Partners open first phase of undersea passage to India

June 1, 2002


The India to International (i2i) cable linking Chennai (Madras), India, and Tuas, Singapore, was ready for commercial traffic in April-the same month national and international long-distance services were deregulated in India. The 3,200-km undersea cable is the first phase of a 50-50 joint venture-Network i2i Ltd.-between Bharti Enterprises, a private service provider in India, and Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel). Construction on the cable system began in 2000.

The second phase of the undersea project will link Mumbai (Bombay), India, to Singapore; the time frame for the completion of this segment of the undersea network is still undetermined. Network i2i plans call for the city-to-city cable to support Bharti's terrestrial network, which will connect to gateways to many Indian cities, including Bangalore, Kolkatta, Hyderabad, Delhi, Pune, and Bhopal, among others. Bharti Aquanet Ltd., a 51-49 joint venture between Bharti Enterprises and SingTel, will manage the cable landings in India. Bharti Telesonic will provide backhaul traffic distribution to cities in India.

Significantly, the i2i cable links India via Singapore to SingTel's other networks in the Asia-Pacific region, including the C2C cable network, SEA-ME-WE 3, and APCN 2. It also links with the Japan-U.S. cable and the China-U.S. cable, both under separate ownership. Bharti and Singtel have also signed a memorandum of understanding to explore expansion opportunities in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Expansion may involve buying capacity on existing networks and additional network construction.

The planned 10,800-km undersea-cable network is configured as an eight-fiber-pair self-healing redundant ring, using DWDM technology capable of supporting 108 STM-64 (10-Gbit/sec) wavelengths. The undersea network is being installed by Tyco and Sembawang Cable Depot Pte. Ltd., a company in which SingTel is a 60% shareholder. The total capacity of the i2i cable when it is completed will be about 8.4 Tbits/sec. The project is estimated to cost the private consortium $650 million. The initial lit capacity on the Chennai-Tuas link, in which $250 million was invested, is 160 Gbits/sec. Wholesale capacity is available in STM-1, -4, -16, and -64 levels; 10-Gbit/sec wavelengths; and dark fiber, which can support 40-960 Gbits/sec.

"De-monopolizing" long distance

The i2i cable will allow Bharti Tele-Ventures, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bharti Enterprises, to pursue the international long-distance market in India, previously monopolized by state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL). Investors in Bharti Tele-Ventures include SingTel, Warburg Pincus, International Finance Corp., Asian Infrastructure Fund, and New York Life Insurance. In addition to international long distance, Bharti Tele-Ventures offers domestic voice, cellular, and Internet services.

"The India market is currently deregulating," says Michael Middleton, senior marketing manager at SingTel USA (Burlingame, CA). "Just as we've seen in other countries in other parts of the world, the communications market is opening up so there is a little bit of a loose ball being tossed around. There is a lot of jockeying for position between the different incumbent carriers. Bharti looks to be one of the up-and-coming leaders in that market as it opens up, and that's why SingTel has decided to partner with that group rather than some of the other groups.

"Since the market has been so controlled and so regulated, the typical price for services like long-distance services has been quite high, so with the market opening up, there are new opportunities, along with expected drastic reductions in prices that consumers pay for those services," Middleton adds.

Other multinational carriers offering services through local partners in India include AT&T and WorldCom. SingTel will also sell services under its own brand name. Meanwhile, the Internet market in India remains virtually untapped, with estimates of only about 1% of the population online.

Undersea links to India

"The Indian Ocean is one of the few areas where there is any activity at all at the moment," says Julian Rawle, senior market analyst of submarine fiber-optic systems at Pioneer Consulting (Boston). "Having developed the submarine cable network in Asia-Pacific, the next logical step is to link that to India, especially since India is deregulating at the moment. There is a lot going on in the telco market in India; fresh capital is going in and a number of enterprises are looking to challenge the existing monopolies. Whether there is the traffic there now is doubtful, and I think that is indicated by the fact that they have put the second loop of the i2i on the back-burner."

The i2i cable network is the only planned network linking India to Singapore that has been constructed, according to Rawle. Bharti competitors Reliance Infocom and Dishnet DSL have evaluated plans for building undersea cables through partnerships to link India to Singapore but have not acted as yet. Dishnet's proposed South East Asia cable network would link Chennai to Guam via Singapore. The company had talked about working with Tycom Ltd. and linking to the Tyco Global Network in Guam, which connects to the United States. Reliance Industries Ltd., headquartered in Chennai, discussed an undersea cable linking India to Singapore and Malaysia through a partnership with Singapore telecommunications pro vider Star Hub. "Those projects have not been canceled, they are just not moving forward very fast at the moment," says Rawle.

Meanwhile, Axone, which was building an undersea fiber-optic-cable system linking Europe to a number of Mediterranean countries, announced earlier this year that their cable system will now link Europe to India. "They finally realized that there is too much new capacity coming into the Mediterranean," says Rawle.

"There is obviously some recognition that India has potential both for traffic to Europe and to Asia-Pacific, and people are interested in that," he observes. "If you were to look at the amount of international traffic being generated just in India, I think the rates in India are among the highest in the world, so demand is probably not that great. But we've just seen Bharti announce that they are going to offer a very cut-rate price on international long distance in India, and voice over Internet Protocol is being legalized in India now, so it is possible that there is latent demand there that will now appear as prices fall."