There's no half-way for subsea cable systems. Cables are either built or they aren't. Once committed, there's no turning back a cable ship on the high seas. Terabits of dark fiber worldwide bear testament to those who call it wrong.
New systems are announced months or years before the first fibers are sheathed. To most of us it looks like a billion-dollar pissing contest. In the industry it's known as 'testing market demand' - a necessary stage in a high-risk, capital-intensive game.
Understanding the all-or-nothing nature of subsea bandwidth helps explain a lot about the industry today. It also helps to explain why at any given time no one is quite sure just how much capacity lies ahead.
That's especially true now, with a capacity boom well underway. Yet no one dares to use that b-word because it calls to mind another b-word - 'bubble'. Half a dozen years since the bandwidth bubble burst its specter still haunts the subsea business (see story, 'The bust revisited', p.18).
'We are definitely seeing a surge in demand,' said Ian Douglas, Asian director of subsea cable builder Global Marine. The next two years promise to be 'by far the busiest' for the firm since the boom of the late 1990s.
Alcatel-Lucent Submarine, the biggest subsea system vendor, is on track to double revenue this year. 'Everybody seems to be willing to build new cables,' says chief Jean Godeluck.
In the planning stage
On the drawing board are multiple cables from India to Europe, two that link southeast and northeast Asia, the first dedicated African link, countless niche cables and even one more for the Atlantic.
However, the plans that cause the most concern are those over the world's biggest route, the trans-Pacific. At least six new cables are planned: four for the northern route from Japan, one for the southern section from Australia, and one more over a route yet to be determined - Google's Unity cable.
Telegeography senior analyst Eric Schoonover says the cable systems now being planned would together add multi-terabits to trans-Pacific capacity.
Of the new cables, the monster Trans-Pacific Express (TPE), direct from China to the US, is an absolute certainty. Built by the main Chinese fixed-line carriers, it has notional 5.12-Tbps capacity and an initial build of 1.28 Tbps.
The Asian-American Gateway (AAG), a 1.9-Tbps club cable, looks highly likely to go ahead. The partnership has been signed and a vendor appointed, and a spokesperson for AT&T, one of its lead members, says rollout should be completed by early 2009.
Less certain is Flag Telecom's NGN, announced in early September as a global network expansion involving four major routes. It has issued a contract to Fujitsu to build from India to Hong Kong, and a letter of intent for a Pacific system from Japan, but at this stage no more.
Still on the drawing board is Asia Netcom's EAC-Pacific multi-terabit cable. The company said in a statement it was in the final stages of negotiations with partners and landing parties, and expected an announcement 'within the next 90 days.'