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Undersea Connectivity: Key developments in Indian submarine cable systems

October 06, 2016
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Over the past couple of decades, submarine cable systems have significantly helped in enhancing global connectivity through optic fibre cables (OFCs) traversing all continents. At present, undersea cables contribute around 99 per cent of the total international broadband connectivity.

The Asia-Pacific region has one of the most expansive undersea networks, which have contributed significantly to the growth of the region. India, with an international internet bandwidth of approximately 1.5 Tbps as of mid-2014, is the leading generator of bandwidth demand in this region. In the past few years, the Indian submarine cable industry has witnessed a lot of activity, fuelled by the demand for additional capacity. The exponential increase in demand for international voice and data transmission stems from the fact that Indian enterprises are going global and many multinational corporations are setting up shop in the country.

Recent developments in the Indian submarine communications space

In April 2016, a consortium of six telecom operators – Sri Lanka-based Dialog Axiata, UAE-based Etisalat, Oman-based Omantel, India-based Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL), Telekom Malaysia and UK-based Vodafone – commissioned the Bay of Bengal Gateway (BBG) submarine cable system linking Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East regions with multiple landing points across West Asia, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. The cable system will provide an alternate route to Europe by avoiding the congested Malacca Straits and other routes prone to cable cuts. The construction of the system began in May 2013.

The BBG spans an area of 8,100 km and is one of the first ever dark fibre systems to be lit at 100G. The initial capacity of the system is 9 Tbps. It is one of the newest systems to adopt the more innovative and cost-effective digital line section-based business model. This means that the capacity of the system is better utilised as there is no need to reserve a portion of the total capacity for congestion. The gateway also uses advanced fibre optic technology that allows capacity to be increased without submarine intervention. It also allows each member of the consortium to carry out an upgrade when and where required. Moreover, the system has a wide terrestrial network that enhances its reliability.

The BBG gateway will have two landing stations in India at Mumbai and Chennai. While Vodafone will use the Mumbai landing station, the latter will be used by RJIL. Currently, RJIL uses other subsea networks like SMW4, IMEWE, the Europe India Gateway (EIG) and Bharti’s i2i for its data traffic. With the BBG, RJIL will be able to cut its dependence on other submarine networks. Meanwhile, for Vodafone, the BBG system will provide direct connectivity between the operator’s European and India networks, and is also designed to provide onward connectivity with its other major submarine and terrestrial cables linking the US, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. With a new direct landing site in Mumbai and the consequent increase in capacity and capability, Vodafone will be able to better meet the exponential growth in data demands fuelled by the expansion of 3G and 4G mobile data services in the Indian market.

Another major submarine cable project that is currently under way is the Asia Africa Europe One (AAE-1) cable system that is being built by a consortium of 17 global telecom service providers. It is claimed to be the largest subsea cable connecting Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Yemen, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece, Italy and France. The Indian part of the project is being implemented by RJIL at an investment of around $6 million. The proposed AAE-1 cable system will span around 25,000 km and is likely to be completed by end-2016. The cable will terminate at Versova Beach, Mumbai. As of August 2016, RJIL has received the coastal regulation zone clearance for building the Indian part of the project.

Boosting domestic connectivity through submarine cables

In March 2016, the Indian government commissioned the country’s third international internet gateway (IIG) at Agartala, Tripura, after Chennai and Mumbai. As a part of this initiative, India is leasing 10 GB of internet bandwidth at Akhaura in Bangladesh to Agartala from Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited’s internet port at Cox’s Bazar. India has spent around Rs 191.4 million to create infrastructure for the IIG. As of August 2016, the necessary technical linkages to access the IIG in Shillong (Meghalaya), Aizawl (Mizoram) and Guwahati (Assam) have been completed. Meanwhile, links to other north-eastern states and Kolkata will be completed soon. The programme has started yielding results, with significant improvement in internet connectivity being witnessed in the Northeast. Earlier, the north-eastern states got internet connectivity through the Mumbai and Chennai IIGs, but the long distance created problems like slow speed and linkage drops.

Meanwhile, the Telecom Commission has approved a comprehensive telecom development plan comprising the use of submarine cables for boosting connectivity in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the Lakshadweep islands. Telecom connectivity in the region is currently provided through satellite infrastructure, which is not sufficient for meeting the demand for mobile services. The approved project entails the establishment of OFC connectivity in the islands with a total outlay of Rs 2.21 billion. The first phase will target the laying of submarine OFC from Chennai to Port Blair and to two other islands, Car Nicobar and Little Andaman. In the second phase, submarine OFC will be extended to Havelock and Kamorta. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has been mandated to enhance the region’s satellite network capacity during the project’s execution. Once submarine OFC is in place, satellite infrastructure will be used as a backup medium for communication services.

Major submarine cable systems in India

Currently, India is connected to the rest of the world via 12 main submarine cable systems. Of these, six are owned by various consortiums while the remaining cables are privately owned.

•  Bharat Lanka Cable System: This consortium-owned submarine cable system connects India and Sri Lanka. In India, the cable landing station (CLS) at Tuticorin is owned by BSNL.

•  EIG: This is a consortium cable system connecting the UK, Portugal, Gibraltar, Monaco, France, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Oman, the UAE and India. Its CLS at Mumbai is owned by Bharti Airtel.

•  FLAG Europe Asia: The Fibre Optic Link around the Globe (FLAG) Europe Asia cable system connects the UK, the Middle East and Mumbai. Owned by FLAG Telecom, the system consists of many undersea cable segments and two terrestrial crossings. From Mumbai, the cable goes to Southeast Asia. The system’s CLS at Mumbai is owned by Tata Communications.

•  FALCON-1: The FLAG Alcatel-Lucent Optical Network (FALCON) is one of the segments of the FLAG system. It connects India to the Gulf. In India, the CLS for the system at Mumbai is owned by Reliance Communications (RCOM).

•  FALCON-2: This cable network is in the eastern part of the country. In India, the CLS for the system at Thiruvananthapuram is owned by RCOM.

•  i2i: This is a privately owned cable system owned by a joint venture (JV) between SingTel and Bharti Airtel, connecting India to Singapore. In India, the CLS at Chennai is owned by Bharti Airtel.

•  IMEWE: This cable network connects India and Europe via the Middle East. It is owned by a consortium of nine telecom carriers from eight countries. It has nine terminal stations. In India, the cable system lands at Mumbai at two CLSs. While one CLS is owned by Tata Communications, the other is owned by Bharti Airtel.

•  SAT3/WACS/SAFE: The Southern Africa-Western Africa (SAT3/WASC) submarine cable links Europe with South Africa and a number of countries on the West African coastline. South Africa-Far East (SAFE) continues the connection from South Africa to Malaysia with a landing that brings India into the system. In India, the CLS for the cable system at Kochi is owned by Tata Communications.

•  SEA Cable: This system is owned by Tata Communications and Neotel (South Africa). It connects the African continent to Europe and Asia. In India, the CLS for the cable system at Mumbai is owned by Tata Communications.

•  Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-3: This is a consortium-owned cable system that connects Western Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In India, the cable system lands at two CLSs, at Mumbai and Kochi, both of which are owned by Tata Communications.

•  Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-4: This consortium cable links Southeast Asia to Europe via India and the Middle East. In India, there are two CLSs for the cable system; the one at Mumbai is owned by Tata Communications while the Chennai CLS is owned by Bharti Airtel.

•  Tata Indicom Cable: Owned by Tata Communications, this system connects India and Singapore. In India, the CLS for the cable system at Chennai is owned by Tata Communications.

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