Subsea cable route evolution in 2024

Contributed Article

2024 is set to see a number of highly anticipated submarine cable systems go live this year, from unlocking the African connectivity market with 2Africa to diversifying communications between APAC and Europe

As we enter 2024, the global requirements for fast, secure connectivity continue to accelerate. The developing nations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are rapidly growing more digital, while the world’s more developed economies continue to grow more data hungry because of emerging technologies like AI. Indeed, from the widespread adoption of 5G to the growing adoption of broadband worldwide, the need for high-quality submarine cable infrastructure linking these international regions has never been higher.

In response to this booming demand, China Mobile International Limited (CMI) is investing heavily in related submarine cable infrastructure. Part of four new cable systems – 2Africa, IAX, IEX, and PEACE – are all planned to go live in 2024. Taken together with their existing cable projects, these new systems will create an interconnected backbone for international data traffic, bolstering these transport routes between Asia and the rest of the world for years to come.

Unlocking a continent: The 2Africa cable

A study from RTI estimated that 2Africa’s economic impact in Africa will be a boost of $26.2 billion to $36.9 billion within two to three years of the system’s activation. This is equivalent to around 0.5% of Africa’s GDP.

Circumnavigating the entire African continent and linking it to Europe and Asia, 2Africa is set to be the largest submarine cable system ever deployed, spanning over 45,000km. With 46 planned cable landing stations, the 2Africa system will directly serve 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe with high quality and highly reliable connectivity.

Equipped with 16 fibre  pairs and a capacity of 180Tbps, the cable is exceptionally well equipped to deal with the connectivity needs of the entire African continent.

2Africa is owned by a consortium comprising major players from across all three continents: Bayobab, Center3, CMI, Meta, Orange, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone Group, and WIOCC.

The impact that 2Africa is expected to have on the African continent cannot be understated. The continent is growing increasingly digitalised, with data usage – especially mobile data usage – booming. In the 2023 Mobility Report, Ericsson found that Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing region in the world when it comes to total mobile data traffic, with a CAGR of 33% anticipated between 2023 and 2029. As such, access to high quality submarine cable infrastructure will soon become imperative for these nations to make the most of emerging technologies and transform the local economy. This is especially true for nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is currently served by just a single existing submarine cable – the West Africa Cable System (WACS), which has been in operation for over 12 years.

For comparison, WACS, even after being upgraded in 2015 and 2019, only has a total capacity of 14.5Tbps over its four fibre pairs. 2Africa, on the other hand, has a capacity of 180Tbps over its 16 fibre pairs.

The cable is expected to be operational in 2024, with the PEARLS branch – which extends the system to Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, India, and Saudi Arabia – planned for service in 2025. The addition of PEARLS will not only greatly enhance the 2Africa cable’s connectivity to the Gulf region, but offer further connections to the entire APAC region through CMI’s self-invested cables.

Diversify and expand: The PEACE cable

In contrast to the near ubiquitous nature of the 2Africa cable, the PEACE cable system is far more targeted.

Spanning roughly 15,000km, this route connects Marseille, France, to Karachi, Pakistan, with an additional branch extending to Mombasa, Kenya, and Victoria, Seychelles.

The PEACE system operates on an open-cable model and is committed to providing neutral, flexible and non-differentiated interconnection services for various operators, OTTs and enterprises across the regions. The system is designed for a maximum capacity of 192Tbps and offers substantially reduced network latency by adopting the shortest direct route between Asia, Africa, and Europe. It also supports customised  cooperative solutions and provides more flexible business models to help customers achieve autonomous and customisable  network-building conditions.

The cable was activated at the end of 2022 and, since then, plans to expand the cable yet further to Singapore have been announced for 2024. This will expand the cable’s role considerably, making it a major Asia-Europe interconnection – indeed, making it the fastest express route between Southeast Asia and East Africa.

Singapore is already a major data hub for CMI, which has invested in over 10 cables there connecting Inner Asia to Europe. Using these various cable resources, CMI can provide connectivity from Europe to Africa via Djibouti to Asia via numerous routes.

It is worth noting that this is just a small part of PEACE’s overall expansion plans, which include growing the system to 25,000km in length and landing in over 20 countries.

PEACE is being co-created by a consortium of 12 industry partners, including CMI, China Unicom, China Telecom, Ooredoo, Orange, and Telecom Egypt.

A wealth of opportunities: The IAX & IEX system

Finally, this year will see the further development of a pair of interrelated systems of great interest to the global submarine cable community: the India Asia Xpress (IAX) cable, expected to be ready for service later this year, and the India Europe Xpress (IEX) system, which will be ready next year.

IAX will stretch from Mumbai, India, to the Maldives, and onwards to Singapore, with additional branches extending to Thailand and Sri Lanka. IEX, meanwhile, will travel westwards from Mumbai, through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, before landing at its final destination in Savona, Italy.

Combined, these two systems will provide more than 200Tbps of capacity over more than 16,000km, offering additional diversity.

As the world’s fastest growing digital economy and occupying a crucial junction for international data traffic, linking Southeast Asia to Europe, India is a major data hub in its own right. Both APAC and Europe are already highly developed when it comes to submarine cable infrastructure, but the sheer scale of the data growth expected over the coming decade is making the further development of these state-of-the-art cables highly attractive.

IAX and IEX will play a major role in meeting that need, offering customers alternatives on some of the most popular data routes in the world.

A new data backbone for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East

For CMI, these new resources will operate synergistically with their existing carrier infrastructure, like the Southeast Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 5 (SeMeWe-5) and Asia-Africa-Europe 1 (AAE-1) cables.  When combined, these cable routes will serve to enrich regional network connectivity along the Middle Eastern and African coastlines and provide advantageous regional transmission networks for local carriers.

Naturally, the advent of new, more advanced data transport systems will require the evolution of the relevant interconnectivity hubs themselves. In Marseille, for example – a city where all three of the above systems converge in Europe – CMI is making significant investments to offer a wide range of IP services and strengthen the synergy between its existing and new cable systems.

Out with the old, in with the new

Of course, the development of these four cables is only the beginning of our submarine cable journey in 2024.

Cables built around the turn of the century that were once state-of-the-art are now beginning to reach the end of their lifespan, often requiring major investments to remain operational. While advances in technology – particularly Submarine Line Terminal Equipment – are allowing these cables to last longer than ever before, even beyond the quarter-century milestone, the need for new cables will only increase as we approach 2030.

Finally, it is also worth mentioning the incredible importance that cable route diversity continues to have for both public and private sector customers around the world. Not only does having multiple routes to choose from drive competition and therefore more competitive pricing, but it also allows greater flexibility and control of where and how your data is transported. With network security playing an increasingly important role in operators’ decision making, new routes will undoubtedly be developed to cater for these more diverse customer needs. These are all additional motivating factors for CMI’s broader investment in the Asia–Europe and Asia–Africa data transport markets.

Therefore, as older cables approach the end of their lifespan, enterprises demand even higher standards of latency and capacity, and governments move to prioritise network resilience globally, it can be anticipated that numerous cable projects will be announced in the coming years. When combined with initiatives such as 2Africa, PEACE, and IEX/IAX, these cables will establish a network that significantly enhances the interconnected connectivity between Africa, Asia, and Europe.

How is the international submarine cable ecosystem evolving in 2024? Join the submarine networks community in discussion at this year’s Submarine Networks EMEA conference

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