Following the launch of EllaLink’s "GeoLab" SMART submarine cable initiative on 29th June, we spoke to Philippe Dumont, CEO of EllaLink to find out more about this exciting project. The full interview is available below.

Please could you tell us more about what EllaLink GeoLab is?

EllaLink’s primary driver is to support not only the telecoms market but also the scientific and education communities in Europe and Latin America. For several years now ANACOM, the national regulatory authority for communications in Portugal, has been promoting the concept of adding seismic and environmental detection features into future submarine cables landing on its shores. The concept of the EllaLink GeoLab stemmed from discussions with our partners EMACOM, GÉANT and FCT about how we could utilise our subsea cable to learn about the waters that surround the archipelago of Madeira by applying SMART (Science Monitoring and Reliable Telecommunications) cable concepts, and how we could enable the scientific community to easily access the data collected for research purposes. 

Seismology, volcanology, marine ecology, and oceanic conditions are key to understanding the future of our planet. Recognising the importance of environmental monitoring and providing real-time, accurate and relevant data on seabed conditions to the scientific community, we worked with a number of our partners to develop a plan to deploy Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) Technology on the EllaLink cable system. 


DAS technology will be applied to a dedicated fibre in the Madeira Branch of the EllaLink system. It will collect data along the route which will be optically transmitted back to the shore, independently and without impacting either telecoms traffic or the design life of the cable, making EllaLink the first system integrating SMART cable concepts.  We decided to take an approach based entirely on passive and non-intrusive technology. DAS works by utilising coherent OTDR (optical time domain reflectometer) techniques, where phase modulations of the reflected signal are measured.  Any change in fiber strain results in an optical phase delay of light propagating in the strained section of the fiber. Therefore, DAS represents a technique for dynamic monitoring of strain distribution along an optical fiber, with strain levels down to pico-strain being monitored.  The result is that the DAS technology applied to telecommunications cables can be used to detect earthquakes, measure oceanographic conditions such as currents and seabed rockslides and detect mammal activities. 


The EllaLink GeoLab will be hosted by EMACOM in Funchal and EllaLink intends to extend the data set by implementing DAS technology on additional branches on to the cable system. It is also our intention to ensure that the SMART cable solution poses no economic barriers and leads the way to ensuring that the countries at most risk from the environment can afford to equip themselves with scientific data which one day may help to prevent their communities. GÉANT and FCT are fully engaged and ready to facilitate the data sharing infrastructure required to ensure the R&E community has access to all the results.  


What are the advantages of the Dedicated DAS fiber in commercial subsea systems?


By adding a dedicated fiber for DAS communication EllaLink has ensured that signals and measurements are entirely independent of telecoms traffic on the system and there is no threat to reliability of the cable system.  By using DAS technology, we have enhanced the functionality of the subsea system without compromising the integrity or commercial value of the system, for minimal cost.


Also of interest to cable owners and operators is DAS’s ability to monitor activities which threaten the integrity of the cable system, such as trawling, anchor drops, dredging activities, etc. If patterns of activity can be identified -in complement to AIS-, then preventative steps can potentially be taken to avoid hits to the cable system.


More generally speaking it is in everyone’s interests to further understand the evolution of the planet and the more data that can be collected from the seabed the better. Science has proved time and again its fundamental role in paving the way for sound and sustained human and technological development. EllaLink’s entire ethos is based around openness and partnerships, and we see how commercial enterprises working together with the scientific community can be of benefit to all. 


How has EllaLink worked with Research & Education Networks in the development of your own network?


We are working with partners to make sure that the information gathered can be shared widely, and as such the Research and Education (R&E) community in Europe will enjoy access to the data generated by the EllaLink GeoLab initiative.  To ensure this, we are collaborating with GÉANT and the Portuguese NREN, FCT, both members of the BELLA Consortium, who will use the EllaLink cable to support R&E collaborations between Europe and Latin America.  


To provide secure access to the data, GÉANT and FCN will utilise their years of experience in the field of trust and identity services.  GÉANT and the European research and education networks (NRENs) run a service which allows researchers to use their academic username and password to access data portals.  This means we can securely provide access to the data while being confident in the identity of the users who access it.


As a cable owner, what are your main concerns relating to SMART cables?


SMART cables have been discussed for many years now, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO/IOC), and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) established Joint Task Force (JTF) on SMART cable systems for climate monitoring and disaster mitigation in late 2012. Much of the JTF’s work has been around the addition of sensors, accelerometers, clinometers, and seismometers to repeater technology, with data being carried alongside traffic back to the shore


Some cable owners have concerns about adding additional components within the repeaters from a reliability standpoint. Other parties have expressed concern about additional parties (non-cable owners) having access to the repeater itself, and of course the application of sensors to sensitive infrastructure connecting continents means security must be an utmost priority. There also remains the main question – who will pay for the technology?  Capacity or dedicated fibre pairs are required to transmit the data back to the shore and obviously this has a commercial cost.  


For these reasons EllaLink adopted the passive and non-intrusive DAS technology which also represents a more efficient investment.  It is also important to note that DAS is dedicated to the most interesting part of the continental shelf -the first 50km or so- and the data generated is owned by a public entity in compliance with the local authority security governance..

On top of this, Data protection should of course be of concern to all parties but GÉANT and the European NRENs have created a service called eduTEAMS which allows for group and role based secure access to data portals and physical infrastructure and will be utilised for the EllaLink GeoLab. So, whilst there are reasons for system owners and operators to express caution about the creation of SMART cables, by selecting the correct technology and working with the best partners these concerns can be alleviated. In a time of continued environmental change, we are proud to lead the way into a new era of submarine cable systems supporting such scientific progress.

More information

Philippe joined a webinar on 30th June on "Building the submarine networks of the future with SMART cables". You can watch the recording of Philippe discussing the opportunity of SMART cables for cable owners via this link. EllaLink will also be sponsoring Submarine Networks EMEA 2021 for the 4th year running, head to the event website to keep up to date with event news.