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13 September 2022

Google and Meta lead the global explosion in submarine cable build-out

By Luc Braun

Google and Meta, starved of high-capacity connectivity in some areas, are driving  explosive growth in submarine fiber optic cable capacity the world over, seeing involvement in more than half of all new projects.

With mobile network operators the world over raising cash for 5G spectrum or network deployments, this past year has also seen significant investments in underlying telecoms infrastructure. Undersea fiber optic cable (FOC) networks represent a critical telco infrastructure piece which have seen rising deployments in recent years, with many more outstanding.

From the first commercial availability of a submarine  FOC in 1989, the global market has expanded rapidly, connecting data centers all over the world. As the backbone of the Internet and of cellular communications services, submarine FOCs are a vital piece in the global communications puzzle.

The advent of LTE and 5G has seen demand for data and bandwidth explode. In tandem, more and more previously neglected communities are accessing the Internet. 5G deployments, improved video quality and a wide range of IoT use cases will add enormous additional bandwidth usage on top of this growing user base. All these factors drive up the demand for new submarine cable deployments.

Another important development is the rise of the hyperscalers. Google and Meta, but also Microsoft and Amazon Web Services (AWS), are involved in a significant number of recent and future deployments. This started in 2010 with Google’s participation in consortium to build a trans-Pacific connection to Japan, the Unity/EAC – Pacific cable, Google leads in terms of numbers of projects, ahead of Meta, with Microsoft and AWS occupying more modest positions.

Beginning their involvement in submarine cables as members of consortia, Google and Meta have grown more confident, sometimes handling entire projects themselves. In addition, their geographic reach has also expanded significantly. At first, they focused almost exclusively on USA-Asia-Pacific routes, but from 2017 onwards, two hyperscaler projects landed in Chile and Brazil and two more in Western Europe, with projects in Africa and the Middle East in the works for the early 2020s.

Due to a rapid rise in FOC capacity over the past decade, a rundown of projects from 2020 to 2025 will be sufficient to understand global trends in the submarine cable industry. To illustrate the scales involved, the average capacity of international cable deployments in 2010, Google’s first year in the cable market, was 4Tbps, with the maximum for that year being 7.68Tbps. In 2022, the average design capacity is at around 162Tbps, with a maximum of 352Tbps for Google’s Grace Hopper. Cables built in the latter stages of the 2010s, while approaching respectable capacities, are rapidly looking outdated amid the explosive growth in demand for new capacity.

2020 was a year of mixed projects all around the world. For trans-Oceanic connections, one should start with the Pacific. Here, the 60Tbps Jupiter cable from the USA to Japan and The Philippines set a theme for the coming years, as many trans-Pacific cables will follow this route, and many of them will have one of the hyperscalers involved. Jupiter is co-owned by AWS and Meta. Another cable system, the Japan-Guam-Australia system, will provide 24Tbps of capacity linking close US allies Japan and Australia to an up-and-coming submarine cable hub in the Pacific, Guam.

Another cable linking California to the rest of the world was the 72Tbps Curie cable, which made landings in Chile and Panama. Curie was one of Google’s earliest solo projects, and connects the USA to another up-and-coming digital hub, Chile.

Also in 2020, Chile completed work on its domestic submarine cable system, Prat, linking the entire country, north to south, in a dense system of landing stations. This Prat cable network is part of Chile’s vision to transform the country into a digital powerhouse and provide a counterbalance to Brazil’s role as the dominant submarine cable player in South America.

Traditionally, intercontinental cables from the USA would either run along the east or west coast of South America, with Brazil and Chile usually the end points of these networks. Another element in the plan to transform Chile into a digital economy is the Humboldt cable, currently in planning as the world’s first trans-Pacific submarine cable from South America and expected to be ready for service by 2025.

There were two trans-Atlantic connections that were deployed in 2020 , the 100Tbps AEC-2 (Google and Meta) connection from the eastern USA to northern Europe, and 32Tbps Sail from Fortaleza, a prime cable hub in northern Brazil, to Cameroon.

