The laying of Vocus’ 4,600km submarine cable system which will run from Perth to Singapore via Jakarta and Christmas Island has begun.
The four-pair fibre network will deliver a minimum of 40Tbps of capacity and is expected to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in latency from Sydney to Singapore against other routes.
Vocus revealed today that the cable and 50 repeaters would be laid simultaneously in two sections, by two ships, to speed up the process. The cable will traverse underwater mountains, the volcano and earthquake prone ‘ring of fire’ in the Java Sea, as well as busy waterways and shallow tidal areas.
“We could have done the entire lay with one vessel, but we decided to use two. Not only does this speed up things up, but the conditions for each of the two stages are quite different,” said Vocus head of network product, pricing and carrier, Luke Mackinnon.
Alcatel Submarine Network’s cable ship Ile de Batz will lay the cable from near Christmas Island to Fremantle, Western Australia, covering a distance of around 3,000km mostly in deep waters. Sister ship, the ASN Ile de Ré is laying 1,600km of cable in the shallower waters between Singapore and Christmas Island.
Ile de Batz is expected to complete its section within a month – with crews working around the clock to lay up to 10km of cable an hour – and is expected to reach Freemantle on April 20.
Despite the greater distance covered, Ile de Batz section is the easier part, Mackinnon said.
“Laying cable is faster in deep water. As on land, the geography of the seabed is not flat. There are underwater hills, outcrops and chasms to deal with as well as different types of seabed surface. It can be rock, silt or sand. At one point the cable traverses the side of an underwater mountain.
"When we reach one of the chasms we may need to change the type of cable we lay. That means adding extra armour to protect it. All of this is pre-planned long before the ships sail. The cable is wound into the ship with the right kind of armour already in place,” he said.
The tricky bit will be the shallower section from Singapore to Christmas Island, with the cable there laid by the Ile de Ré over the course of about 100 days.
“The sea is shallower and it is also highly tidal. That could be a problem because cables can move in tidal waters. Over time they can rub against rocks and suffer from cuts. The other issue is there are many other cables and pipelines in the area. Each time the ship encounters one of these the cable has to be brought up from the bottom of the sea,” he says.
As well as the frequent typhoons in the area, there are also ‘sand pirates’ – contractors who illegally scoop sand from the sea bed to order.
Cable in the Java Sea stretch will be buried by a 40 tonne plough in a trench up to four metres below the sea bed to avoid fishing nets and anchors which also provides protection from most earthquake or rock fall damage. A 10km section of the cable leading into Singapore Harbour will be buried at a depth of 10 metres, with extra armouring on segments where the cable reaches across an underwater chasm.
The protection is worth it, Mackinnon said, adding that every few days one of the more than 400 undersea telecommunications cables gets cut, most commonly due to underwater earthquakes, rock slides, anchors and fishing boats.
The existing SEA-ME-WE3 cable from Perth to Singapore was cut three times last year. Only last week, another Vocus cable from Auckland to Sydney was severed by a Sydney bore operator causing internet connectivity disruption in New Zealand.
The USD$170m cable laying project is due to be complete in the third quarter of this year.
Vocus, the company behind the project, is facing troubled waters too. In August last year, the company reported a AUD$1.5 billion loss for the 12 months to 30 June.
In October it announced it would be seeking to sell its New Zealand business and this February came the news chief executive officer, Geoff Horth, would be leaving the company after the two came to a “mutual agreement”.
The company hopes the Australia Singapore Cable will help it sail a little smoother.
“The ASC represents the latest submarine cable technology, delivering superior reliability and much-needed diversity to an important route. This milestone means we’re one step closer to bringing customers an alternative to the fragile Sea-Me-We 3 system which is nearing end of life,” said Mick Simmons, Interim CEO of Vocus Group.
“We’re very pleased with the progress being made on the ASC project and it is something the company has been focused on for a long time. Now it is a reality, we are having deep engagement with a range of customers who are planning on leveraging the cable in their business from day one,” he added.
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