Xtera’s Growing Subsea Business & New Galapagos Cable System

One-On-One with Leigh Frame, Chief Operating & Sales Officer, Xtera

In an exclusive interview, InterGlobix Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief sat down with Xtera’s Chief Operating & Sales Officer, Leigh Frame, to learn about the company’s recent success and how his team’s expertise, dedication and agility has turned challenges into triumphs.

For those who are not familiar with Xtera, can you tell us more about the business?

First and foremost, Xtera is a US and European based turnkey provider of subsea systems and telecoms technology, supplying both repeatered and unrepeatered networks. We have proven project management expertise and system integration capability, and we work in partnership with solid industry suppliers which creates an attractive proposition for owners looking to build optical networks linking data centers, cities or points of presence.

We are also well known for our innovative designs, high performing amplifiers, and our ability to provide flexible solutions for our customers. From our centers of excellence in London and Dallas, we have installed systems in more than 60 countries.

Agility is a word often linked with Xtera; can you tell us how this feature benefits customers in today’s busy market?

Agility has always been our strength as a company. We remain ‘lean by design’ and operate a disaggregated model of supply, which results in our continued quest for the best solution for each and every aspect of a project. By working with different partners, we can draw upon in-region vessels of opportunity, select the most suitable cable design for the application or the supplier with manufacturing capability at the precise time it is required.

Xtera’s integration skills, combined with the company’s ability to make decisions in an agile manner has led to many of our successes. Our customers appreciate the way we do business, with open access to the management team and very short lines of communication across the company. At a time when most large turnkey suppliers have full factories, it is a great benefit to our customers that we can partner successfully with alternative cable and marine suppliers across the globe.

C/S Normand Clipper performing the NO-UK marine installation

How do you see the supply market changing during this period of unprecedented growth?

Even though the submarine cable market is running hot at the moment, it is likely to remain a small industry with only five suppliers in the repeatered space. Buyers have an understandable conservatism when it comes to their supply chain; they expect a solid list of project references and they need substantial confidence in order to select a supplier for a system that is going to need maintenance and support for 25 years. This conservatism means that the barriers to entry are arguably even more baked-in on the demand side than on the supply side! On the supply side, the range of engineering disciplines needed to design and build a complex opto-electronic device that will sit on the seabed up to 8,000m below the surface means the list of qualifying companies is very limited and unlikely to evolve in the near to medium term. Obviously, the effect of the current market growth is that all the major suppliers are busy, resulting in lengthening lead times and an understandable focus on key customers and trans-oceanic systems. Xtera is a good fit for customers looking for regional connectivity or bespoke solutions, and who perhaps have less leverage with the larger suppliers. Xtera’s deliberate choice of business model means that, with our supply chain partners we are still able to offer accelerated project timelines.

Xtera recently announced successful completion of the NO-UK cable system between Newcastle and Stavanger. Tell us more about how you were able to complete the project in such a short time?

NO-UK is a real success story, with only 20 months between contract signature and completion of the marine program, it was quite an achievement for all involved! For those of you who aren’t familiar with NO-UK, it is a new high-capacity submarine cable linking 700km across the North Sea between Norway and the UK. This  will significantly improve data connectivity for Norway, which in turn opens up new opportunities for data center builders in Norway where the availability of green power is a big attraction.

As you can imagine, the North Sea comes with its own specific set of challenges and this full turnkey project involved a particularly complex marine installation, in very difficult waters and through tough terrain. Complexity in the marine environment comes from the shore-ends, environmental concerns, cable and pipeline crossings, the amount of burial and the number of vessels simultaneously managed to provide the solution.  Against all these factors, this project was amongst the toughest, with 100% of the cable plough buried, 21 (active) cable and pipeline crossings, 3 pre and post rock placement campaigns using a specialist vessel, 3 post-lay burial campaigns, up to 11 guard vessels at any one time, specialist shore-end burial operations, and so on.

The Galapagos cable system will allow for remote scientific research

The team worked exceptionally hard to ensure the installation was complete before the 2021 weather window closed. We are also very proud of our ability to secure all the necessary permits; including the operational, environmental and permits in principle in time for marine operations, which is down to the experience, commitment and dedication of all involved.

With system construction happening throughout the pandemic, there were obviously some constraints. Having to do almost everything remotely, including conducting technical demonstrations and overseeing our contract manufacturers, was challenging but we adjusted our normal working practices, and with the support of our customer and partners the project was successfully delivered on time. NO-UK also marks the first deployment of Xtera’s state-of-the-art SDM repeater, which continues to evolve, now offering up to 24 fiber pairs.

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