Seahorse gallops into the undersea fiber-optic cable-maintenance market

Jan. 1, 2000

Tyco Submarine Systems Ltd. (Morristown, NJ) has a new twist on traditional cable-maintenance agreements (CMAs) in the submarine fiber-optic cable-maintenance marketplace. Responding to undersea-cable cus tomers who have repeatedly pointed out a void in the industry, Tyco announced its Seahorse program in June 1998.

According to Tyco, CMAs have historically served cable owners well by offering reasonable cable maintenance to all on a cost-sharing basis and at a standard level of performance. But CMAs have a downside. Because of that same cost-sharing philosophy, incentives for ship owners to improve either cost or repair performance is diminished. The "one-size-fits-all" service offered by CMAs is a compromise that some capacity purchasers say is failing to meet their higher demands for performance and quality improvements. In particular, new submarine entrants in need of full, high-quality maintenance services are finding it more challenging to secure those services at reasonable costs.
The CS Global Mariner is one of three ships from Tyco's growing fleet that is dedicated to the Seahorse Atlantic submarine wet-plant maintenance project. This vessel, along with CS Global Link and BC Atlantida, provides maintenance services for undersea transatlantic fiber-optic cable systems.

Tyco has attempted to meet this need through two versions of Seahorse. Seahorse Atlantic, the first program announced, is aimed at providing maintenance services to transatlantic cables. Seahorse Atlantic includes three dedicated ships from Tyco's current fleet of 11 ships in service and two new vessels under construction. Each ship in the Seahorse program is equipped with remotely operated vehicles that can be launched beneath the sea to provide maintenance assistance. Each ship is staffed with Tyco experts with access to the company's shore-based laboratory, manufacturing, installation, and maintenance groups.

Tyco secured its first $100-million contract with Worldwide Fiber Inc. (Vancouver, BC) for a five-year maintenance program on Worldwide Fiber's Hibernia cable system, stretching from North America to Europe.

"After careful consideration of all the alternatives, it is our view that the best party equipped to maintain the submarine part of our full ring subsea and terrestrial system is the party who installed it," says Larry Olsen, chief financial officer and vice chairman of Worldwide Fiber. "We are pleased to be the first participant in Tyco's new Seahorse Atlantic structure."

The second announced Seahorse program is Seahorse South America, announced within days of its Atlantic predecessor. This program will involve two dedicated ships for undersea fiber-optic cables in South America. One ship will be stationed in the South Pacific and the other in the South Atlantic. Tyco says ships will be added as necessary to satisfy the upcoming needs of future systems in the area.

The first customer to sign on to Seahorse South America is Telefonica Internationale S.A. (Madrid). Tyco announced a five-year contract with Telefonica totaling more than $125 million for the maintenance duties on its SAm-1 network that rings the South American continent. Tyco, which also has an equity investment in SAm-1, is currently installing the submarine network.

Why would owners of submarine cable systems designed for 25 years of service be so concerned about maintenance on their networks? According to Tyco's managing director for operations, administration, and maintenance, Pete Barletto, maintenance begins well before an undersea system is put into service.

"Maintenance is, or should be, 98% planning," says Barletto. "Beginning with the route itself, planning helps to select the most secure route. Planning and developing the specific maintenance program, processes, and procedures are developed long before the system is placed in service. Planning and deploying the assets, along with certifying or testing, is also completed prior to service. Exercises to confirm the readiness are also planned in order to develop and practice the best plan that will ensure the quickest possible repairs, when needed."

Seahorse provides a repair-time commitment of 11 days or less in the North Atlantic. For each day beyond 11 that the system is not returned to service, there is a daily penalty assessed. The commitment is for all types of faults, including repeater replacement. Preventative maintenance is also an important feature of a submarine cable-maintenance program.

Cable awareness is a significant subset of each system's maintenance program. Simply stated, cable awareness means ensuring other parties are aware of a cable's presence and location on the ocean floor.

"Cable awareness actually begins with the route-planning activities," says Barletto. "That's when risks to the system are assessed and mitigated. The cable awareness activities keep other seabed users aware of the system's route and importance. It's also aimed at fostering positive relationships within these groups."

Tyco also employs local people, including fishermen, who are familiar with the area where a cable is deployed. These contacts are critical to the program's success in monitoring locations and maintaining a heightened awareness by other local residents who work and use the area. They can serve as a contact for Tyco in the event a local fishing trawler suspects it may have hooked the fiber cable. Once Tyco confirms the trawler could have actually hooked the cable, it will work with the fishing trawler's owner to release its equipment, reimburse the owner, and send equipment to the scene to ensure the cable was not damaged.

Another preventative activity is the constant surveillance and long-term trending of a system's operating performance. This activity enables the maintenance to be planned and carried out before any impact is detected by the end users. Finally, Tyco schedules real-world maintenance exercises that include the actual deployment of the cable ships to a predetermined "problem" location to practice cable-repair techniques.

"Systemic faults are extremely rare," says Frank Cuccio, managing director for international construction, operations, and maintenance at Tyco. "However, faults due to external aggression are not. The most common external fault comes from the fishing activities, followed by other shipping and, in some areas, natural forces such as earthquakes. The most typical outage of a cable segment is caused by fishing trawlers."

Seahorse provides its customers with detailed measures-of-quality reports that include mobilization time, transit time, joint quality, ship or equipment downtime, weather downtime, spares inventory, and cable awareness. There are other maintenance providers, and competition in this market could mount in the future. For now, Tyco believes it has the experience, resources, and support systems that will enable the company to become a major force in its new market concept of submarine wet-plant maintenance.

"Initial reactions have been mixed," says Cuccio. "Our customers were the driving force behind the concept of Seahorse and their reaction has thus far been positive. We're meeting a need that they identified. The CMAs, understandably, have been a little less accepting and, in some cases, quite critical. We believe the concept is not only market driven, but provides Tyco with a unique opportunity to service our customers for the life of their systems."