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  • By Louella Losinio

Cabling the islands into the future

Guam has come a long way from the early 20th century when the Guam Cable Station connected the island to Hawaii. Today, the old station ruins near Sumay have been registered under the National Register of Historic Places, a reminder of when the island was first established as a telecommunications hub within the region.

From that first cable lay, more submarine cable systems have been established across global undersea borders. TeleGeography, a telecommunications market research and consulting firm, released their updated submarine cable map report online which indicated around 293 active and planned submarine cables across the globe in 2017. From telecommunications companies and consortiums, technology companies placed investments into undersea cable technology to support increasing data requirements.

Google for example has invested in the FASTER Cable System along with consortium members from several companies in Asia. FASTER, which became operational in June, boosts Google’s capacity to support users of its applications and cloud technology platform.

According to Jonathan Kriegel, Docomo Pacific president and CEO, from a submarine cable map, Guam can be barely seen from the number of cables that land on the island. “I can say that Guam is blessed by its geography, because when you look at the two routes for transpacific cables, some of them either go through the northern route through Japan.”

After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the viability of the cable route via Japan was questioned, according to Kriegel. While new cables are still being built in the area, Guam’s potential as a landing hub has been highlighted. “People are now starting to take Guam much more seriously. The SEA-US cables are the first ones that are coming here,” he added.

The SEA-US trans-Pacific cable system, according to a release from consortium member Hawaiian Telcom, will be routed to avoid “congested, earthquake-prone regions and optimize stable connectivity.” The nearly 15,000 km system will deliver an “initial 20 terabit per second (Tb/s) capacity” to meet the “growing demand for bandwidth between the U.S. and Asia. The $250 million SEA-US project will also facilitate “onward connectivity to existing and planned submarine cable systems, and will link Indonesia, and California, with other landing stations located in Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii.

Palau will also tap into the SEA-US undersea cable connection. The Asian Development Bank has provided funding support of around $25 million for the project that will bring fiber optic technology to the island. Palau currently sources its bandwidth via satellite.

Expanded Growth

Aside from the SEA-US cable system, Docomo’s ATISA network, will also be in operation this year. Once put into service, the fiber-optic submarine cable system will connect Guam with Saipan, Rota, and Tinian in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The contract for the $25 million project was signed in March last year. A month before, the telecommunications company received their license to operate the network from the Federal Communication Commission. Docomo said that more than half of their investment will go toward the construction of the cable and backup microwave system. Part of the investment will be used to mobile network upgrades on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

The Atisa system, according to their FCC application, will have a total length (trunks plus spurs) of approximately 279 kms, with a high capacity digital fiber-optic system comprised of six fiber pairs. Three fiber pairs will connect the Guam-Saipan route. Two fiber pairs will connect Guam, Tinian, and Saipan, and the remaining fiber pair will connect Guam, Rota, Tinian, and Saipan, according to Docomo’s application.

The Atisa system will have a design capacity of 4.8 terabits per second (Tbps). Docomo intends to commence commercial operation of the Atisa system by June.

Other telecom companies and consortiums are discussing potential submarine cable projects in the region. Kriegel said it is not just the diversity of having different routes across the Pacific but also the growth in Southeast Asia that attracts these companies. "There are a hundred million people in the Philippines, 350 million people in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma,” he said emphasizing that there is a growing demand for improved digital services and access from these Southeast Asian economies.

He added that connectivity and access to populations in these Southeast Asian economies boost interest in cabling activity in the area.

Kriegel said Guam will continue to benefit as more cable infrastructure are built that connects the island to Southeast Asia and the rest of the region. “This is a demand driven by the adoption of LTE mobile phones and tablets and things like that. Income drives in all of these places in Southeast Asia as they can afford more internet access. This will really be a big thing for Guam,” he said.

Cable Life Cycle

While new cable systems are born, the aging connections are retired once it has maximized its capacity. Just as the SEA-US connection comes into service later this year, Kriegel said the China-US Cable Network or CUCN will be taken out of operation.

“One of the routes in which we own capacity has been shut down, taking away some of our capacity in the mainland but when SEA-US comes into service in June of July this year then we will get that capacity back and even more,” he said.

A China Telecom press release announced the retirement of the cable system in December. At the time it was commissioned in the 1990s, the $1.1 billion project was hailed as the “most technologically advanced submarine cable network.” The 30,000 km cable network has 9 landing points including one in China, Guam and Oregon.

After nearly two decades of the service, the CUCN system had to be disabled due to cost considerations. As the release noted, “with the progress of technology and new demands, the maintenance cost of the cable unit capacity is even higher than that of new submarine optical cable systems.”

Impact to the Island

Kriegel described Docomo’s Atisa network as a “game changer.”

Atisa which means “to accelerate” or “to brighten” in Chamorro is projected to create a number of jobs on Guam. “A lot of the core switching for these networks - cable TV and mobile - will take place on Guam.” He added that Docomo plans to recruit engineers from the island to support network activities in Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

According to Docomo, the Atisa system would enable the company “to offer new and sustainable wireless, cable television, home telephone, and broadband services.”

Kriegel noted other benefits. “Fundamentally, you’ll see with the advent of reasonably priced capacity, you'll see a lot of new business opportunities starting to pop up. You'll see more opportunities for distance education. You'll see faster access to e-medicine to support the hospital in Saipan.”

“When you have lower cost access to the internet, it helps economically. It helps people socially. It helps the government. It helps all sorts of players across society to do what they need to do, but to do it more effectively, more efficiently. Faster access at a lower price. That’s one of the benefits of competition,” he said.

According to the “Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband - Statistics and Analyses” report from BuddeComm, an independent research and consultancy company, Guam has “one of the most advanced telecom systems in the Pacific region.” Guam’s international connectivity, according to the report, is ensured by no less than nine major submarine cable networks, establishing the island as a telecom hub, and a connection between the USA and Asia.

The report also noted other key developments on island, including the “introduction of HSPA+ and LTE technologies by major telecommunications networks as well as the emergence of mobile and digital economy initiatives.”

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