It seems just over ten years ago that the submarine telecommunications industry was speculating on when the next trans-Atlantic cable system would be built. After all, the industry had more or less recovered from the dot-com bust, there hadn’t been a new trans-Atlantic cable system in years, and capacity advances were outpacing existing systems around the world. But then the economy crashed and from 2008 to 2010, all cable suppliers could do was hope for the resurgence of the trans-Atlantic market. One system got off the ground, or rather hit the seabed—Greenland Connect, installed in 2009. This was an exception. Otherwise, the industry still would wait six more years as existing cable systems continued to age.
Hindsight is 20/20 but purchasing trends for submarine cable systems were starting to change, business models were shifting, and the world was slowly emerging from the economic crash. Companies started building cable systems. Hibernia Express (now GTT Express) went through a few seasons of planning but was eventually installed in 2015. This wasn’t the only system incubating during a slow economic recovery. A private developer called Emerald Networks was planning a submarine cable system across the North Atlantic with a very eager supply chain courting the developers to help this entrepreneurial project get started. This became AEConnect-1, installed in 2016, and the company, through a series of acquisitions, became Aqua Comms. Enough said.
But TELE Greenland is not GTT, Aqua Comms, Microsoft nor Facebook. Each company has a different demand for submarine cable infrastructure and capacity, a different kind of business and customer and a different corner of the trans-Atlantic geography. The latter two blending a cloud- and content-company partnership, each venturing into their first ownership in a submarine cable system, MAREA.
MAREA was installed in 2018 with eight fibre pairs, the most fibre pairs installed in a trans-Atlantic cable at that time. The route is on the very southern fringe of the North Atlantic cable corridor, connecting Virginia to Spain and is the first system ever installed into Virginia. But 2018 saw two other cable systems installed, each a first in their own right.
The South Atlantic Inter Link (SAIL) and the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) were both installed in 2018 and were nearly simultaneous in becoming the first east-west routed cable systems installed in the South Atlantic, providing point-to-point connectivity between Africa and South America (it is noted Atlantis-2, installed in 2000, is a South Atlantic system connecting Africa and South America in a southwest-northeast trending route). But this was two years ago and the systems mentioned so far are some of the youngest trans-Atlantic systems in the water.
The market resurgence took off. But, what about the old cables?
There are still nine submarine cable systems in the water that were installed between 1998 and 2003 (no systems were installed until 2009). Of these systems, TAT-14 is due to be out of service at the end of this year after 19 years of service, four systems are left with five years or less out of a 25-year life (AC-1, Columbus-III, AC-2, Atlantis-2), three systems are left all with six years of service remaining (GTT Atlantic, Tata TGN Atlantic, FLAG Atlantic 1), and one system has eight years left (Apollo). It’s hard to predict, but based on current systems being planned or built, it’s feasible to imagine that most of these remaining systems won’t make it to their 25-year design life before becoming decommissioned.