Our own experience – how is the industry changing on the ground?
It’s not only new capacity growth models that are disruptive, we all feel significant structural changes coming into the industry. MD Pete Fisk touches on ownership, critical network infrastructure and global permitting with a perspective on the top 5 industry influencing issues he is seeing from system commissioning down to vessel operations.
1. The politics of Critical Networks Infrastructure
Pelagian is an engineering firm, not a lobbying group – however increasingly I recognise a need for a specialist advice capability within Governments around the world on the nature of subsea cables as part of Critical Network Infrastructure (CNI). Web search CNI and you get all the infrastructure you can think of on IT, security and power – except for anything to do with subsea cables.
Our lobbying capacity as an industry needs to be given some momentum – maybe this is where we bring in the firepower of the giant techs. National security issues are increasingly going to be bound up in the ability to protect data integrity and transit. Did this sit anywhere in the manifestos of the political parties in the recent UK election? I’d like to see how we as an industry could take a leaf from the environmental lobby – who have made a compelling and audible case for the environment as a “tier-1” issue. Even as introspective engineers we all know someone who knows someone pulling the strings. To make the subsea cable industry a tier-1 CNI issue, better we pull together.
2. The ownership model
It’s been happening gradually over the last 5 years, but owning cables now is increasingly a financial conglomerate operation. For instance, looking at Seabras1/ARBR supported by global equities investors, such as Partners group and Werthein Group, the financiers, not just Telcos are often now driving specific cable system deployment. The attraction for these organisations are the cash returns and the interest from the biggest tech companies on the planet. There have always been multiple stakeholders in cable systems, but as engineers, we must now go out of our way to understand the financial drivers, whilst also encouraging investors to appreciate the engineering challenges that will drive the success of their investment
3. From Telco to Tech
This is a mainstream point but there are significant implications. The Independent October 2015: “Historically, undersea cables were paid for by telecom consortiums. But in recent years, OTT tech companies started getting in on the game, putting big bucks behind the infrastructure that’s made the shift to an always connected world possible’”.
The world where the telcos are chasing the tech and big financial platforms for business sets a very different set of priorities for the cable laying industry. There is a danger that we dilute some of the engineering expertise ‘wired-in’ to the business of telecommunications. It’s up to us to help mitigate that risk – given that the momentum behind this change is only going to accelerate. It is now down to the OTT’s to grow or hire their subsea cable expertise. It’s starting to happen already and we should embrace it. A collaborative sector with shared skills from a core network of professionals will benefit everyone.
4. Global permitting complexity
Construction in the marine environment is by its nature a complex and fractured process – consider environmental sensitivity for example. As capacity grows exponentially, developing industries such as offshore wind farms should benefit from the hard won permitting and engineering expertise of telecommunications projects.
As environmental considerations become increasingly global, it seems the industry would benefit from a holistic look at best practice permitting. Is the Australian position of Cable Protection Zone the only sensible route for critical infrastructure? We can see the potential for a rating system ascribed to levels of risk for coastal waters as cable laying areas. There are also already jurisdictions that have standardised their permitting processes and the cable routes are pre-established.
The industry would be helped by a collective aspiration towards an overarching approach to permitting that is not normally impacted by change in localised regime or government.
Early integration by system owners prior to supplier selection can aid this process – it is starting to happen and it is an industry obligation to share best practice and realise the value of early integration.
5. Personnel support to cable construction
We have always operated with one of the largest deployable personnel database in the industry, with the value-add from centralisation of the deployment through a highly experienced hub. All too often we now see the singleton post deployed in isolation across projects that has cost advantages but loses coordination and support functions – it represents a product being provided rather than a solution. We need to engage with the new commissioning groups at a more strategic level to better demonstrate the value of collaborative team expertise – especially in system planning and construction. This also enhances the efficiency of complex multi vessel operations, reducing risk of stand-by time.