PTC20’s Annual Submarine Cable Workshop, sponsored again this year by the SubOptic Association, was bigger, better and more informative than ever. With over 250 attendees – the value and popularity of this Workshop continues to grow!

For the first time ever, the Workshop included a poster session which was very well received. Several of the posters were prepared by SubOptic Working Groups, each of whom is driving a new industry initiative targeted at helping our industry move forward. If you were unable to attend PTC, you can review each of those posters here (SubOptic Posters), along with a list of the Working Group members. On behalf of our industry as a whole, SubOptic would like to thank all of the working group members for their effort and contributions. Additional posters presented by the Bermuda Development Agency, Ciena, Corning, OSI & the Pacific Island Community were a great preview of presentations shared at PTC’s Monday Submarine Cable Topical Session.

The main event, whose theme for 2020 focused on “Serving Both Large and Small Markets” followed a similar program to past years. There were many other valuable take-aways from panel discussions on data center activity and global subcable development activity with a particular focus on opportunities between large projects providing solutions for the many remotely located smaller communities.  However, one new feature was a very well-received guest speaker from a related industry providing a different form of international telecommunications:

Undersea cables, together with data centers, are unequivocally now seen as inter-connected and inter-dependent critical infrastructure for today’s information-driven world. Their futures are not only intertwined, but they also face many of the same industry challenges, whether it be recruiting young talent, influencing regulations, attracting long-term infrastructure capital or simply providing access to the global communications fabric. Collaboration between the two industries and between large and small markets has clearly started and is likely to increase over time.  Erick Contag, president of SubOptic, led a discussion about all of these issues with a set of panelists from across both industries.

What we in the undersea business often overlook, however, is the important complementary role that satellites play as part of today’s global communication backbone - especially for the smaller, landlocked or emerging markets. Robert Suber (Intelsat) provided a tutorial on how new low-orbit satellite solutions and technology advances may complement the undersea backbone. While much of the satellite industry is focused on destinations in motion (such as ships and planes), he encouraged our undersea community to explore joint cable-satellite solutions for fixed destinations such as those with limited resiliency and/or small, remote communities with limited ability to afford a new cable.

TeleGeography Research reiterated that demand for international communications capacity continues to grow at a healthy pace - driving the need for many new cables not only on the traditional transoceanic routes, but also on new routes.  As happens each January, several new cable projects chose to announce themselves publicly just prior to PTC, while others continue to push closer towards reality with a strategy of staying  ‘under the radar’. Thus, this panel’s cable map and discussion highlighted the breadth, but not the full depth, of market plans.

Sunday’s panels highlighted how the increasing rate of new cable construction across the Atlantic and Pacific in recent years has clearly now spread to other transoceanic and the regional markets, which extend connectivity from the biggest hubs to secondary ones, especially in Northern Europe as data center construction looks to colder climates and mainly those with ample renewable energy. Panelists speculated that the current trend to build on new, express and/or diverse routes (such as EllaLink, OAC and SAEx) might actually finally extend to making Arctic EurAsia projects also a reality. Reassuringly, none of the panelists appeared overly concerned about a couple of recent announcements of cable restructuring, which were characterized as a result of unique market circumstances, rather than an ominous sign amidst an otherwise very healthy growth curve.

Some panelists commented that cable projects seem to take longer to come into force than the market anticipates - developers and suppliers continue to be somewhat optimistic when forecasting closure dates. This is not a new phenomenon. Rather, there seems to be a market misperception that reaching closure should be simpler and thus quicker today than in the past when large consortia seemed to take many months to finalize C&MAs and Supply Contracts.

It’s rare to have a panel session about cables without remarks about how cable projects seem to be taking longer to reach RFPA than planned. The historic challenges to construction feel like they’re worsening, rather than getting better. Geopolitics and regulatory issues are severely impacting several projects.  Kent Bressie reflected on both the licensing challenges which cables connecting the US & Asia face today, as well as how ICPC efforts at the UN to influence international policies governing seabed use by cables.  The upcoming April ICPC plenary meeting in Madrid will undoubtedly shed more light on these issues and how ICPC is working to help the situation.

Ricardo Orcero remarked that investors like Facebook are often willing to take the time to work with smaller, local investors in order to secure the best technical and commercial solution for everyone.  Facebook is more interested in getting the best network than pushing to get it into service asap. He, and others, provided examples of how collaboration between larger investors and smaller investors, such as island nations along a major trunk route, can benefit all. Philippe Dumont, Sibbesh Bhattacharya and John Hibbard all shared some important metrics and insights which illustrated the benefit to smaller communities gained with branch landings off transoceanic cables – including more reliable, higher bandwidth and lower-cost capacity. Sibesh commented that Asia Development Bank (ADB) may be documenting and publishing their successful track record of supporting new cable projects as an economic-development strategy, in order that others throughout the world can learn from ADB’s experience.

This summary would not be complete without mentioning the video which Valey Kamalov shared documenting last year’s submarine cable summer school. The program was sponsored by Google, OSA and SubOptic, and supported by many companies through the undersea cable industry, who sent their own submarine cable experts to teach >90 students from around the globe about submarine cable technology. This was the first, of what many hope to be more such educational and awareness programs. Plans are already underway for another in 2021. The program has already started to bring new blood into our industry and we hope more companies will benefit from this initiative over time.

PTC’20 proved to be another important event for our undersea cable community. Those of us who worked to plan the day’s events are thankful to PTC for providing all of us with the opportunity to learn from each other and network each year. We’re also appreciative to the SubOptic Association for sponsoring the event. As the Association continues to work in new ways to help the industry move forward, SubOptic hopes that it attracts a more complete roster of companies as members anxious to encourage progress. For more information on SubOptic and its membership benefits, see (Join SubOptic).

We will continue to witness a lot of activity in the Asia-Pacific region over the next few years, starting this year as sponsors of upcoming major world sporting events roll out new technologies to support the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan and the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.  Japan will be used as a platform to transmit in 8k broadcast resolution – two times the highest resolution we use today, and China is expected to employ virtual reality to enhance viewers experience on-site and around the globe.  Robust global communications, using our submarine cable backbone together with satellites, will provide critical transport for bringing the excitement of these games to nearly every corner of the globe with unsurpassed quality.