Editor’s Note: The Caribbean region has seen little in the way of new subsea systems in recent years.  Most of the submarine fiber optic cable infrastructure dates back around the turn of the century. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the largest system to have a supply contract announcement to date in 2017 is one that is destined for the Caribbean.

In July, Deep Blue Cable announced that it had contracted with TE SubCom to build a new Caribbean cable network. The system design spans nearly 12,000 km with initial landing points in 12 markets throughout the region, including the Cayman Islands, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago, and Turks & Caicos Islands, with dual diverse landings in the U.S., which will include the first landing of a cable on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Stephen Scott, CEO of Deep Blue Cable, and Dave Robles, Managing Director, America Sales from TE SubCom, about the Deep Blue project. The following are their perspectives into the project that, when completed, will be one of the largest Caribbean cable systems ever deployed. 

Scott: Interest in building a new submarine cable system began when the investors in Deep Blue Cable were studying market conditions in the Caribbean. First, they began looking at the age of the Caribbean submarine cables that are currently in service and when those cables were going to pass their operating timeframe. A major shareholder in Deep Blue who is also a shareholder in Digicel, a leading mobile phone company in the Caribbean, recognized that this would be a risk factor for Digicel in the future. 

Secondly, in general terms, the cost of traffic in the Caribbean is higher than it should be, as there is not much in the way of competition. The existing supply comes predominately from Cable & Wireless, who do a very good job at bringing services to many of the islands in the Caribbean, but it’s a monopoly. Pricing in the Caribbean isn’t market established, so the costs of connections are very high and it excludes many of the business development opportunities on those islands. 

Lastly and quite specifically, for Digicel it is an opportunity to come in and create a system that will give them an opportunity to ensure price-competitive connectivity to mainland US for many years to come, including beyond the next five to seven years when there is a very significant end-of-life of systems in that region. Digicel and Deep Blue Cable have a common shareholder, but otherwise we’re fully independent. 

When we began planning our network, we were primarily focused on building out to the big islands throughout the Caribbean where the most capacity was going to be required over the next 10 or 15 years.  And on the way through, we wanted to design it so that we could connect some of the smaller islands at the same time or plan to connect them up at a later phase. So, whereas there are about 20 landings in phase 1, at the end of phase 2 and 3 there will be 40 or more landings throughout the Caribbean. 

Robles: For a network like Deep Blue, the capacity demands are relatively modest compared to the “big pipe” routes like the transatlantic and transpacific, where you are trying to get as much capacity as possible from one end to the other. The objective here is very different. From TE SubCom’s perspective, we were really focused on cost effectiveness; on how to make the network as economical as possible.  You start out with a relatively large number of landings, but then there’s the potential to grow that over time and you want to do that as efficiently as possible. 

On the cost effectiveness piece, we really went back to our standard product and looked at how we could remove some cost from there. It was a relatively minor change but it had a definite impact on the cost side and that was just modifying our SL17 cable just very slightly, removing some material without compromising on the strength. We were able to remove quite a bit of material cost there. 

With regard to network flexibility, the very first conversations we had with Steve’s team were really around the network architecture, and we recommended Optical Add Drop Multiplexing (OADM)-type architecture that allows you to add and drop wavelengths to some of these smaller landings – you can just drop a wave or two or whatever you want at 100 Gbps each. We do that by using OADM in the wet plant itself.  That’s an area that TE SubCom pioneered about 10 years ago and we’re applying a version of that here.  So, we steered Deep Blue toward a trunk and branch-type design based on OADM technology. That reduced the number of landings involved and made the whole thing a lot more cost-effective while preserving flexibility by being able to drop more capacity in the long term. 

TE SubCom announced late last year a partnership with Ciena to jointly offer turnkey solutions where we provide the wet plant and Ciena provides the dry plant. So, there is really a joint effort here when we talk about a network architecture to smoothly evolve the capacity over time and this is due to close coordination between SubCom and Ciena. This is a great example of that partnership really working. 

