Facebook and Microsoft to Lay Undersea Cable to Spain

Taking control of the hardware their services run through, Microsoft and Facebook are laying the "highest-capacity subsea cable to ever cross the Atlantic."

Facebook, Microsoft Marea underwater cable

Microsoft and Facebook have forged a partnership to lay an undersea cable from Virginia Beach, Va., to Bilbao, Spain, that they say will help them meet customer demand for reliable, high-speed online services.

The project, called Marea—"tide," in Spanish—will also involve Telxius, a subsidiary of Spanish telecom Telefónica, which will operate the cable and rent some of its capacity to customers. Telxius already has considerable experience with undersea cables, as other cables run to Spain from Australia and Africa.

"This marks an important new step in building the next -generation infrastructure of the Internet," Frank Rey, director of global network acquisition at Microsoft, said in a May 26 blog post announcing the deal, which has cleared early phases and is now a "contract-in-force," according to Rey.

Construction will begin in August and is expected to be completed in October 2017.

Marea is unusual in several ways. It will be the "highest-capacity subsea cable to ever cross the Atlantic," according to Rey.

It will be 4,100 miles long and feature eight fiber pairs and an initial design capacity of 160TB per second (terabytes per second).

It will also touch land farther south than other cables.

Most East Coast cables originate around New York and come up around the United Kingdom and France. (There's a helpful map here.) Marea will be the first U.S. cable to Spain, and its Virginia location puts it closer to Facebook's North Carolina data center, which will speed data flows, relative to the latency rate coming from New York.

Additionally, most undersea cables are operated by a consortium; by funding and laying the cable themselves, Microsoft and Facebook get to control decisions, like what type of equipment to use, and to better oversee data flow to prevent bottlenecks, in addition to dominating the bandwidth—which is considerable.

Like Google's investments in fiber on land, the laying of an undersea cable by a so-called social media company and enterprise solutions company shows how limiting and insufficient those old labels are, and how redefined the telecom industry has become.

"I see this as an extension of [renowned computer scientist] Alan Kay's famous line about those who are serious about software making their own hardware," Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, told eWEEK. "These companies are clearly very serious about cloud services, and network infrastructure is critically important to those services. In the past, [they've] been willing to leave those parts to others, but the underlying infrastructure has the potential to provide competitive advantage in this space."

That said, Dawson added, they'll still be "heavily dependent" on other cables.

According to Microsoft's Rey, Marea will be interoperable with a variety of networking equipment, a type of "new" and "open" design that will deliver lower costs to customers, as well as easier equipment upgrades—which translates to "faster growth in bandwidth rates since the system can evolve at the pace of optical technology innovation."

Way Down Deep

As for the cable itself, laying one is slow, tedious work. Cables run along the ocean floor and can be as deep down as Mt. Everest is tall (nearly 5 miles, or more than 26,000 feet).

In an NEC interview, Erika Koga, a system engineer with NEC's submarine cable team, explained that cable routes are carefully mapped to "avoid precious fish beds and coral reefs." And, in shallow sea areas, the cables are buried to avoid being caught up in fishing boats.

Cables for shallow sea areas are around the thickness of a human arm, while cables for deep sea areas are about as thick as a chunky marker.

And yes, sharks do chew on these things.