Carriers compete under the English Channel

July 1, 1997

Carriers compete under the English Channel


With the specter of European telecommunications deregulation looming in January 1998, several companies, including Esprit Telecom, WorldCom, and Hermes Europe Railtel (her), have disclosed plans to link the United Kingdom with Europe via fiber-optic cable networks running under the English Channel.

Esprit Telecom plans to install two submarine cable links--between the United Kingdom and France, and the United Kingdom and The Netherlands. Hermes Europe Railtel will install cross-channel links from the United Kingdom to Belgium and from the United Kingdom to The Netherlands, while U.S. carrier WorldCom will provide a pan-European network, including two trans-channel cables that will link the United Kingdom with The Netherlands and France.

Historically, such undersea cabling projects were developed as cooperative efforts among large major telecommunications operators and other parties--such as telecommunications operators in inland European states--that needed to invest in capacity between Europe and the United Kingdom. More than half a dozen undersea cables have already been laid between the United Kingdom and the continent as a result of such agreements. Operators such as British Telecom (BT) and France Telecom shared the cost of laying the cable in accordance with the capacity they required.

Today, while large telecommunications operators are looking to increase the bandwidth of their existing cable systems, new operators--such as Esprit Telecom--without bandwidth capacity are finding it economically viable to lay new undersea cable.

An International Facilities License granted by the U.K. government in December 1996 allows Esprit to build its own international network infrastructure. It is presently evaluating proposals to build its two submarine cable systems linking the United Kingdom to France and The Netherlands. Until the company has had time to analyze these proposals, say Esprit sources, it will not be able to finalize a timetable or calculate the exact cost of the project.

Esprit expects to finance the submarine cable system through a combination of pre-selling part of its capacity to other carriers, finance leasing, and existing resources. The company runs operations in eight European countries--the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Spain--offering voice and data services to corporate customers. The operator says it is applying for public voice-telephony licenses in these countries in preparation for January 1998.

WorldCom, on the other hand, is a little further along. It will begin construction of its all-fiber pan-European network, the first phase of which will connect London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, by the end of this year (see Lightwave, June 1997, page 1). Initial branches will operate at 10 Gbits/sec, providing capacity for the predicted growth in high-bandwidth data and intranet/Internet traffic.

sdh loops

The WorldCom pan-European network will use a series of fiber-optic, Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (sdh) loops. The network will support multiple 2.5-Gbit/sec channels per fiber pair using wavelength-division multiplexing and optical amplifiers. This will support a capacity in the tens of gigabits per fiber pair and allow for installation of additional capacity as customer demands increase.

In the first phase of the new pan-European network, two submarine cables will be built, linking the United Kingdom with The Netherlands and France via the English Channel. These cables will be installed in the third quarter of this year and will be provisioned with a 48-fiber cable each.

her has awarded a contract to TeleDanmark, Denmark`s national and international telecommunications operator, for its U.K. link to continental Europe. The company will supply and install two submarine cables that--like WorldCom`s-- will link U.K.`s mainland to Europe with sdh links running at 2.5 Gbit/sec.

her`s pan-European fiber-optic telecommunications network transports services across national borders to carriers and other telecommunications services companies. The company itself is a joint venture between hitrail BV, a consortium initiated by 11 European railway companies, and Global TeleSystems Group, an independent U.S.-based developer and operator of telecommunications service companies.

The installation of the her undersea cables will be completed by the third quarter of this year, and network integration will be completed beforehand. The cables will connect between terminal stations located close to Aldeburgh, UK, and Zandvoort, The Netherlands, and also between Joss Bay, UK, and Oostende, Belgium. The cables will complete links that the company plans between London and Amsterdam and London and Brussels. Two separate cables are being installed to guarantee two independent, diverse paths into London.

Both cables, with 12 fiber-pairs each, will be manufactured in Denmark by dsc Communications. The fibers in each cable will have characteristics matched to the optical-amplifier technology that will be installed at the terminal stations, which will eliminate the need for repeaters within each cable span.

The combined length of the cables will be more than 325 km, with the longest length (approximately 200 km) spanning the English Channel between Aldeburgh and Zandvoort. The cables will be buried to depths of approximately 0.8 meters, and they will have single or double armoring to suit local environmental conditions.

Sleeping giants

Although the start-ups are making plenty of noise about their plans, the larger telecommunications companies such as BT and France Telecom appear content to hold their cards close to their chest until the 1998 deadline approaches.

Deregulation of the telecommunications business represents an opportunity for these large vendors to extend their business outside their own country also. The United Kingdom, for example, is becoming a more difficult place to sustain market share, and the opportunity for BT to broaden operations in Europe is tempting.

Large operators may choose to enter various European countries as a second major operator. Alternatively, they could develop their own pan-European fiber-optic infrastructure. It is clear, however, that the economic forces that once brought large telecommunications companies together to sponsor joint cable projects will soon be a thing of the past. The telecommunications game of 1988 will see a not-so-subtle shift in the relationship among them. Friendly working practices will break up as the companies compete in the pan-European marketplace. q

Dave Wilson writes from London.

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