What we typically see when we bring a major project into a region like this, is that it tends to stimulate other activity — feeder systems, additional branches and other links to tap into regional networks — so, we’re optimistic that this is the beginning of a growth cycle throughout the region as a whole. If you look at the way the Deep Blue cable is designed, there are a lot of additional branching units along the way for expansion and to get to all sorts of different places throughout the region. And the OADM technology I described earlier tends to lend itself to that.  So, we’re excited about where this is headed, with the initial build and then going beyond that with additional opportunities. It’s a great opportunity for SubCom over the longer term as well. 

Scott: In terms of demand in the Caribbean, when we began to study the region, it boiled down to the fact that you have the language skills and a well-qualified, eager workforce that wanted to get into the call center, NOC and help desk types of services. We’ve seen this story before in other parts of the world. In India, for example, it has really transformed the Indian business environment. In the Caribbean, they haven’t been able to copy that success because those types of services have become very bandwidth intensive in terms of the interaction with the client and the resilience needed to see those industries develop. 

More immediately, there’s the domestic side – the retail element. There is strong demand among the populations of those islands for high-bandwidth services. This is especially true for video, which requires very, very significant bandwidth to get the best out of it. 5G mobile technology is going to require about 40 times the capacity as 4G and that has to come from somewhere. 

In terms of growth, we looked at other developing regions over the past 15 years. We’ve seen how take-up of mobile broadband and video technologies, such as HDTV and 4K video (and with 8K video right around the corner), have increased tremendously the demand for bandwidth in those regions. In the Caribbean, if you take even the most pessimistic view of growth and capacity, it is still much, much more than what is available today. 

One thing that is really unique about Deep Blue’s cable is that it will have a Florida Gulf Coast landing, which has never been done before. The advantages that the State of Florida recognizes is that all of the landings are on the east coast and that if there was a significant event you would have a massive impact on connectivity, not only on Caribbean but also on South and Central American traffic. 

For us, it was from a design standpoint that looked like it would work well. We’ve had some good discussions with the U.S. Department of Defense about support. The company that is handling the applications for us in the United States has a great deal of confidence in us that we will be successful, providing that we meet the exact requirements for where and how we land and what we avoid on the way in. It isn’t weaving a cable through an oil field. It is predominantly environmental considerations. 

We’ve looked at a number of very good landing sites and had preliminary discussions in regard to access. I’m confident, and from an architecture standpoint, it looks very good for Deep Blue. It creates a degree of product separation when compared to the other operators in the region. That’s why we wanted to do it. 

Robles: From the construction perspective, any time you do a new landing in a new place there are special challenges and studies to be done. We’re going through that process now, sending teams out to the sites and scoping out the best location for the actual cable landing and manhole. The good news is that we’ve been to Florida many, many times. The environmental regime and the permitting process that you have to go through is the same whether you’re on the Gulf Coast or Atlantic Coast. 

We know the process very, very well. We know the people who we need to speak to. So, we have a high degree of confidence that we can get it done on schedule. Of course, the actual details of the sensitivity of the environment and habitat can change from place to place, so it is difficult to talk today about what the final solution is going to be. We’re still going through the initial stages, but I don’t think there is any great concern about getting it done. 

Scott: There is a natural buildup of terrestrial fiber on the west coast of Florida to meet the requirements of the demographics. I think a by-product of that is some good infrastructure getting planned. We can create some restoration around there as well. 

We did a significant re-design of the system with the support of SubCom. We changed a lot of things regarding how we restored around the loop. It really illuminated the obvious need to have a cable system that lands in the western side of Florida. With the architecture now, we have a whole system on the western side that stands in its own right, and an eastern system that has some cross-over and has many of the islands heavily protected. We have a lot of really smart guys who designed it well and that really plays to our advantage.

Submarine cable isn’t like terrestrial - it’s very expensive and takes a long time planning. The world is pretty unforgiving if in five years’ time we realize that we didn’t quite plan it right and it’s not as flexible as we want it to be. So, we thought long and hard about what, five years down the line, people were going to be asking Deep Blue Cable to be doing in terms of flexing itself around that region. We tried to put into it enough capacity and enough redundancy to allow us to meet those requirements going forward.