Microsoft, Facebook Collaborate on New Undersea Cable: Now what?

By: Mike Hollands

Microsoft and Facebook recently announced that they are partnering to build the 4,000-mile long “MAREA” undersea cable between Bilbao, Spain, and Virginia Beach, Virginia. MAREA will provide up to 160 terabits per second of bandwidth for the two companies to share, establishing one of the largest, independently-managed network infrastructure projects to date.

Historically, Internet companies and content providers have relied exclusively on consortium cables owned by telcos to transfer information between data centres and Points of Presence (PoPs). In fact, Wired reports that a decade ago only about 10 percent of data crossing the Atlantic traveled on cables operated by non-telcos. When MAREA goes live in October 2017, more than two thirds of the digital data moving beneath the Atlantic will travel on independently-owned cable networks financed by massive Internet companies – a trend Google pioneered in 2010 when it invested in the Unity cable connecting the United States and Japan.

This is just the latest instance of this growing trend in the interconnectivity world, but it begs the question: does this signify the mass- privatisation of the world’s undersea cables, or simply a practice among the select few “Internet giants”?

For the largest Internet companies, independent infrastructure makes sense

Microsoft cloud services like Bing, Office 365, Skype, Xbox Live and Microsoft Azure are some of the most popular cloud computing services being adopted en masse by both consumers and enterprises. The growing demand for fast and resilient connection to these services requires an unprecedented amount of bandwidth to manage workloads between their data centres/ interconnection hubs.

By building and owning their own networks, Internet brands can control and power connections as they see fit and can transfer an unprecedented amount of data without facing network congestion caused by consortium users. Because of the sheer amount of data they are transferring, owning their own infrastructure and having complete control over the management of it makes sense.

What works for Microsoft won’t work for the majority of Internet companies

While this is a boon for the largest Internet content providers, there are only a handful of organisations with enough data to justify financing their own network infrastructures. For every Microsoft or Facebook, there are hundreds of smaller companies that are better off sticking to the traditional model of undersea cables – owned by consortiums of third party telcos.

Two such cables AAE-1 and SEA-ME-WE-5 are going live this year and will add huge capacity between Africa, Asia and the Middle East to Europe. These telco-operated cables are scalable enough to allow customers to increase their bandwidth at a price point that is in line with their needs without needing to invest in a huge infrastructure rollout themselves.

Both of these new cables will be anchored at Interxion’s MRS1 facility in Marseilles. Using colocation data centres as landing points is a relatively new phenomenon, which is being introduced with the next generation of undersea consortium cables. MRS1 already houses more than 80 connectivity providers that will interconnect with these cables as they come online. Among these providers are a number of EU network backhaul providers that can interconnect with businesses entering the continent for the first time, affording competitive pricing for backhaul from Marseille to other key cities in Europe including hubs like Frankfurt, Paris, London and Amsterdam.

This year businesses all over the world are becoming more connected than ever. While the internet giants like Facebook and Google are laying their own, more and more capacity is coming online that the rest of us can take advantage of too.