New wave of subsea cables set to make a splash in Europe: Part 1, Southern Europe

November 4 2019
by Rahiel Nasir, Penny Jones


More than 85,000km of subsea fiber is expected to land on European shores between now and 2021, much of it on the southern parts of the continent, where it can connect the Americas, Africa and Latin America. While the French port city of Marseilles continues to be a key intercontinental data port, Lisbon is making its presence felt. Subsea activity is also driving interest in many new landing locations across the region. The importance of these developments is highlighted by the fact that it is no longer only the traditional telcos and fibre providers investing in these cables. Some big-name cloud platform providers with large intercontinental data transfer requirements have decided it's better to build rather than lease and, as well as continuing to back consortia-led projects, they are investing in the construction of their own private submarine networks.

The 451 Take

Northern Europe has been the focal point for trans-Atlantic subsea cable operators for decades, connecting North America to the commercial centers of the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands and beyond. But with booming demand for digital services in developing markets across Latin America, as well as Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Southern Europe now offers new and diverse routes for transcontinental connectivity. Subsea cables, particularly in developing regions, are vital – they not only bring content closer to consumers, but also help to lower costs and increase overall network efficiency thanks to reduced latency. Where there are subsea cables, there must be hubs that serve as the terrestrial landing points for the network – an attractive proposition for colocation providers. This gives such providers the opportunity to be seen as more than just suppliers of space and power for IT infrastructure because it enables them to provide more connectivity options for their customers. As cloud adoption continues to grow, enabling access to providers and reducing latency between clouds in various regions has become increasingly important.

The French connection

Marseille has long been known as an international shipping hub, but since 2013 inward investment has seen the city transform itself into a global digital hub. Sitting on France's southern Mediterranean coast and on the crossroads of connectivity for subsea cable providers, Marseille is currently a landing point for 10 submarine systems (there are others, but these are connected via terrestrial links). They include, among others, the 25,000km AAE-1 (Asia-Africa-Europe 1) network that connects Southeast Asia to Europe via Egypt, and SeaMeWe 5 (Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 5), a 20,000km cable that has a core system linking Europe (via Sicily as well as Marseille) to Singapore.

Over the next few years, these cables will be joined by six new subsea networks (four of which will land in Marseilles, while two will be connected via terrestrial fiber), including two that represent the longest subsea fiber systems currently being laid. First announced in 2016, Africa-1 will stretch more than 20,000km, connecting Asia to Europe via the Middle East and Africa, while the 17,000km PEACE (Pakistan East Africa Cable Express) includes connectivity to Europe during its second development phase, with Orange being the landing partner in Marseille (see figure, below).

Other subsea cables scheduled to land in 2020 include Zenzu's Discovery, which will connect Marseilles with Mumbai with a branch to Singapore. Zenzu aims to be a disruptor in the subsea fiber base with its so-called 'condo-tenant' business model – it will not own any of the cable infrastructure it builds, but will instead act as a go-between, gathering interested parties and coordinating a shared ownership deal for which it will charge a service fee.

OpenCables is another provider with Marseille as an important landing point, incorporating the city into two of its subsea systems: the Octopus Network, which connects to Lisbon, and Brexit-1. The latter connects cables in Marseille from East Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as well as in Lisbon, linking West African countries to the US and thereby avoiding London and the disruption that is feared once the UK exits the European Union. While it would be true to say that most of the trans-Atlantic cables that will light up over the next few years seem to be skirting around the UK, this is actually being driven by content providers and hyperscalers that are connecting the datacenters they have in continental Europe or Ireland, rather than the UK's exit from the European Union.

All of these cables will need a home after making landfall, and European provider Interxion (currently the subject of a takeover by Digital Realty Trust) has helped facilitate that requirement. As a result, Interxion in Marseille hosts several internet exchanges, including France-IX, NL-ix and DE-CIX's local operation, as well as many of the large hyperscale cloud providers, global and local content providers, and carriers seeking reach into or out of Europe. International providers such as CenturyLink and GTT have a presence in the market, but largely for telecommunications needs. GTT, for example, provides important backhaul options to the rest of Europe.

'Fiberian' Peninsula

Portugal has not been a hotbed for datacenter or even subsea cable/fibre activity, but that is about to change as the location becomes a significant landing zone for new subsea cables over the next few years. The Atlantic shoreline around Portugal's capital, Lisbon, serves as either a landing point or branch connection for major systems such as ACE (Africa Coast to Europe), WACS (West Africa Cable System) and SAT-3/WASC (South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable), to name but a few. Despite these existing systems connecting Europe and Africa, Google has started building its own subsea fiber networks, including Equiano, which will link Lisbon with Cape Town and Lagos in 2021 (branches to additional African countries are also possible). The new cable features space-division multiplexing (SDM) technology and is said to be the first to incorporate optical switching at the fiber-pair level. Compared with traditional wavelength-level switching, it's claimed that this greatly simplifies the allocation of cable capacity, offering the flexibility to add and reallocate this in different locations as needed.