There were some shorter connections being deployed between northern Africa and Spain, via the Oran-to-Valencia cable, as well as some almost entirely domestic routes in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, plus connections from the Indian mainland to the Andaman Island group.

The total for long-distance or international capacity additions was around 300Tbps.

2021 was a rather quiet year for the APAC region, but balanced by two trans-Atlantic projects in South America and Africa.

There was a growing number of inter-regional connections in Africa, with the Maroc Telecom West Africa, from the Gulf of Guinea to Casablanca; and Metiss from South Africa to Madagascar, Mauritius and La Reunion. More consequential perhaps was the 36Tbps Dare-1 cable, linking Mombasa, the largest seaport on the East Coast, to Djibouti, the joint most important cable hub in Africa, rivalling only Lagos. These connections will seek to take advantage of, and supplement, larger networks that are in planning for the near future.

Another highly important cable deployment in 2021 was EllaLink, with a capacity of up to 100Tbps for the first and fastest direct connection from South America to Europe. These numbers are dwarfed however by Dunant, yet another USA-European hyperscaler (Google) cable, with a capacity of up to 300Tbps. Just a year earlier, AEC-2 had come online with a capacity of around 100Tbps, while 2018 had seen the commissioning of – at the time – the highest-capacity cable in the world, 200Tbps Marea cable (Meta and Microsoft), all between the USA and Europe. While international links are being forged between previously underserved or growing regions, traditional routes such as USA-Europe or USA-APAC still typically see the largest projects in investment terms.

Another long-distance cable is the 132Tbps Mistral cable connecting Chile to all the other Andean nations bar Colombia. This is highly relevant, especially with regards to recent domestic developments in Chile. Chile is a standout candidate for capacity and interconnectivity, its long coastal geography being uniquely suited to providing submarine cable connectivity to large portions of the region’s population. Mistral was also one of the first major projects in the region since the PCCS cable in 2015, or as far back as 2001 for Peru. The Curie cable largely bypassed the other Andean nations.

For the year, the total in new major connection rounded up to 600Tbps.

2022 has been a year of extremely interesting long-distance intercontinental cables. Africa saw, or will see, major new connections, with the 192Tbps Chinese-owned Peace cable connecting Mombasa in the south via Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Marseille and, via a separate branch, to India and Pakistan. Further Peace branches will also see Somalia and Djibouti connected, with a longer branch reaching all the way to Singapore.

On the west coast, Google’s 144Tbps Equiano cable connects South Africa to Portugal via Namibia, Nigeria and Togo in a project of similar importance. It should be noted however, that both of these connections bypass the majority of countries on their routes. West Africa sees a lot of countries neglected leaving only overland routes to plug the gap.

A relative oddity is the Oman-Australia Cable (OAC), one of the few that provides direct connections across the Indian Ocean without passing through Singapore or India. This 39Tbps cable has the potential to provide Oman with a semi-direct route to American networks, thanks to connections of similar capacity in the form of Indigo-Central, linking the Australian west with trans-Pacific hubs in Sydney in the east.

Of the two trans-Pacific connections coming into service this year, one, Southern Cross Next, will see the US-Australian pipeline fatten by an additional 100Tbps, an increase of almost 200% compared to the last direct US-Australian cable, the 36Tbps Hawaiki cable, deployed in 2018. Australia is well connected to America via Guam (the 36Tbps JGA-S) and to other APAC region cable networks, but nonetheless, Southern Cross NEXT represents a massive increase in capacity.

The other trans-Pacific connection being opened up this year is PLCN, another hyperscaler project shared between Meta and Google, providing 120Tbps of capacity to Taiwan and The Philippines, in support of important geopolitical US allies in the APAC region.

Google’s Grace Hopper cable between the USA and western Europe will take the prize for the highest capacity cable deployed this year, at 352Tbps, dwarfing even last year’s Dunant on largely the same route.

