There is no question that the submarine fiber optics industry is enjoying an unprecedented period of strong demand for new cable systems. The end of 2021 marked an extraordinary eight years of solid and sometimes spectacular growth for the market. For an industry that traditionally saw a boom and bust cycle ever three-to-four years, the strength of the market during this period is something that has never been seen before.
In fact, the global submarine cable network is literally being rebuilt by new players using new methods and technologies. The “Over-the-Top” content providers are essentially overlaying a new transoceanic network on top of the existing global network. This new network has capacities never before dreamed of thanks to Spatial Division Multiplexing (SDM). With SDM, fiber counts are increasing, first from 12 pairs to 24 pairs, with even more pairs are envisioned in the near future. Total capacity on these cables has jumped from a few dozen Terabits per second (Tbps) to over 100 Tbps and soon to over 200 Tbps, all within just a handful of years.
And while in the past the term “global network” actually referred more to connections between large cities throughout the world than a network that truly served the global community, today’s global network literally is being taken to the ends of the earth.
Recently, we have seen submarine cables being deployed in the Amazon River Basin, to the island of St. Helena (considered one of the most remote inhabited islands on the planet), to the tip of South America and to numerous small islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. And then there are the Polar Regions. Multiple projects for the Arctic and even the Antarctic are now being proposed and taken seriously.
But the explosion in submarine cable demand is not confined to the number of cables, their capacities and their locations. Other applications are being found for cables, most notably the use of commercial submarine cables for scientific data collection in addition to carrying the usual Internet traffic. This application takes several forms, including SMART (Scientific Monitoring and Reliable Telecommunications) Cables, Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) and State of Polarization (SOP) and could lead to improved tsunami warning capabilities, improved understanding of subsea geological activities such as earthquakes and volcanoes and many other possibilities.
DAS and SOP are being studied and tested on multiple cables around the world, but let’s focus on SMART for a moment. 2021 saw several major developments, beginning with an endorsement of the technology by the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. This was followed by a more than $7 million award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to set the groundwork for the use of SMART technology on a planned cable connecting New Caledonia and Vanuuta. In the Atlantic, the Portuguese government has become a leading proponent of the technology and plans to use SMART on an upcoming domestic cable system connecting the mainland with the Azores and Madeira Islands. We are about to see the dawning of a new era of ocean exploration based on submarine cables.
The current boom in submarine cable demand already has lasted far longer than most expected. While there are no objective data to indicate that this will end soon, the reality is that it will end at some point. But when it does, it will be a in a world consisting of a network of massive subsea data pipes carrying Internet traffic to every corner of the globe, while at the same time providing us with undreamt amounts of scientific data that will enable us to understand our oceans like never before.
This is the real future of the submarine cable market.