Submarine Cable Networks

A submarine cable is a communications cable laid on or below the floor of the ocean or other body of water. A submarine cable network is an integrated system of cables collectively providing data transfer from one land-based location to another. This network includes the cable itself as well as other hardware components and infrastructure that make this large-scale communication possible. Despite the proliferation of satellite communications, over 95% of international data transfer is still performed via submarine cable networks.

These cables vary in size depending on the number of fibers in the central core, the marine environment (sand or rock), and the depth of water. They are specially constructed to protect the physical layer fibers carrying data from moisture and damage. The optical fibers in the inner layer of a cable are held inside a small plastic/nylon tube filled with a protective/lubricating gel, this tube is typically surrounded by multiple galvanized steel strands and encased in copper or aluminum tubing. This tubing is then further protected with a layer of polycarbonate, another aluminum water barrier, stranded steel wire for weight and mechanical strength, and then outside layers of mylar and polyethylene for additional waterproofing. There are many variations of cable construction which depend on the network's architecture, planned usage, deployment depth and environment, etc.

Submarine Cable Test Tools

Building, activating, and maintaining submarine cable networks presents unique challenges associated with accessibility, long distances, and constant exposure to the elements. Throughout the network life cycle, it is critical to use the right test and monitoring tools. See all submarine cable test tools.

During construction, end face inspection can detect dirt particles or other physical defects whose impact can either diminish or halt the performance of the network (and produce bad test results). Perhaps the most essential tool for physical layer fiber verification is the OTDR. Specialized types can be used for long haul wet plant OTDR as well as versatile bidirectional dry plant OTDR.


Wet plant OTDR

Another parameter which must be measured and controlled during cable deployment for submarine network construction is the amount of strain being placed on the actual fibers, this must be lower than 0.34% for submarine fiber grade (IEC 60794-3-20), higher values will reduce the life span of the fibers. Strain measurement can be performed using portable Brillouin OTDR. Optical dispersion tools are also pivotal to the characterization of networks in order to baseline optical dispersion and assess if any dispersion compensation is required.

Service activation requires tools for optical power measurement and spectrum analysis along with data network equipment testing. In order to quantify optical power, a ruggedized optical power meter is an essential tool. High quality Optical Spectrum Analyzers (OSA) for performing Optical Signal-to-Noise Ratio (OSNR) measurement and Network testers for latency, throughput, jitter, and frame loss/bit error rate analysis are also a must during this phase to validate and certify network performance.

       Service performance monitoring

Monitoring & Maintenance
Monitoring and maintenance are the keys to keeping the vital cable networks performing optimally. To assess the fiber's physical health, an effective optical network monitoring system such as ONMSi can provide real-time fault, degradation, and security issue monitoring.

Fiber monitoring of links is an essential ongoing function. ONMSi can be used to detect fiber degradation and a wide array of fiber monitoring techniques may be utilized to meet the unique challenges associated with a fault. For example, to detect fluctuations in strain, temperature and other parameters inherent to submarine cables, fiber optic sensing tools play a critical role. In addition, service performance monitoring is key to pro-actively identifying data issues (such as latency, throughput, jitter, and frame loss/bit error rate) and is usually required in order to prove SLA compliance for customers.

Submarine Network Architecture

The overall architecture of a submarine cable system is probably best defined by the individual elements it is composed of from end to end. Each of these components plays an essential role in maintaining the integrity of data through thousands of miles of unpredictable ocean.

  • Wet Plant

    The wet plant is a term used to describe all the network elements that reside underwater. The boundaries for this wet plant are the two beach manholes where the cable either enters or exits the water. Discrete parts of the wet plant include the cable, equalizers, branching units, and submarine repeaters.

  • Dry Plant

    Conversely, the dry plant, as it is known, consists of the subsea cable network segment on land between the beach manhole and the cable landing station. This includes power feeding equipment (PFE), submarine line terminals and land cable segments. 

  • Landing Station

    The subsea cable system is connected to the terrestrial network at the landing station, with the backhaul system providing a connection to the dry plant. The landing station is where the head end and data center is found. These landing sites are usually located in areas with low levels of marine traffic, mild currents, and gently sloping sea floors so that the wet plant cables can be more easily buried/landed for linking to the dry plant.

  • Umbilical Cables

    As the name suggests, umbilical cables provide a lifeline between the seafloor and a land-based position. This type of ocean cable may be used to supply power to a subsea cable network from a ground position or floating position along with the cables in the ocean run.

