With the rise of a new wave of digital transformation, Southeast Asia’s appetite for data is accelerating the growth of the region’s digital economy. We’re seeing this appetite manifest in multiple ways – for example, we’re seeing a surge in demand for data centers as tech giants expand their cloud services, and generative AI continues to fuel data and capacity requirements. Southeast Asia’s data center market is even expected to grow by 17 percent over the next five years compared to 12 percent for the rest of the world. This rising demand for data, together with continued digital transformation and rapid adoption of 5G, will continue to drive the region’s skyrocketing demand for quicker and more reliable internet.

To that end, network operators are investing in infrastructure to boost connectivity across the region. Perhaps unbeknownst to many, a big part of this infrastructure involves international submarine cables carrying telecommunications traffic between SEA and the rest of the world. Behind every email sent, every transaction made, and every phone call dialed is a multitude of submarine cables transmitting data at lightspeed. It’s hence no surprise that we are in the midst of a global cable construction boom that is projected to reach a record US$10 billion between 2023 and 2025, bringing with it an estimated 78 systems online measuring over 300,000 kilometers in length. This is a new level of growth not seen in over 20 years.

Our submarine cable network will only increase in scale and intricacy, as the world grows more and more connected. This makes submarine cables critical infrastructure that must be protected from external natural or man-made aggressions. But how exactly do these aggressions impact submarine cables, and what can we do to anticipate and safeguard disruptions?

Accidental human aggressions and natural disasters: The leading causes of cable faults and disruptions

Traditionally, accidents have been the cause of most submarine cable faults and outages. Most cable faults are caused by shipping vessels, such as cargo ships dragging anchors or fishing boats scouring the seabed with fishing nets. This is because both cargo shipping routes and telecom cable routes have traditionally had similar goals in mind – connecting population centers over the shortest paths to reduce both latency and costs.

Another cause of submarine cable faults is natural disasters, such as tsunamis, typhoons, undersea volcanoes, earthquakes, and landslides. While accidental human aggressions tend to cause single cable faults at a time, natural disasters can damage several cables simultaneously. For example, undersea earthquakes can initially affect multiple submarine cables and again over time during aftershocks. Tsunamis and typhoons can also flood cable landing stations or damage cables by causing landslides from shorelines onto the seabed.

Protecting the digital seabed for seamless connectivity

So how do we protect against such wide-scale and unpredictable accidental aggressions or natural disasters?

When it comes to the former, significant time and money have been invested to provide knowledge and training to all kinds of marine vessels, such that operators are aware of the location of both telecom and power submarine cables and can take appropriate precautions when operating near submarine cables.

For the latter, operators can err on the side of caution by placing submarine cables in less risky routes, such as away from seismically active undersea zones. However, with nature being highly unpredictable, operators can and should implement more complex measures, such as building multi-route mesh-protected networks to intelligently route and re-route critical traffic to multiple cables and landing stations.

Network operators are best advised to lay new cables along highly diverse routes—even when they are not the lowest cost along the shortest traditional route—and then land these cables in new cable landing locations.

Submarine cables, and the stations where they make landfall, must also continue to be diversified along new routes to new locations. In many cases, this is far easier said than done, because challenges are not related to technology or cost but rather politics, international tensions, and other factors.

Keeping the future of submarine cables top-of-mind

As the region’s digital transformation trajectory accelerates, so will its demand for high-speed, always-on connectivity. And to that end, ensuring the resilience of submarine cables that deliver that fast, reliable connectivity will only become more and more important.

Although the submarine network industry has implemented a variety of ways to minimize submarine cable faults, outages will still occur as one cannot plan for the unknown. To the best of their ability, operators will need to remain prepared, informed, and ready to take action to ensure that they stay one step ahead.

Brian Lavallée is the Senior Director of Solutions Marketing with global responsibility for Ciena’s 5G, Routing & Switching, and Submarine networking solutions. Brian has over 20 years of telecommunications experience with past roles in Product Line Management, Systems Engineering, Research & Development, and Manufacturing. During his career, he has worked in various areas of optical networking including access, metro, regional, long-haul, and submarine networks. He holds a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree from Concordia University and an MBA in Marketing from McGill University, both located in Montréal, Québec, Canada.

TNGlobal INSIDER publishes contributions relevant to entrepreneurship and innovation. You may submit your own original or published contributions subject to editorial discretion.

Cybersecurity: A business imperative for today’s leaders