The managing director of Orange Marine, Mr Didier Dillard, a telecom engineer who graduated from Polytechnic, was kind enough to accept an interview with us and answer our questions
M. Didier Dillard, ingénieur Polytechnicien (1981), ingénieur Telecom de l’ENST de Paris et Directeur Général de Marine Orange
LTE Magazine: Orange Marine has been one of the main leaders in term of submarine cables installation and maintenance. As the managing director of Orange Marine, can you describe to us what are the main responsibilities of the company before and after the cables are laid submarine?
Mr. Didier Dillard: Orange Marine, which is an entity of the group Orange, can lay and repair communication submarine cables on a worldwide scale and under all the oceans of the planet, thanks to its fleet of cable ships. This activity goes back to the nineteenth century. At the time, it was about telegram cables managed by the French administration of Postal, Telegram and Telephone services (PTT), which had numerous cable ships that operated particularly in the Mediterranean Sea. As you may know, this public entity become later on France Telecom and then Orange, and the organization kept the activity of cable ships.
Today, we own six cable ships, including two ships owned by our Italian subsidiary Elettra, fact that makes us a major actor in the market, since there is only about ten companies that rely on cable ships worldwide. 4 ships are dedicated mainly to cable maintenance. Two ships operate in the Mediterranean Sea, one in the east Atlantic Ocean and the last one in the south Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Two others cable ships are designed to repair cables but also to lay cables all over the world. Those six ships are all equipped with of a submarine robot remotely controllable, a robot that is capable of inspecting, cut and burry cables already in place. In the other hand the cable laying ships are equipped with a submarine plow that can burry cables while the cables are being laid down.
Moreover, our most recent ship Pierre de Fermat, that was put into service in 2014 and that represents the most modern cable ship in the world, can operate energy cables particularly to connect offshore wind turbines with the mainland, besides of laying and repairing telecommunication cables of course. The need for such service should increase significantly with the growing projects concerning offshore wind power.
LTE Magazine: Today, more than 430 submarine optical fiber cables convey 90% of international communications. Can we assert that submarine cables made of optical fibers carrying the electromagnetic signals are, alongside the merchandise transportation ships, the backbone of the global economy?
Mr. Didier Dillard: It is indeed a good illustration. Submarine cables are the medium for information exchange between the different regions of the world while the containers vessels are the medium for goods and merchandise exchange. Moreover, when we draw on a map the main submarine cables and the main sea route, we notice that we end up with the same links: first the transatlantic route and the transpacific route between Europe and the US from one side and between the US, Japan and China from the other side. Then we have the links between the Far East and Europe through Singapore, India, the red sea to the Mediterranean, but we also witness the development of routes that go around the African continent very often through Morocco or routes that connect Latin America to Africa and Europe.
Submarine cables are sometimes used also as an exchange medium between two coastal cities of the same country. Indeed, it is sometimes faster, more cost efficient and safer to deploy a submarine cable instead of deploying an inland link through mountainous or desertic regions. Additionally, there is of course cables that link islands between them of with the continent.
Actually, the development of worldwide web was possible thanks to the submarine cables. Internet erased the distances and allowed the world population to access content and applications located in servers scattered around the four corners of the world. This would never be possible without submarine cables. Moreover, the apparition during the last years of the famous cloud services that rely heavily on submarine cables to access software applications and data bases located far from the users, very often in servers located in other continents. The optical fiber and its extraordinary capacity in term of data transmission enabled such great breakthrough (nowadays the industry talks about Terabits per second for the submarine cables, the equivalent of a million of millions of bits per second).
Furthermore, the high-speed access, whether it is through the mobile or fixed line, should enable a high-performance connectivity end to end. It is essential to complement investment in new generation networks such as VDSL or FTTH for the fixed line, the 4G and soon the 5G for the mobile with investments that grant perfect connectivity between regions or countries. All the countries that have an access to the sea should equip themselves with such submarine cables to supplement their existing cross-border links, to enhance incidentally national sovereignty. A submarine cable cost represents a small chunk of the investment in a new network for fixed or mobile local loop.
LTE Magazine: We observe that Telecom Operators are not the only ones that invest in submarine cables. Google is investing in FASTER, a submarine cable that connect the US to Japan. In 2018, the submarine cable MAREA used by Microsoft and Facebook went live, connecting thus the US to Spain. What should Telco do against the growing appetite of Internet giants for submarine cables.
Mr. Didier Dillard: As you mentioned, we are witnessing a major change as Google, Facebook, but also Amazon and Microsoft (The famous GAFAM) are investing today on submarine cables instead of renting capacity from operators. Those investments are operated essentially in the most important routes mentioned before (the transatlantic route, the transpacific route, etc)
In my opinion, this should not prevent operators from continuing to invest in submarine cables because at this stage, Internet Giants are primarily connecting their own data centers without exposing themselves to the connectivity idiosyncrasies of such or such country. And even if Google and Facebook represent a very important part of the world internet traffic, there is luckily still many other service providers for which operators are the best suppliers of international connectivity. Thus, I think that in the future we will have a situation where GAFAM financed cables would coexist with operators financed cables. We have even cables that are co-financed by the two parties, or cables financed by private investors specialized in such type of projects.
LTE Magazine: The rupture of connections at the level of submarine cables is lived today as a catastrophe for any state. What are the means used to prevent and fix such ruptures without disrupting internet access for countries?
Mr. Didier Dillard: It is true that ruptures of submarine cables are susceptible of disrupting significantly communications of a country or a region. Many protective measures are undertaken to reduce the risk of submarine cables rupture. First when the routes are traced, the cable layout is preceded by the identification of the optimal route, identification performed by ships equipped with performant sonars to avoid dangerous routes for the cable (very high gradients, rocky seabed, etc.)
In shallow waters, the routes should help to burry cables in order to protect them against external aggressions, particularly trawls that are used by some fishermen and that can scrape nowadays seabed up to 1000 meters underwater, even more sometimes. A route layout with a seabed having properties that allow us to burry cables with a submarine plow is therefore a necessity.
In the end, there is always a risk of cable rupture and the best way to mitigate against important disturbance in case of ruptures is to deploy redundancy of routes and to plan many links with excess capacity to reroute the totality of the traffic of a given link in case of an incident.
LTE Magazine: In Morocco, as it is the case in other countries, there is a growing broadband need in order to improve the connectivity, including the international connectivity. Can you inform us of any ongoing submarine cable projects, whether they are in the study phase or implementation phase, meant to improve the connectivity of Morocco with the rest of the world?
Mr. Didier Dillard: I know that Morocco is committed to ambitious programs meant to upgrade the high-speed access, and it should be good news for the inhabitants and the companies of the country. Morocco has already many submarine links for its connectivity with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, I can tell you that several new connection projects are undertaken by the main operators of the country, projects that are essential to upgrade the broadband speed. I would advise you to ask directly the Moroccan operators to get more details on such projects as I am not sure at this stage whether they have made any information disclosure to the public regarding those investments.
Anyway, no matter the operator that initiated a submarine cable project, we are always happy to contribute to the realization of such projects by continuing to implement our know-how in the field, as we have been executing for more than a century around all the seas / oceans of the planet!