A 4,000 mile undersea cable deal announced Thursday by Microsoft and Facebook is just the latest of a dozen high capacity trans-oceanic cables being built by tech companies to deal with their insatiable demand for bandwidth.
The two companies plan to build a cable that will run from Virginia Beach, Va., to a data hub in Bilbao, Spain.
The cable will join a cat’s cradle of cables that crisscross the ocean floor, an increasing number of which are owned or funded by large tech companies.
Google began the trend in 2010 when it invested in a cable across the Pacific between the United States and Japan called Unity.
Today, Google either has or plans to invest in five undersea cables, Microsoft four, Facebook two and Amazon one, said Alan Mauldin, research director with telecommunications research firm TeleGeography.
And those are only the publicly announced deals. “There are others that aren’t public,” he said.
Currently, two-thirds of all traffic on undersea Atlantic cables is from private networks, or networks run by companies for their own data transmission, and not telecommunications companies. That’s up from 20% in 2010, according to TeleGeography data.
Driven by data demands
In the past five years, demand for bandwidth has shifted from traditional telecom companies to large content providers. Their need for bandwidth is growing so rapidly that it makes economic sense for them to invest in their own infrastructure, said Gartner analyst David Smith.
“Rather than pay a telco, they’re going to build their own,” he said.
The Microsoft/Facebook cable will be called “Marea,” which means “tide” in Spanish. The companies are collaborating in order to accelerate the development of the next-generation of Internet infrastructure and support the explosion of data consumption and rapid growth of each company’s respective cloud and online services, Microsoft said.
While the cable’s actual width is about the size of an ordinary garden hose, its capacity is “massive,” able to transmit 160 terabits per second, said Mauldin.
Currently there are about 337 terabits of potential capacity across the Atlantic. When the Marea cable comes online in 2017 with 140 terabits per second capacity, “this one cable will be able to do almost half of what all the cables do,” he said.
Marea will be operated and managed by Telxius, a telecommunications infrastructure company owned by Telefónica, a large, Spanish telecommunications company with a significant presence in Europe and Latin America.
The cable will also provide redundancy for companies increasingly dependent on information being instantly transmittable worldwide. Marea will be the first southern European cable route.
No one wants to have their capacity dependent on just one cable, “because if it breaks, you’re in trouble,” said Mauldin.
Being physically separate from these other cables helps ensure more resilient and reliable connections for both companies’ customers in the United States, Europe, and beyond, Microsoft said in a statement.
While many still imagine that traffic between the continents runs via satellites, they’re neither fast nor good enough. “There a huge delay with satellites,” said Smith.
Cables are almost instantaneous, more robust and cheaper. As tech companies increasingly become international, “the cloud is under the ocean,” he said.