will speed up development of high fiber count submarine cables and accelerate transition from Wavelength to Fiber Pair as the denomination of submarine connectivity with unprecedented economics.

Standardization in Open Cable System

The above requirements correlate quite well with the Indian landscape that has a pent-up demand for new submarine cables without telco monopoly (recently heard someone term it - telco terrorism). Further in 2020 the market is set to witness a new uprising of carrier neutral fiber infrastructure play. Disaggregation of submarine cable developer from submarine cable landing party, that was not possible with consortium cables, enables carrier neutral cable landing infrastructure to be offered as a managed service and marks a significant step towards standardization. This trend set to gain serious traction in 2020. Along with it the per-fiber-pair ownership model put forth by the 12FP and 16FP cable systems where fiber pair owners exercise freedom to select the SLTE vendor with SLTE hosted in its captive or leased datacenter facility, irrespective of the wet plant vendor, will speed up standardization. A new trend observed in 2019 is the demand from potential fiber pair owners for rights to control and supervise amplifiers in the submarine repeaters that are attached to fiber pair(s) they have acquired for end to end optical performance visibility and control. This creates new relevance for deeper software defined control of submarine optical layer and open API integration with vendor agnostic NMS platforms. Clearly these architectural advancements across submarine cable system vendors and fiber pair ownerships across multiple submarine cables highlights the need for standardization.

Standardization in Open Cable System

Who is accountable for the standardization of open cable systems, who will orchestrate the needful to make it happen, counter resistive postures, push aside argumentative sceptics and develop multi-vendor consensus! Clearly all those that have something to benefit from it will come forward to participate in standardization. As illustrated above, this includes some clear submarine cable industry verticals. The turnkey system vendors that have to loosen their stronghold, the submarine cable vendors that have to demonstrate mix and match with multi-vendor repeaters, the independent infrastructure developers developing new cable systems as they primarily develop the wet plant and leave it to the fiber pair owners to select the SLTE, the industry veteran consultants that are involved for advice and guidance in developing new cable systems, the famed submarine systems vendors like Ciena, Infinera, Nokia and Huawei that have to demonstrate SLTE interoperability with wet plant vendors and the OSS vendors that have to develop open API integration with Wet Plant and Dry Plant systems.

Standardization in Open Cable System

Business perspective of standardization as illustrated above ties down technical and commercial attributes and creates an ecosystem where congenial collaboration can coexist with cutthroat competition and that does not stifle submarine systems innovation. The entrepreneurs, business leaders and technology proponents of submarine cable industry must be active campaigners of value proposition that standardization will bring and accelerate submarine cable business development. Commercial aspect of standardization quite straight forward. If standardization of open cable system assures investors and independent infrastructure providers that put their neck on the block to develop new cable systems that submarine cable system design with standardization will bring flexibility to integrate muti-vendor systems and allow modular upgrades over the lifecycle of the cable system, they would consider it as risk mitigation and be more willing to fund and develop it.

Standardization in Open Cable System

Technically standardization started with disaggregation of Wet Plant and Dry Plant. That however is old story and standardization ought to create deeper relevance. In Wet Plant, it is being proposed, primarily by submarine cable manufacturers, to combine submarine cable and the repeaters from different vendors. They offer system integration, lab testing and performance guarantees, albeit with some fine print caveats. In Singapore I learnt that the HAWK cable owned by GCX and RFS in 2012 has repeaters from Fujitsu and submarine cable from Prysmian. However, there isn’t any instance of such mix and match for any transatlantic or transpacific cable system. That shows stronghold of turnkey system vendors. Engineering a compatible system design that is compelling enough to deliver guaranteed performance with different vendors for wet plat and dry plant, has progressed considerably, but some challenges remain. Standardizing test and acceptance criteria for first time operational readiness, ongoing lifecycle performance parameters, correlating faults and alarms continues to progress, albeit slowly. These can speed up with tools for diagnosing parameter incompatibility for remediation with vendors also remains a major ask.  A perceived drawback of standardization is trade-off with vendor specific innovations that will lead to incompatibility. The standardization process must take cognizance of these apprehensions in developing set of parameters for acceptance testing, control, supervision and performance testing. 

Standardization in Open Cable System

Standardization as illustrated above is all about harmonious collaboration for larger good of the submarine cable industry while progressing individual business objectives. It certainly is not easy and requires close check on myopic play of narrow mindset, that could creep in inadvertently. It requires soul search to think what will happen in next 20 years if standardization is not done, will it not shrink the economic lifespan of submarine cables. Every organization that is a player in the submarine cable ecosystem needs to be convinced in the merits of standardization and convince others in the playground about it.

Standardization in Open Cable System

The conclusive take on standardization of open cable systems is to ensure every submarine cable design is a good design, reliable design, interoperable design, scalable design and commercially optimized design, that will last long enough to deliver rewarding return on investment, be a success story to take pride and motivate development of new submarine cables. Standardization is a common goal, to be pursued through collaborative journey. Its work in progress with ITU-T G.971 being the first attempt to create a generic reference model. It will foster participation, collaboration, contribution, adoption of a common framework that benefits everyone in the submarine cable ecosystem.

The presentation ended with a brief on credentials of Sify Technologies Ltd. or Sify, the pan India enterprise focused network Infrastructure and ICT solution provider. That’s the organization I represented and that is poised to reinvent itself with foray into new infrastructure initiatives spanning carrier neutral cable landing, dense metro fiber networks, long haul aspirations and portfolio of datacenters offered as uniquely integrated solution under one roof. I’m happy to share the ppt of the slides included here to anyone interested to develop their own narrative on standardization of open cable systems. Just place a comment and ask for it.