The Real Reasons We're Seeing a Surge in Submarine Cables


By Jayne MillerMar 10, 2017


Alan Mauldin, Research Director here at TeleGeography, knows his way around submarine cables.

Perhaps you've already gotten a taste of this know-how by reading his recent set of sub cable FAQs on our blog. Or maybe you've caught one of his recent presentations on why we need more submarine cables - and why we don't.

We asked Alan if he'd walk us through his presentation on why more cables are needed and debunk a few cable misconceptions that have been floating around out there.

We've condensed our discussion into 10 minutes. You can read the whole thing below or listen here

Jayne Miller: First question is embedded in the title. Broadly speaking, why do we need more submarine cables?

Alan Mauldin: Why we need more cables is an interesting question, because if you look at a map you see lots of cables that are already in service in most parts of the world, right?

I wanted to delve in and find a few reasons why there is a need to have more cables. So the most basic reason of all is demand for bandwidth. It’s growing very fast. It’s been growing very fast. And it’s going to keep growing fast, it seems.

Globally, demand has been growing 40-50 percent per year. That means it’s doubling every two years. It’s doubling every two years, you’re adding that much capacity every two years – the compounding effect is incredible.

Globally, demand has been growing 40-50 percent per year. That means it’s doubling every two years. It’s doubling every two years, you’re adding that much capacity every two years – the compounding effect is incredible.

So just to keep up with demands, there’s going to be a need to have more cables.

One part of that is that the older cables that were built 15 years ago or so, their capacity has been able to grow, but at some point can’t grow much more. That’s where you’re going to become full. At that point, we’re going to need a whole new fleet of cables to help offset those older cables that are becoming more full.

JM: In your presentation you did have one example that I wanted to see if you’d go through again. But I noticed you talked about Pokemon Go. Am I wrong about this? There was a “Pokemon Go’s impact on the cloud” slide.

How does that fit in with why we need more submarine cables? What does that example show?

AM: Sure. So this summer that was all the rage, the Pokemon Go game. One of the first augmented reality games that achieved widespread use, really around the world. And the reason why I cited that in my slides was as an examples of applications that have a very unpredictable demand growth.

What I showed was an image that Google had released after the launch of this game that showed the target traffic level, their worst case estimate – which was at five times what they thought could be the worst case – and the actual traffic. And 50x was the actual traffic demand.

So Google was the platform that was handling a lot of the Pokemon Go game traffic. Their platform has to expand rapidly to accommodate this script.

In an environment where we have applications like augmented reality or virtual reality games, trying to understand how fast traffic will grow is very challenging because these are really new applications. We’re initially on the cusp of this, too. We’re just starting to see how these things happen. Over the next few years we’re going to see more, I think, interesting and new ways people will come up with to use bandwidth and create surges in international traffic. Which all goes over undersea cables.

JM: To cherry-pick something else, just that I found curious when I was going through the slides, was you mentioned the need for cables in remote areas. And why that is in the column for why we might need more. So where and why is this true?

AM: Sure, there are actually parts of the world that still do not have their first undersea cable. So they rely on satellite activity, which is far more expensive. So places like Solomon Islands, Palau, some parts of northern Alaska – pretty remote parts are just getting their first submarine cables connected to them. But also some islands maybe only have one cable and often times you need to have more than one cable. Because cables do break. And if you only have one cable…

JM: The next component of this is why we don’t need more cables. So, transitioning to the next piece of the puzzle, big picture, why wouldn’t we need more?

AM: Right, so I wanted to also show some of the reasons we don’t need cables, because oftentimes I think in the press or in the media or in company’s press releases – or just the common man on the street – think certain things have an impact on submarine cables that actually have little-to-no bearing on the demand for undersea bandwidth.

The biggest example is everybody’s favorite online video service, Netflix, which can account for up to a third of traffic on end user’s networks during peak hours. And Netflix is global. It’s in every country in the world, almost. But the reality is that Netflix caches its content near to end users with caches on the carrier’s networks.

So, when you’re viewing all this content, it’s not pulling from the United States every time you watch an episode of Games of Thrones – sorry, that’s not on Netflix – every time you watch an episode of Stranger Things. It’s coming from the caching server in your ISP’s network or somewhere else close to you.

So Netflix does need bandwidth to push one copy of that content from wherever it’s created to that country and they do so at off-peak hours. They’ve just gotta do it once, and then, from there, it goes to all parts of the country. It replicates. It spreads.

So there’s really no need to have new cables because of Netflix.

JM: So another misconception busted right there. Another one you took on was something people really like to talk about on the internet, the internet of things. What’s that all about?

AM: Yeah that’s also a big buzzword. The internet of things and how there’s gonna be billions of devices in the next few years. Your fridge, your trashcan your – whatever – is gonna have a sensor in it, one of these internet of things devices.

The assumption you often hear about is that there’s gonna be this avalanche of devices, which will lead to – the networks will be overloaded – and you’ll need to have more bandwidth.

So in my presentation I presented some data I had found from Cisco showing the expected contribution of internet of things devices as a share of overall global IP traffic. And, even by 2020, when there’s supposed to be over 10 billion devices, the share of this type of traffic – of the global traffic – was just over 1 percent.

So given the rapid growth of devices – it’s growing very very fast, the traffic is growing fast – but it’s, overall, still minute. But I think, more importantly, also for the issue with undersea cables is not all of these devices are gonna create international traffic. It’s gonna stay local. In the same city, region, country. It’s not going to be going across the oceans.

Not all of these devices are gonna create international traffic. It’s gonna stay local. In the same city, region, country. It’s not going to be going across the oceans.

JM: Okay, well then let’s wrap things up by looking forward a little bit. And sort of thinking about perhaps why you did this presentation in the first place, which is thinking about what the future of submarine cable building actually looks like right now.

You say there’s surging investment in new cables, is that true? What’s the lay of the land?

AM: Definitely so. Based on the data that we’ve been gathering for the past several years – or what we’re seeing coming up – this year and next year will see the construction of cables worth about $7.5 billion. Which is gonna be the most [in a] two-year span we’ve seen in quite some time.

You hear the most about cables in the news because of the introduction of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. And Amazon, now. As companies who are playing a major role in this. So I think you’re seeing a heightened interest and awareness of the role cables play. And so I really wanted to do this to comment on why these companies are getting involved in building cables, what are the underlying trends, what are some of the myths, as well.

And looking at where cables are being built, they’re being built all over the world. It’s not just in the Atlantic Ocean or Latin America, we’re seeing investment, really, globally – all the major trans-oceanic routes and within various regions.


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Alan Mauldin

Alan Mauldin

Alan Mauldin is a Research Director at TeleGeography. He manages the company’s infrastructure research group, focusing primarily on submarine cables, terrestrial networks, international Internet infrastructure, and bandwidth demand modeling. He also advises clients with due diligence analysis, feasibility studies, and business plan development for projects around the world. Alan speaks frequently about the global network industry at a wide range of conferences, including PTC, Submarine Networks World, and SubOptic.

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