Dr. Steve Grubb Looks Forward to the Next Wave of Technology Drivers


By Jayne MillerMay 17, 2024


Dr. Steve Grubb’s fascination with subsea cable technology began in the 1990s. Thirty years later, now CEO of Grubb Blue Ocean Solutions, Steve spends his time advising cable companies on technical design and vendor selection.

He also lends his expertise as one of TeleGeography's Preferred Partners.

This elite group is made up of the telecom all-stars we turn to when a project requires a little extra insight. And we’re on a mission to introduce them to our readers.

This week, we caught up with Dr. Grubb to reflect on his observations after three decades in the subsea industry and share where he sees the next cycle of technology leading us.

Read our full chat below.

How did you get into the infrastructure space? Did you have any early experiences in the industry that cemented your passion for telecommunications and fiber optic networks?

I've always been fascinated by technology in the subsea space, even when I worked for AT&T Bell Labs. In the 1990s, they were at the forefront of technology, and very aggressive with deploying new technology.

Bell Labs was the first to develop the Erbium-Doped Fiber Amplifier in a submarine system. That was TPC-5 from California to Hawaii, and a very bold move, so we were all champing at the bit to contribute to the effort.

Then at Infinera, I got involved in the upgrade market, bringing new life to systems—doubling, tripling, even quadrupling capacity. The first major system I worked on was SAm-1, which went all around South America. Telefónica paid a billion dollars for that system, so obviously there was a big premium on increasing its capacity.

Optical technology was highly valued, and I saw that I could contribute to submarine traffic. As internet traffic grew, I thought this was a satisfying use of technology.

Tell us about some of your recent projects with Grubb Blue Ocean Solutions. What projects have been the most exciting to you over the last year?

The primary client that I'm involved with now that's been publicly announced is Inligo Networks. Inligo is building a Singapore to U.S. cable that also stops in Darwin, Australia. We think the Darwin area is going to be an up-and-coming market for data centers because there's very cheap green power there.

Inligo is also building a north-south network from Darwin down to Melbourne and Sydney with very high capacity. That'll connect the ACC-1 submarine network to Singapore and then the U.S.

Both of these networks are needed, and I think there's a high leverage for designing them well in terms of maximizing capacity. Especially with regard to the Australian system, lowering the cost per bit and minimizing the number of repeaters.

I'm working on some other projects in APAC that are kind of in stealth mode right now, so I can't mention those names. It’s exploratory at this point as to exactly what the systems will be, but it’s very exciting, building some new systems to new places.

Finally, I have some clients in the areas of submarine cable security (a very hot topic now!), and underea sensing with submarine cables. I hope to be able to talk about these more in the future.

What are the biggest challenges your clients are facing in 2024?

Financing is a big one, especially since some of the big players like Google and Meta are building large cables with fiber pairs available. You have to make a very strong business case and stand out.

So getting financing, securing letters of intent to get the financing ahead of time, and everybody’s having problems with permitting. Then there are marine issues: a shortage of repair and installation vessels, and problems in waters.

In Indonesian waters, for example, there are a lot of cable breaks and problems due to illegal fishing operations. There’s a myriad of issues with permitting and cable damage in APAC especially. 

We have to ask about your Shark Tank presentation at SubOptic last year. You literally had experts pitch early-stage ideas in submarine technology. Panelists came with info on long-range seismic detection, drone-based cable surveys, mid-ocean power sources for cables—very cool stuff.

How did this come together and have any of these ideas really taken off since the session? 

There were projects that a lot of people were talking about and getting funded. I would say the one that’s most viable at this point is the Saildrone technology. Marine resources are limited all around and are very costly. So if you can do a survey with a remote drone vehicle, unmanned—with green power, basically—that’s highly needed. I think that's going to be the most exciting thing.

Some projects like power buoys, harnessing ocean waves into power, certainly will have niche applications. But I think we’re seeing a bit of a plateau in interest in those ideas. This is natural in innovation—it's never smooth. And the submarine industry is never smooth.

So we'll see; it's predicated on people wanting more capacity per cable. Obviously, the thing that can do that is AI demand. We've seen AI take off—it's been unbelievable in the last year—and I think everybody’s underestimating how much international capacity will be added by AI.

I expect interest in very high capacity cables to pick up, but it's going to be lagging. Some have decided to standardize on a greater number of lower capacity submarine cables, and their reasons for doing this make a lot of sense in the context of their submarine cable build plans. I think that will change eventually with the next wave of submarine capacity demand.

Once the submarine demand comes, technology will have to respond.

Once the submarine demand comes, technology will have to respond to get to those levels. But the Saildrone remote surveying technology is the most interesting at this time.

With this in mind, what thrills you about the future of this industry? What big things do you see on the horizon that make you excited to be involved in digital infrastructure?

Seeing the next wave of technology drivers! In the optical industry, I've been through so many cycles.

I was at a company in 2000 where we had the optical technology to do large capacities, but the capacity drivers were just not there. The internet was very new, people were not doing things other than sending attachments in emails, there was no social media or anything. So the technology was ready, but the market was not. There was a big optical bubble.

Then in the 2010s, things were exploding. I think we're waiting for the next application to take us to petabit-type cables, and I think that's AI. I'm always interested in the technology drivers that spur us to the next generation of technology.


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