Further developments around the world include dense domestic connections in northern Europe, northern Canada and Alaska, focused on connecting remote regions in north America, and to help distribute the new capacities from the USA for the Europeans.

The total for this year comes out to around 950Tbps of design capacity added into the global network.

2023 is shaping up to be another important year for inter-regional connections. There is again a heavy focus on Africa. The massive, Meta-supported 180Tbps 2Africa cable system will link the entirety of the Persian Gulf and Middle East, India and Pakistan, and both the east and west coasts of Africa to western and southern Europe. This is a hugely important line which will see most coastal African countries connected, including many that were left out of the Equiano and Peace cables. The east coast will see all countries except for Eritrea served. Regions in west Africa remain critically underserved, however. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau have seen not a single new submarine cable since the 20Tbps Ace cable in 2012, which they share with most other nations in west Africa.

Besides 2Africa, another inter-regional connection will be Africa-1, connecting Mombasa to Pakistan and the UAE on one branch, and to Marseille via Somalia, Yemen, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on another. The Saudi Arabian connection will be particularly interesting, as the Saudi Vision cable in the Red Sea, part of de-facto ruler Mohamed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic and social reform plan, will be ready for service in early 2023 as well, having made landfall in late August 2022. This will allow the Saudi Arabian west coast to be linked into this high-speed system and aims to drive the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a prime location for investment, in line with its Vision 2030.

Yet another trans-Atlantic connection will come online, with a Microsoft/Meta-supported project, the 320Tbps Amitie cable from the USA to western Europe once again. Another long-range cable will see the USA’s eastern seaboard connect to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay; the latter a country usually left out of such developments. This cable, Firmina, is yet another one of the hyperscaler cables, being a solo project by Google, and providing a revolutionary 240Tbps of connection to the economic heart of South America.

The APAC region will be, next to Africa, the busiest region for cable developments in 2023. The Echo, Topaz and Cap-1 cables, coming with 144Tbps, 240Tbps and 108Tbps of capacity respectively. Topaz will provide a direct link between Japan and the USA for its owners, Google. Google is also involved, alongside Meta, in the Echo cable, running from the USA via Guam to Singapore and Jakarta. Meta, this time with Amazon, will also be in charge of the Cap-1 project, providing a direct link to The Philippines.

Perhaps as a counterbalance to American efforts to link directly to key allies in the region, there will also be the roll-out of the 140Tbps Asia Direct Cable, which will provide a connection through the South China Sea, linking Japan to mainland China, The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, with a link into the global cable network in in Singapore. Vietnam and Thailand are often neglected in APAC projects, in favour of The Philippines and Indonesia, but  another project, the SJC2 cable, will include Thailand and Vietnam for the second time in a year, linking them to Singapore on one side, and mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan on the other. This network will come with a capacity of 144Tbps and is backed by an international consortium of local telecom companies plus Meta.

The 216Tbps Mist, and Reliance Jio’s 200Tbps India Asia Xpress cables will provide the missing link between India’s main cable hub, Mumbai, to APAC’s main hub, Singapore. Thailand will also be linked into this system, for a record third time in one year. Myanmar will also see a rare connection thanks to the Mist cable.

The total for this year will be 2032Tbps of added capacity.

2024 will see the APAC-centric growth patterns continue. There will be important cables in the Mediterranean and Middle East as well, however.

To start in the Atlantic, the Leif Erikson cable from Newfoundland to Norway will be the world’s first cable powered by only renewable energy from both sides.

In the Mediterranean, Google’s Blue-Raman cable system will connect from Marseille and Italy via Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Oman to Mumbai. The roughly 400Tbps of capacity will link seamlessly into the previous year’s Mist and IAX cables, forming a continuous link into Singapore. The Medusa Submarine Cable System, with a planned capacity of 480Tbps, will connect the Maghreb and Egypt to Portugal and Marseille. Connections between north Africa and Europe are surprisingly rare given the relatively modest distances, but Medusa, with its enormous capacity, will provide more than enough for future demand.

