At the Submarine Networks EMEA 2019 conference in London in February I hosted a roundtable discussion on ‘Addressing the challenges of building cables in developing markets’. Perhaps it should have been subtitled “money isn’t the only problem”, as the discussion highlighted all the practical difficulties that can be faced in locations where lack of resources has often meant that numerous practical issues have never been researched or recorded in a manner that is required by anyone considering cable developments.

We had representatives from parties who have had these experiences and who understood the time and effort it took to work through these challenges, to a degree where appropriate legal and ecological data and safeguards were put in place to create an environment that is open and accommodating to cable developers.

Money still matters of course

As well as conventional cable financing and external debt financing, developing countries should seek support from aid agencies and developing banks to support cable connectivity. One cable cannot provide assured availability and most developers are reluctant to provide dual landings in such locations because of overall security and dependence issues. More should be done to make foreign development aid that supports cables into a critically important catalyst and accelerator for economic growth in the digital world, thus enhancing job opportunities and modern infrastructure. Much of the subsea cable development at present is driven by Big Data/OTT interests which necessarily focus on large population centres or locations specifically suitable for data centre operations. This top down approach means that such developments are unlikely to serve more than a very few developing or remote countries. 

Laws and practicalities

Some of the practical problems that arose remote from the developed world, (and that’s remote in terms of governmental environmental issues as well as sheer distance), is that for countries in these categories it is not just an issue of laying a cable but many other factors which come into play.

  • Is the local telecoms regulatory environment adequate for high capacity new technology systems?
  • Is there any form of environmental policy relevant to use of the seabed, foreshore and inshore waters that protect cables whilst also balancing the interests of local environmental issues in such countries (e.g. unique or rare habitats, fishing customs and practices and how are these reflected in local law)?
  • Do territorial waters or economic zones exist and to what extent? Is the country a member of UNCLOS?
  • Have detailed marine surveys ever been done for the location to ensure that the approaches and inshore waters and seabed geology are properly mapped? By their nature it seems unlikely and given the location of many places in this category, unknown or unexpected hazards like subsea mud slides, dangerous rock formations or super cooled water currents can all causes nasty surprises and therefore cost escalations .

To conclude 

As moderator I would like to thank everyone who attended and indeed every one who did attend took part in the discussion.

This aspect of the global fibre network remains a challenge.  Without addressing the problems and issues it seems some countries risk being kept adrift from the changes digital technology and the internet is bringing to the world. Something that risks confining such locations to the slow lane of economic growth for decades to come, when relatively small investments can bring the benefits of digital economies and services to all parts of the world with the potential to reduce foreign aid over time, assist with deployment of digital medical technology, give a country the opportunity for above poverty-level employment and ensure transparency and awareness about global issues that affect their citizens.


John Tibbles was a speaker at Submarine Networks EMEA 2019 in February. The event, organised by Total Telecom, will return to the Business Design Centre in London on 18th and 19th February. Find out more on the event website.