The journey to SMART subsea cables


Ahead of Submarine Networks EMEA 2023, we caught up with Ceci Rodriguez Cruz, Project Manager of the International Project Office for the JTF for SMART Cables. Ceci shares her insights into the progress of SMART cable development and what smarter subsea cables would mean for both the scientific and telecom communities.

For those who aren’t aware of the JTF for SMART Cables, could you tell us more about the organisation and your role there?

JTF for SMART Cables is a United Nations effort uniting science with the telecom industry to provide the necessary strategic direction and leadership for the development of a sustained SMART subsea cable network. The network will monitor climate change including ocean heat content, circulation and sea level rise, provide early warning for earthquakes and tsunamis, and monitor seismic activity for earth structure and related hazards. All relate to disaster risk reduction and the informed sustainable development of coastal and offshore infrastructure, including the cables themselves and their mission of global connectivity.

The JTF was formed in 2012 and has been led by a chair and a vice chair. From January 2023, the JTF has an International Project Office that supports the JTF effort to make SMART cables the global standard. The IPO can be thought of as the executive branch of the JTF and I’m in charge of the office.

What kind of data can SMART cables yield and how is it used?

A SMART cable combines the functionality of a telecommunication cable with environmental sensing, with the emphasis on the SMART repeater (amplifies the optical telecommunications signals, every ~70 km), now with 3 ocean bottom sensors observing the environment:

Temperature: understand climate change with improved estimates of ocean heat content and the component of sea level rise related to thermal expansion of water.
Bottom pressure: improve understanding of ocean circulation (water flows from high to low pressure), sea level rise due to melting land ice, and directly measuring tsunamis that improve early warning thereof.
Seismic acceleration: provide early warning for earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as better understanding of associated risk to coastal areas.

This information will help governments to sustainably develop and manage the oceans and coastal and offshore infrastructure, including helping the subsea telecommunication industry with warnings of external hazards to cables and improved cable system routing.

How expensive is it to deploy these SMART cables compared to a traditional cable?

It is approximately a 10% incremental cost relative to the traditional cable. So, for example, the Portuguese system (discussed next) with 50 SMART repeaters is expected to cost about e150M, and the SMART part is nominally e15M. Amortised over the 25-year life, the cost is about e15K/sensor/year, which is very, very reasonable. This can be compared with a single tsunami warning buoy cost of e500k/buoy/year.

Have there been any major success stories with SMART cables so far? 

Portugal has funded the SMART Atlantic CAM system which will be ready-for-service in 2025 (3,700 km connecting Lisbon, Azores, Madeira in a ring). We will assure a data management system is in place that can route the data to the relevant operational centres in real time.

The EU just closed a e100M call for international cable connectivity that could include SMART capability.

We have a $7M grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to facilitate SMART, globally and regionally, as well as Vanuatu-New Caledonia.

Other systems are in proposal stages, including, New Zealand-Chatham Islands, US-NSF New Zealand-Antarctica, MEDUSA in the Mediterranean, and Far North Fiber.

We have great support from our sponsoring organisations including ITU, WMO, and IOC.

Are there any major barriers to deployment beyond cost? 

The most often cited possible barriers revolve around permitting, legal and security issues. We believe the best way to tackle these is to simply begin with modest sized systems (technically prudent in any case!) involving landing countries that need and want the SMART capability. For instance, both Portugal and Vanuatu-New Caledonia need the earthquake and early warning capability – countries on the Ring of Fire. Basically, systems involving just one country (i.e., a domestic system) or two or so friendly and receptive countries. These first systems would set positive precedents that would lead to more general adoption.

Do you think all subsea cables will be SMART in the future? Is this the first step to building a global ocean observation system?

We are taking the first steps in creating a new observing platform for the continually developing Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). It will effectively measure the ocean bottom boundary condition and the waters above (as well as the earth beneath). We expect that more capability (e.g., more sensors) could be added as it evolves.

While our (very) long term goal is that all cables would be SMART, realistically this is a process that will take decades. We will have to prioritise which systems to pursue to obtain the most optimal global sampling, given as always, funding constraints. A modest objective is to have ten systems in the pipeline (RFP, CIF, RFS) at any one time in the next decade. More than this will likely take a major shift in the stance of stakeholders.

What are you looking forward to about attending Submarine Networks EMEA 2023?

Networking! This is still the most important aspect – connecting with people who can make a positive impact. And of course, simply learning more about where the industry is headed and new opportunities.

Ceci will be chairing a keynote session on 1st June at Submarine Networks EMEA 2023 on “Maximising undersea infrastructure: the journey towards SMART cables”. The JTF for SMART Cables will also be joined by speakers from ASN and Assured Communications. For more information on the conference and how to get involved, head to the event website.

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