The three new trans-Pacific routes will be the 350Tbps Juno, 128Tbps ACC1 and Meta-supported Bifrost, with an unknown design capacity as of yet, with an expected minimum on the same scale with at least 100Tbps. Juno, the largest of the three, will link only into Japan. ACC1 will provide a direct link from the US mainland to Singapore, via Guam and Darwin through the Java Sea. Bifrost will take a similar route via Guam and the Java Sea into Singapore. Finally, while not trans-Pacific, Google and Meta will be involved in the 190Tbps Apricot cable system. Connecting to the wider USA via a link to Guam, Apricot will serve key US allies in the region such as The Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia. Of course, this cable also terminates in Singapore. Notably China will be left out of this system.

What could be seen as a rival cable, SEA-H2X, will see an additional 160Tbps of capacity added to the South China Sea region, making landings in mainland China, The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia on the way to Singapore.

Shorter routes include some connections between Trinidad and Tobago to Suriname, Guyana and the French overseas territory of French Guiana, for a peak capacity of 96Tbps with the Deep Blue One cable. Also in the Caribbean, the Boriken cable will connect the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have some connections to the US mainland which this system will be able to link into.

The total for this year, will come to approximately 1,800Tbps, a slight decrease on the previous year, though given the two-year development cycle for the fastest submarine projects, this number is expected to increase slightly.

Finally, 2025 will see the return of the world’s longest cable system, the SeaMeWe cable. In its sixth iteration, it will boast a capacity of 120Tbps, compared to its predecessor’s design capacity of 38Tbps. SeaMeWe-6 will provide a direct connection from Singapore all the way to Marseille. Key stops along the way will be Mumbai and Karachi, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A connection to Bangladesh will only be the third in the country’s history, and the first since SeaMeWe-5 and 4, in 2016 and 2005. This will provide much needed connectivity in the country which will have only been able to source fast connectivity from India up until then.

Another reincarnation of sorts will take place in the Pacific with Hawaiki Nui. In 2018, the 36Tbps Hawaiki cable provided the fastest direct link between the USA and Australia and New Zealand. Now, Hawaiki Nui will deliver an additional 240Tbps of capacity between Sydney, Los Angeles and Singapore, more than double the previous highest-capacity, direct link cable, Southern Cross Next.

In the Americas, the entertaining-sounding Carnival Submarine Network-1 might turn out a rather dull affair after all, with landings in only Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Florida. While the capacity has not yet been announced, in light of the last major round of cable projects to America, one might expect a capacity around 100Tbps on this trip.

On a similar route and capacity, the Caribbean Xpress cable will connect Florida, Mexico and Colombia to Panama.

The Caribbean, in 2025, will be in need of new connections to the USA and the wider global network. With the last major developments in this region between 2014 and 2016, there will have been 10 years of growth in population and per-capita data consumption since the last round of deployments or upgrades. Almost 10 years in the desert may have hampered growth in the region, though the relatively low population numbers involved should not be forgotten.

The predicted total capacity for 2025 is around 500Tbps, though this number is certain to increase as well.

The coming years will see the capacity of cable projects in which hyperscalers are involved rise from around 540Tbps at the beginning of 2020, to around 4020Tbps by 2025, an addition of 3,480Tbps. Google will have the lion’s share of this, taking part in projects totalling 2,200Tbps, up from 200Tbps. Meta will add 1,000Tbps to its network to total 1,200Tbps, also up from around 200Tbps. Microsoft and AWS will have stakes in around 400Tbps and 100Tbps respectively.

