The new wave of subsea cables set to make a splash in Europe: Part 2, Northern Europe

November 8 2019
by Rahiel Nasir, Penny Jones


In Part 1 of our focus on the latest European subsea cable developments, we looked at the impact that new landing points will have on the southern European multi-tenant datacenter market. In Part 2, we are traveling to northern Europe, where shores are lighting up with significant new fiber systems coming in from the Atlantic. The Nordics, in particular, are proving attractive for hyperscalers that have decided to build, rather than lease, cable infrastructure, while Ireland is starting to establish itself as a gateway to the continent.

The 451 Take

Connecting the commercial centers in the developed markets of North America and Europe has led to a multilane fiber highway in the North Atlantic seabed that has been built over decades. As global demand for digital content maintains an upward trajectory, and cloud providers develop multiregion platforms to bring their services closer to local users, the need for high-capacity subsea fiber networks capable of carrying huge amounts of traffic continues to grow. This is especially true in northern Europe, where datacenter construction has been increasing to support the need for cloud services. What's notable here is that the big-name tech firms, such as AWS, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, are behind many of the recent subsea fiber deployments. They have become the main consumers of submarine connectivity as they expand the datacenter computing capacity that runs their global hyperscale platforms.

Besides serving to boost connectivity, reduce latency and provide redundant paths for Europe's primary business powerhouses such as London and Paris, these new subsea cables are also helping connect new locations that are on the rise. Dublin, Milan and Zurich are some examples here, but it is the Nordic countries that have been the focus for many of the new subsea systems currently being laid across the Atlantic. Global cloud specialists are opening new regional zones here, while local colocation providers can service not only markets in their own countries but beyond into Russia and across to Asia.

Northern lights

Connectivity requirements between northern Europe and the US are largely being driven by US hyperscalers, which have become the primary consumers of transcontinental connectivity and a driving force behind much of its recent expansion. So it is no surprise that the most significant of the subsea developments planned for northern Europe in coming years, the HAVFRUE cable, is being developed with hyperscale use cases in mind. Havfrue means 'mermaid' in Danish, and is expected to come online by the end of 2019. It is being developed by a consortium that includes Aqua Comms, Bulk Infrastructure, Facebook and Google Cloud. The system links the US and Denmark with branches to Ireland and Norway.

Dublin-based Aqua Comms will market and sell capacity services and spectrum on its portion of HAVFRUE under the America Europe Connect-2 (AEC-2) brand. The company says AEC-2, together with other systems that it currently owns and operates, will create the North Atlantic Loop, a resilient, ring-based network between the US east coast, Ireland and northern Europe. Aqua Comms' other subsea cables include CeltixConnect-1 (CC-1), the forthcoming CeltixConnect-2 (CC-2), North Wales Connect and North Sea Connect.

For Google, HAVFRUE is expected to increase capacity and resiliency in its North Atlantic systems and in northern Europe, currently the fastest growing region for its cloud services. The new cable will bring high-capacity connectivity to northern Europe, where datacenter construction has been increasing to support the need for cloud services. In April 2019, AWS inked an agreement with Bulk Infrastructure to use its capacity on the cable as well as its datacenter facilities. AWS launched its first availability region in the Nordics (Stockholm) at the end of last year.

Headquartered in Oslo, Bulk Infrastructure is a datacenter and dark fiber provider. It is offering colocation at HAVFRUE's landing stations in Kristiansand (Norway) and Esbjerg (Denmark), where customers can take advantage of direct connectivity to major European and Nordic cities. Separately, Bulk also owns a subsea cable that it expects to start installing during Q4 2019. The yet-to-be-named system will connect Ireland, Isle of Man, the UK and Denmark, adding further diversity for routes to Nordic and European markets.

This is seen as particularly vital for Norway, which, despite being one of Europe's most digitalized countries, sees the majority of its data traffic travel to and from a single route going through Oslo, Sweden and Copenhagen. In September 2019, concerns over the lack of a redundant route for traffic led Norway's National Communications Authority to announce plans to award NOK100m ($10.9m) of government money to help build new international submarine cable capacity. It calls for an open and nondiscriminatory wholesale approach to new sea fiber connections, with the aim of finding the best and most economical solution for an alternative pathway. (At the time of writing in early November 2019, the funding had yet to be awarded because the Norwegian authorities were still in the process of preparing the tender.)