Equiano is named after Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian-born writer and abolitionist who was enslaved as a boy during the 18th century. It is the third private subsea fiber system being built by Google Cloud, following Dunant and Curie (which serves Latin America). With the announcement of these systems in 2018, Google said it had become the first major nontelecom company to build a private intercontinental cable. Google claims the volume of data its needs to move around the world has grown to the point where, in some cases, it has exceeded the ability traditional players can offer. Without investing in its own dedicated network infrastructure, Google believes that high-quality delivery of its products and cloud services would be impossible. By completely funding its own cables, the company reckons it can expedite construction and optimize the number of negotiating parties. The company says it is not seeking to compete with telecom providers, and that it still plans to buy capacity on existing cables or join consortia in other parts of the world.

Other new subsea systems that will land in Portugal include Hemisphere Cable Company's (HCC) WASACE-1. It will connect Seixal in the Lisbon regional district of Setúbal with the Canary Islands and Brazil. Tenerife-based HCC plans to build a network operations center and datacenter on the Canary Islands for subsequent routes to West Africa, the Mediterranean and North America. WASACE-2, connecting the Canaries to South Africa, will also be deployed for service in H2 2022. After that, HCC plans WASACE-3 (South Africa to Pakistan), WASACE-4 (Canary Islands to Cyprus) and WASACE-5 (Canary Islands to US). Meanwhile, despite being under consideration since 2010, construction on EllaLink finally began at the start of 2019. When it's completed in 2020, the network will link the industrial town of Sines in Setúbal to Brazil with branches to West African locations. The cable was delayed due to the Brazilian government excluding US firms from being involved in its construction, but that has now changed. EllaLink will be the second direct connection between Europe and Latin America; while ATLANTIS-2 is currently still in operation, it is now 20 years old and uses legacy technology.

The last decade or so has seen many ICT providers focusing their efforts on Latin America. Despite the cultural and historical connections between that region and Spain, it is the latter country's Iberian neighbour Portugal that is proving to be a more attractive landing point for new fiber crossing the Atlantic. Compared with Spain, Portugal is certainly better positioned geographically – it presents a shorter fiber rout to connect the Americas to Southern Europe. As a result of subsea cable development in the country, Portugal is now starting to ramp up its national fiber options. In July the country's National Communications Authority hosted the first meeting of a working group that will assess a project to replace the Columbus III and Atlantis-2 submarine cables connecting the Portugeuse mainland and the autonomous regions of Azores and Madeira. These cables are expected to reach the end of their useful life in 2024-25.

Spain, however, cannot to be overlooked, especially with Madrid being the biggest market for multi-tenant datacenters on the Iberian Peninsula. The city's datacenter market seems to differ from other European second-tier locations in that its future looks tied to becoming a peering and services hub across the region. However, turning Madrid into a significant transregional hub requires a step change in the speed and scale at which datacenter providers in the city are likely to develop, although many new developments are underway. Those that can cater to demand expect to win business from cloud and content providers, along with enterprises that will deliver Spanish content and services to LATAM.

EllaLink will reach into Madrid from its Portgeuse landing point in Lisbon. MAREA also reaches Spanish shores. The Facebook- and Microsoft-funded cable went live in February 2018 after landing in the Bilbao suburb of Sopelana (Sopela), about 400km away from Madrid on Spain's northern coast. MAREA (Spanish for 'tide') is capable of transferring data at a record-breaking 160Tbps. It will be operated by Telefónica subsidiary Telxius, which will offer significant interconnectivity with its parent company's carrier networks in Europe and Latin America. MAREA is the first subsea cable to directly connect Spain to the 'digital port' of Virginia Beach, 6,400km away in the US. From there, it hooks up with the 11,000km Brusa submarine system connecting Brazil and Puerto Rico. According to Microsoft, economic relations between Spain and the US continue to 'grow substantially,' boosted by the increasing Spanish business presence in the US, as well as greater US investment in Spain.

Opening up Italy and Lebanon

Sparkle, the international service-provider arm of Telecom Italia, is planning to go live in 2020 with a new submarine cable in the Tyrrhenian Sea linking Palermo with Genoa. Dubbed BlueMed, the cable will connect Sparkle's Sicily Hub open datacenter in Palermo, which has already established itself as a major landing station for 18 international subsea networks. Sicily Hub will also link to a new, open landing station in Genoa, which in turn is directly connected to Milan's digital ecosystem. With capacity claimed to be up to 240Tbps, BlueMed aims to provide diverse and advanced connectivity between the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the European mainland hubs. Sparkle adds that it will offer up to 50% greater latency reduction than existing terrestrial cables connecting Sicily with Milan.

Lebanon's Ministry of Telecommunications is planning to deploy a new subsea cable to connect to Europe. In June the country's Ministry of Telecommunications said it would carry out feasibility studies before issuing a tender seeking partners for the project. Meanwhile, as part of a separate initiative that will be launched later this year, the Ministry will work with the Cyprus Telecommunications Authority to replace Cadmos, which connects the two countries via the Mediterranean Sea.

Figure 1

Subsea cables landing in southern Europe 2019-2021

Northern Europe

These latest developments in subsea deployments across Southern Europe offer users new and diverse routes for transcontinental connectivity. They also mark a shift away from the dominance of northern Europe as a hotbed for submarine cable activity. Having said that, the continent's northern shores will still light up with significant new subsea fiber systems coming in from the Atlantic, the most significant of which is being developed by a consortium that includes Facebook and Google, and links the US with the Nordics. Ireland is also starting to establish itself as a gateway to Europe, not only as a branch for new subsea cable networks, but also as a main landing point.