To put this into context, adding up all the most important international new cable projects in the period 2020-2025, gives an additional capacity of 6,200Tbps. This means that more than half of the growth in the international submarine cable system network is being at least partially funded by the hyperscalers, though of course, many of their projects are co-investments with h a wide range of partners. However, their involvement in roughly 56% of added capacity in this five-year period stands in contrast to previous years and represents a marked shift from traditional cable ownership structures.

The hyperscalers are here for good, and it remains to be seen how their ownership of high-capacity cables the world over will change the mobile markets. Google and Meta have the infrastructure in place to be able to challenge traditional network operators in the submarine market, particularly in previously underserved regions, where the majority of new capacity involves at least one of the hyperscalers. South America and Africa are obvious candidates here, though the capacities involved are dwarfed by US-European and US-APAC connections.

In these five years, a key trend is the emergence of digital hubs around the world.

The South American centers are in Chile for the west coast, and Brazil on the east coast, in particular Fortaleza in the north of the country, which serves as Brazil’s primary gate to the world. Brazil, while not as popular a destination as other regions, has received its fair share of international projects, which should allow its digital build-up to continue. In Africa, Djibouti, Mombasa, Lagos and South Africa will see almost all the large cable developments land on their shores. Djibouti will conceivably serve as a conduit to connect Ethiopia to the global network via terrestrial cable.

The Gulf of Guinea, in decreasing distance from Lagos, is the one of the most well-connected regions on the continent. Lagos is likely to become the dominant economic center in the wider region, tapping into the global economy thanks to its connectivity. The Gulf is one of the regions with the highest potential for lucrative 5G deployments, as indicated by recent trials in Ghana and Nigeria .

Mombasa, once full digital infrastructure is in place, may be set to grow in international importance, especially with the need for more secure Chinese shipping routes in the future. This could serve as a counterbalance to the west African economic center, as it sits sandwiched between Ethiopia to the north and Tanzania and South Africa to the south. Djibouti also features quite prominently in Chinese foreign policy, with, so far, the only official overseas military base operated by the People’s Liberation Army.

This five-year period has seen a progressively smaller number of projects involving the USA and China. In addition, submarine cable deployments from the American mainland increasingly avoid potential conflict zones in the APAC region. There is a marked shift to stay behind the first island chain surrounding China. The growing popularity of the Java Straits route for US-APAC connections is another indication of the players’ awareness of the potential for geopolitical conflict in the region.

While connections between the USA and China still exist, they usually involve separate networks, often built in the same year, using Japan and Singapore, but also The Philippines with its well-developed domestic network as transition points. Singapore, for this and other reasons, remains the world’s most important location for cables in the world. Every single APAC-region cable project lands in Singapore. Similarly, any connection between Africa, Europe or India to the APAC region also terminates in Singapore. Mumbai serves as the gatekeeper between Asia and Africa/Europe on the non-US route.

Two markets ripe for enhanced 5G deployments are the Indonesian archipelago and Thailand, once the latter’s three planned projects have been completed. In Indonesia, Java, Sumatra and the Moluccas are all very well connected to each other, as well as to capital Jakarta, and to Singapore, though Indonesia does have landing points for most of the major international cables in the region, reducing its reliance on Singapore.

Similar reasoning applies to Malaysia, though to a far lesser extent, as it benefits from its proximity to Singapore. The recent flurry of activity in the region, with deals involving Indonesia and Singapore, but also Malaysian telcos, confirms this.

The Philippines is in a similarly powerful position, serving as a landing station for many trans-Pacific cables, and a dense domestic network covering the main population centers and even remote islands. In the future, the trend of US companies avoiding the South China Sea with critical digital infrastructure projects might continue, making The Philippines draw more and more projects from both sides.

Though they have not been given much attention here, it should be noted that over the past years, a large share of the world’s most remote territories has been integrated into the global fiber network. A particular highlight here are the Pacific Island communities which have benefited from their proximity to the large US-APAC projects. Island communities the world over, such as the Galapagos islands, Cape Verde, Mauritius and the Andamans,have all seen domestic and international projects to link their inhabitants to the world.