Further north, toward the outer edges of the Atlantic, Iceland's authorties have launched a study to find landing sites and conduct a seabed survey for a submarine cable called IRIS. Working with state-owned cable operator Farice, the Telecommunication Fund of Iceland is looking at a possible landing site in Keflavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula, with a proposed western route and landing either in County Mayo, Ireland, or the UK (possibly North Wales). Although no further decisions have been made, IRIS could become the fourth cable connecting Iceland, and aims to increase the security and resiliency of the country's international telecoms networks. Farice currently operates FARICE-1 to the UK and DANICE to Denmark. A third submarine cable, Greenland-Connect, links Iceland to Canada and the US.

Further north, it's claimed that a 10,000km Arctic cable will offer the lowest-latency sea route between Europe and northern Asia, thanks to being the shortest geographical path. The companies behind the proposed system, Russian mobile operator MegaFon and Helsinki-headquartered network infrastructure specialist Cinia, believe it will significantly increase the redundancy of global networks by providing a totally new transcontinental route covering around 85% of the world's population.

The joint venture partners say the global network backbone currently lacks an subsea fiber system that connects Europe, coastal regions of Russia, Japan and North America. No other details about the cable have been revealed. Earlier in June, MegaFon and Cinia signed an MoU with the aim of establishing a development company before the end of the year.

Other developments: Ireland, Guernsey, France, UK

Ireland's capital Dublin is already known as a gateway between the US and Europe, and has a growing datacenter presence. The country itself is an attractive location for trans-Atlantic connectivity, and will be the only English-speaking member of the European Union once the UK leaves. Ireland-France Subsea Cable is aiming to take advantage of this with IFSC-1, a new and diverse path connecting Ireland, France and continental Europe.

Backed by equity firm Tiger Infrastructure, IFSC was set up by telecom entrepreneurs Mike and Doug Cunningham, who made their names developing subsea cable systems such as Arctic Fibre and Antilles Crossing. When it goes live next year, IFSC-1 will feature 96 fiber pairs, each offering up to 10Tbps and interconnecting Ireland (Dublin, Cork) and France (Lannion, Paris). It will also offer a direct route between Equinix's datacenter facilities in Paris and the UK (Slough).

Also in the Anglo-French region, Sure plans to invest millions in enhancing its telecom infrastructire on the Channel Island of Guernsey over the next five years. Sure is Guernsey's incumbent telco and owned by Bahrain's Batelco. It plans on upgrading the submarine cables that link the island to the rest of the world, and allow the provider to offer broadband, voice and data services. Sure reckons the upgrades will increase its network capacity to 300Gbps (an increase of almost 300%) to meet the Guernsey's future bandwidth needs.

In its residential markets, the operator said it is seeing demand increase by 35% each year; while in the enterprise sector, digital transformation and increasing uptake of cloud technologies are driving demand for moving data in and out of the island. Sure's subsea infrastructure consists of multiple cables that connect Guernsey to the other Channel Islands, UK and Europe. These include HUGO, INGRID and Liberty. The company says its network's resilience is such that it can withstand two separate failures and still keep the island connected, as happened in 2017 when a cable was damaged by a ship, which meant other telecom operators were reliant on Sure's network to carry all traffic.

Finally, in France, Orange Group is working with Google on Dunant, one of three subsea systems privately owned by Google. Orange will build and operate the landing station on France's west coast, linking Europe to the US east coast 6,600km away across the Atlantic. Orange will also provide the backhaul service to Paris. A terrestrial network to extend Dunant to Belgium – where Google is building new datacenters – is also planned.

Dunant is expected to be ready for service next year, and is one of three subsea systems that are privately owned by Google. These include Curie, which serves Latin America, and Equiano, which is due to light up in 2021 (see Part 1 of this report). Dunant is named after Red Cross cofounder Henri Dunant, who was also the co-winner of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

Figure 1

Subsea cables planned to land in northern Europe 451 Research LLC

The future

As many subsea cable systems around the world reach end of life and demand for global connectivity continues to skyrocket, there will be an ongoing need for fiber networks that leverage the latest technology to offer ever-greater capacity and reduced latency, as well as redundancy and diversity. New locations – not only in developing parts of the world such as Africa, but also in secondary cities in developed regions – are demanding increased connectivity for all of the above reasons, and there will therefore be no let-up in the number of subsea fiber systems that are likely to light up over the next decade.

But one new development is the rise of hyperscalers funding their own private subsea networks. Some fiber operators have expressed concerns about competition here, especially in developing markets where local companies fear they may have to pay high premiums to interconnect with these new, private subsea cables.