Opinion: The Pacific – Securing the Future

Photo: Belau Submarine Cable Corporation

Submarine cables are a vital element of infrastructure for Pacific Island countries. Over the last five years, a focus on the Pacific region submarine cable development has demonstrated enormous growth in the number of cables servicing the Pacific Island Countries (PIC), identifying “gaps” that exist and potential solutions or strategies that could be deployed to strengthen the region in terms of connectivity and resilience.  For those of us lucky enough to be part of the Pacific Region Telecommunications Industry, it has been an amazing journey.

Today, as we approach the point where every PIC will have access to at least one international submarine cable – we would like to take another snapshot of the current status, and to take a look at the road ahead to see what else is needed in the Pacific by “Securing the Future” for all Pacific neighbours.

As an industry, we’ve done good!

Kiribati and Nauru connectivity is currently under construction with the EMC (East Micronesia Cable) Project in full swing, using NEC as the supplier and targeting system in-service by the end 2025. Tokelau is currently connected to the SX NEXT Cable system but not carrying any traffic at this time, awaiting the completion of the Tokelau Domestic Cable (TDC) – expected to be ready for service in August 2023 – and the relocation of the Tokelau Domestic systems into new Office Buildings on all three atolls.  This project in Tokelau can teach us a few lessons that will be relevant for the region in the future! 

The tables below are provided to explain the status of connectivity via submarine cable in place or planned across the 22 PIC.  The statistics demonstrate the solid focus that has taken place across the region to improve connectivity, and they also help us analyse future requirements and understand the gaps and opportunities that need to be considered for the future!

And again – Tuvalu is the only PIC that does not have firm plans in place for a submarine cable connection – but rest assured there are at least two options in play that could satisfy this requirement.

And before we look into the future, the following table gives us an overview of ALL the cables in play across the region – some of course are aging gracefully – but most are young and have many years of service in front of them.

If you look closely, several systems are over a decade old and plans for replacement or augment them either exist today or are under consideration for the future. That said, most of systems around the Pacific are only a few years old, and one could expect at least another 20 years of service for these systems.

All-in-all right across the Pacific region the industry can be proud of its work – but we can’t stop now – in fact the hard work is just about to begin.

Securing the future

Once Tuvalu has access to a submarine cable, and both Nauru and Tarawa are connected with EMC, then basically all the Pacific nations will have their first submarine cable in place and as such they will be able to provide improved service to their customers which include critical parties such as the banks, airlines, health and the Government. Rapidly, the first cable becomes the umbilical cord for the country with the whole island economy increasingly dependent on it. The reliance and benefit of cable connectivity is even greater when the country has significant e-commerce often enlarged by the tourism industry.

With an ever-increasing reliance upon the availability of abundant and low-cost cable capacity, it does not take long before the service providers, and the government, become concerned about the need for security of service and the avoidance of single points of failure – such as the one and only cable. Back-up plans are essential for the future.

Satellite certainly provides one option for an alternative route to ensure essential services can be maintained in the event of a cable failure. But as traffic grows, satellite may not be a suitable option.  Firstly, the satellite may not offer adequate capacity to restore ALL services required, and secondly, the ongoing operational costs associated with retaining or securing adequate satellite capacity may be prohibitive.  As a result, it has been common industry practice for service providers to provide satellite backup for 10-15% of the services, the objective being to minimise satellite restoration costs and just enable the most essential services to be restored. This situation also helps us understand why more and more Pacific countries are looking for a second – and diverse – submarine cable.

Recognising the need for submarine cable diversity can create a real challenge for a country.  A second cable rarely generates any more traffic making it impossible to justify on the grounds of additional revenue. Additionally, all submarine cables incur an ongoing cost to operate after the cost of construction has been addressed. This would imply a rise in wholesale price of capacity to customers which is an anathema. So, unless traffic can be substantially grown, there won’t be the revenues to cover the increased costs. So how does an island country secure its future?   

Satellite can provide it in the short term, but such is not cheap. One particular attraction of satellite is that it can serve the remote and segregated areas of a country. A submarine cable typically lands at the largest city (usually the capital) and unless there is a developed national terrestrial network, much of the country won’t get the full benefit of the cable. So here satellite can service the remote areas and as such it is complementary rather than competitive with cable.

Clearly a potential single point of failure is the cable station particularly if cables beyond the first cable land there – a passing ship dragging its anchor in a storm could take out more than one cable. As an example, Palau gave serious consideration to the need for security and diversity and avoiding single points of failure – their plan is adopting a second cable station around 20 kms from the first using a different natural inlet. On the other hand, Fiji has seven cables landing in its Suva cable station but is now seriously concerned about such and is actively looking to a diverse station.

Using the cable

We have seen in virtually all PICs, that the availability of a submarine cable which has relatively steady ongoing operations costs irrespective of bandwidth deployed, leads to reduced unit prices for traffic the more the volume increases.  This in turn can lead to lower retail prices, which in turn leads to more usage — a truly virtuous cycle. Additionally, when the Government Regulations allow, the growth and stability of the market can be recognised which then provides the impetus for entry by new operators, particularly ISPs which provide increased competitive options, encouragement for reduced prices and hence more traffic. This cycle in turn further emphasises the need to ensure security and resilience for all traffic.

Diversity and resilience in a growing market goes beyond providing access to diverse submarine cable capacities.  It requires avoidance of single points of failure across all major network elements – this means diverse cable landing points and diverse cable landing stations, and diverse self-healing terrestrial network allowing secure and open access to these facilities by all retail service providers.

And the Retail Service Providers will also need to step up! Having access to low-cost secure international connectivity can only really be realised if the domestic network and customer access networks are also developed accordingly.  It is critical to ensure the domestic networks used by the Retail Service Providers grow and are dimensioned adequately to facilitate growth.

Having set up your country’s network elements for success – that is a network that encourages growth and provides secure and high availability services – the growth of “applications” that can actually use the capacities then become critical and can flourish.  The Government can feel secure to implement eGoverment, eHealth and eEducation services – and the Retail Service Providers can expand and enhance the services offered to end customers!

In Closing!

So, the submarine cable industry has done good – but the above story did not even touch upon elements such as cyber relates issues, geopolitics, etc and so there is still a lot of work for us all to do across the Pacific Region to ensure the people of the Pacific Island Countries can enjoy the quality and diversity of services afforded to more developed nations!  The people of the Pacific need us to all keep working together to – SECURE THE FUTURE!

Paul McCann and John Hibbard are independent consultants, specialising in the strategic and commercial aspects associated with the development and/or implementation of submarine cable systems for Pacific Island Nations.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.