Fiber flag waves on three continents
The undersea communications network known as Fiber-optic Link Around the Globe (flag) is expected to span 16,950 miles, or about 27,300 kilometers, between Great Britain and Japan when it is completed in September 1997, expanding more than fivefold the available network capacity between Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The $1.5 billion project consists of eight sections of fiber-optic cable laid on the floor of the Medi terranean and Red Seas and the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Construction appears to be on track, with 45% of the international fiber link complete or in construction, including a landing at Portcurno in Cornwall, UK, which was completed in May (see Lightwave, August, 1996, page 3). Phase Two of the project, which should be completed by the third quarter of this year, runs from Bombay, India, to landing points in Penang, Malaysia, and Sonkhla in Thailand (see Fig. 1).
According to Frank Denniston, vice president and chief engineer of nynex Global Systems, White Plains, NY, "Flag is basically on schedule and things are going well." He notes there are plans to build a system-wide network management center based in Fujaihra, United Arab Emirates, in the Gulf States. This site is located near the middle of the cable.
Denniston says the flag consortium plans to bury cable 3 to 5 m deep in Hong Kong harbor because of the shipping traffic, and to use double armor in the South China Sea to protect the cable from underwater turbulence.
A 10-Gbit/sec Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) network system, flag will operate at 5.3 Gbits/sec over two fiber pairs carrying 120,000 bearer circuits at 64 kbits/sec. It can handle 600,000 simultaneous telephone conversations. One fiber pair will terminate at each cable station location, and the other pair will bypass branch cable-station locations.
Operating under the managing sponsorship of nynex in Bermuda and White Plains, NY, flag is being jointly built by AT&T Submarine Systems Inc., Morristown, NJ; KDD Submarine Cable Systems, Tokyo; and scores of subcontractors, according to Denniston.
For example, Cable & Wireless Marine of the United Kingdom has been contracted to install more than two-thirds of the fiber-optic system, including two of its longest segments, which stretch from Palermo to Miura, Japan. Cable ships began clearing the route in September 1995. Flag`s route has evolved over the years and will continue to evolve as new branches and feeder systems are conceived and implemented. New landings have been added, as well as a terrestrial crossing of Thailand, to avoid the hazardous marine environment in the Malacca Straits.
Another subcontractor, Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, CA, is deploying its SDH test sets to help install and maintain the undersea cable. Bob Paski, director of cable-system installation and testing at AT&T Submarine Systems, says the HP test set was selected because it combines--in one, portable box--comprehensive jitter test, SDH and PDH. (PDH, or Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy, is a network architecture used outside North America for nearly synchronous transmission of digital information at 2.048 to 34 Mbits/sec or higher.) All test equipment is specified to operate at the STM-1 rate of 155 Mbits/sec, the principal interface at the various drop-off points along the flag route.
China has been added to the international undersea route, under an agreement between flag Ltd. and the Chinese Directorate General of Telecommunications to land the cable system in Shanghai.
Flag is expected to be the first intercontinental submarine fiber telecommunications cable to serve China, which has 1.2 billion people and about 20 million telephone lines. A goal has been set to have 70 million telephone lines in operation by the year 2000. The plan calls for building more than 11 million new lines each year for the next six years.
China currently relies primarily on satellite transmission and regional cable systems for communications with the rest of the world. Flag is expected to provide a direct fiber-optic link with financial capitals in Europe, the Middle East and rest of Asia.
Upturn in submarine systems
In its latest annual Fiberoptic Submarine Systems Symposium, held in Hong Kong, Kessler Marketing Intelligence Corp. (KMI), an international fiber optics marketing forecast organization based in Newport, RI, updated participants on the status of flag and related fiber submarine technology.
Thomas A. Soja, senior analyst for KMI, who has served as chairperson for the symposium for the past three years, described an upturn in new submarine cable systems. He explained that calendar year 1995 was a "down" year for new undersea system announcements--cause for concern over the direction of the industry. Despite a flurry of activity in the fourth quarter of 1995, only 35,000 km of new systems were announced during that year. However, that quarter proved to be the beginning of a new surge in systems development (see Fig. 2).
Soja notes that the flag build is on track, and only adverse weather could slow its construction. He explains that flag is one of four major international submarine fiber projects linking Europe with the Far East. The first was sea-me-we-2 (Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-2), cut over in 1994 and linking France directly with Singapore via the Middle East. Flag will be the second, and sea-me-we-3 is planned for 1998. The fourth system that could carry traffic from Europe to Asia would be safe (South Africa to the Far East) in combination with the SAT-2 network, which was installed in 1993. SAT-2 carries traffic from key international gateways in the Canary Islands, the Madeira Islands, and Cape Verde to Melkbosstrand, South Africa. Telkom SA (South Africa) is readying plans to put safe into operation by 1998.
Other speakers at the KMI symposium included Neil M. Tagare, formerly executive vice president of nynex Network Systems Co. (Bermuda) Ltd., and now an independent submarine cable developer. He spoke about the future of the submarine cable industry. Tagare recalled that the concept of flag began in 1989. "Today, it is fully financed, under construction and on its way to commercial operation in 1997," he said.
Tagare pointed out the dramatic changes taking place in the submarine cable industry: "AT&T, British Telecom and France Telecom traditionally have been the major sponsors of submarine cables. Most submarine cable investments were possible because of commitments on the part of carriers worldwide to forecast traffic [between their operations] for a period of 15 to 25 years.
"But today, the game has changed significantly," Tagare said. "If it is not possible to predict the traffic flows between countries, let alone between carriers, who is going to sponsor these huge cables? Traditional models of forecasting are now obsolete."
Noting excess capacity in submarine cables around the world, Tagare declared that more than 50% of circuits are still inactive or in excess of requirements. "As long as carriers can control excess capacity and their prices, they feel they are protected," he said. Tagare also noted that since 99% of all cables are consortium cables, excess capacity in submarine cables is a non-issue at this point. "Even flag`s excess capacity cannot be used, other than to sell it to licensed international carriers. Prices will not crash at the wholesale level, even though there is significant excess capacity in the market."
He predicted that in the future, carriers will stop looking at their forecasting models to purchase new capacity or to build new cables. "New cables will be agreed on based upon a rate-of-return on the investment. If sufficient carriers are willing to bring in traffic, and the investment can be returned in a year or two, investment in a new cable is a no-brainer. Speculative investment based on 15- to 25-year forecasts will be history." q