  • Lengths/Distances

    Over one million kilometers (km) of submarine ocean cables currently transverse the world’s oceans.

  • Repeaters/Amplifiers

    The range of optical signals is limited due to attenuation. One way to overcome this is through the use of repeaters at discrete intervals over the cable run. For subsea networks, the repeaters are powered in series by the power feeding equipment (PFE) of the dry plant. To maintain the correct optical power levels and ensure adequate Optical Signal-to-Noise Ratio (OSNR) for data signals that electrically powered optical amplifiers that can be used to repeat those signals. Most of the amplifiers utilized in submarine links are Erbium-Doped Fiber Amplifiers (EDFA) which have inherently low noise and high (> 15 dBm) output power.

Design choices made for these networks typically relate to whether repeaters will be used, and if so, how many. Another design consideration is whether or not the cable runs will branch in multiple directions or simply travel point to point. Unrepeated cable systems have the inherent drawback of limited range, with 400km being the approximate limit. On the other hand, these unrepeated systems can be cheaper to deploy and maintain due to their lower complexity as there are no repeaters required and hence no powering.

Submarine Cable Network Testing – What to Measure and Certify

The complexity of these networks makes it extremely important to test and certify all segments of the wet plant, dry plant, and landing station including the interfaces between these elements. For the wet plant, OTDR testing is vital to measure attenuation across the entire length of the cable.

For repeated systems, this includes measurement through the in-line amplifiers. For non-repeated systems, long-range OTDR may be required. Other testing required to certify the wet plant includes chromatic dispersion (CD) and polarization mode dispersion (PMD).

The dry plant must also be tested and certified, including verification of error-free data transmission to the wet plant. The integrity of SLTE patching and the manhole splice should be verified. Optical Spectrum Analysis (OSA) through the dry plant connection is another critical test point. The data networking elements of the landing station must also be vetted, along with the fiber backhaul. As with a purely land-based network, latency, throughput, jitter, and frame loss are potential test metrics to assess performance. The time associated with protection switch service disruptions should also be evaluated.

Learn More About Submarine Cable Networks:

  • Why Submarine Cable Networks Are Important

    With so much worldwide data now traveling through these networks, their importance to global communication, commerce, and security cannot be overstated. This can be traced to the earliest history of these networks when British domination of this industry engendered military, commercial, and political advantages.

    Suppose your customer-facing website is slow because of poor network performance. Potential customers lose patience with the site and decide not to buy your products or services. Or, perhaps you’re looking to move into a different market. If your network can’t handle the demands, such a shift would place on it, your efforts will be in vain.

    Submarine cable ownership today by individual governments has given way to consortiums of multiple telecom carriers who build, monitor, and maintain these huge networks. In recent years, many Internet Content Providers (ICP) and data center owner/operators have also entered the fray of submarine cable ownership to ensure their own interests in this valued commodity.

    The range of uses for undersea cable knows no boundaries. With international internet and phone communication relying so heavily on these networks, almost any business, government, or individual who owns a computer is a daily user. To meet this growing demand, submarine internet cable bandwidth continues to increase. For example, the 6600 km MAREA cable from Virginia to Spain is capable of carrying 160 terabits per second (Tbps) of data.

  • History of Submarine Cables

    In 1850, the first undersea telegraph cable was installed between England and France. Since modern insulating materials did not yet exist, substances like India rubber and Gutta-percha were used to protect the copper wires, often unsuccessfully. Most early networks were owned by the British and the available science of that era severely limited bandwidth.

    Telephone repeater technology evolved sufficiently by the 1950’s to make the first transatlantic submarine phone cables possible. The popularity and widespread adoption of these services spawned additional amplifier and repeater development to increase the efficacy of these early networks.

    Originating in the 1980s, internet cabling has supplanted the legacy coaxial submarine phone cable networks with TAT-8, the first submarine optic cable to be laid across the Atlantic ocean. It was installed in 1988. Optical amplifiers, materials, and multiplexing capabilities have continued to evolve since that time making today’s submarine cable networks the preferred option for worldwide communications.

    Despite these advancements construction and actual submarine network build/deployment they are still vulnerable, the ever-present hazards presented by fishing equipment, anchors, shifting currents, and have continued from the first submarine networks through the present day and can diminish the data capacity of a submarine network or even render it inoperative altogether.

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