“The real backbone of the internet, what guarantees its functioning, is made up of physical cables, very long and very thick: their total length is 32 times the circumference of the earth”.
The indispensability of submarine connections
When speaking of communication infrastructures, one often imagines high-impact networks, all over the satellites, but which are nowhere near as capable of competing in terms of performance with another, less visible infrastructure, not least because it is completely submerged in the depths of the oceans.
Almost all (95 per cent) of global communications in fact pass through physical submarine connections: we are talking about submarine fibre-optic cables, which are by far the fastest, most reliable and least expensive way of transmitting huge amounts of information over great distances. A need that is not new, and which has grown exponentially in parallel with technological evolution and the advent of the Internet: the first cables for telegraph connections date back to 1850 (see box).
From the telegraph we have moved on to the telephone and now to the Internet. The technology contained in the cables themselves has obviously progressed to the adoption of fibre optics, which is much more efficient than copper. Today, the total length of submarine cables on earth is 3 million km, equivalent to 32 times around the earth.
When we surf the Internet, use e-mail and stream videos wirelessly through wi-fi or 5G, we are using the last mile of the world wide web: the real backbone of the Internet, what guarantees its functioning, is made up of very long and very thick physical cables that cross the sea, the ocean and connect the various servers. In fact, the vast majority of data traffic passes through the cables that connect the various continents, no more and no less than was the case at the end of the 19th century when the first transoceanic cables connecting America to Europe were laid. Satellites are given the task – under normal conditions – of transmitting only the remaining percentage, about 3-5%. The ‘cloud’, the computer non-place that we all imagine to be ‘airborne’, relies on submarine connections without which the transfer and storage of data would be practically impossible given the current volume of traffic.Almost all (95 per cent) of global communications in fact pass through physical submarine connections
Technological evolution and the demands of a market with very high potential
Very little is known about this – literally – submerged world. One of the most striking aspects, for example, is that it is an industry almost entirely in the hands of private individuals, at least as far as the West is concerned.
Apart from geopolitical and security considerations, this situation is a historical legacy of the development of these infrastructures: the submarine cabling sector has always been almost oligopolistic. A few very large integrating players supplied the world’s large TelCo and/or public entities with turnkey infrastructures that included the laying of cables, the cables themselves, amplifiers, etc.
In the Internet age, cables were rented from communication companies to big global players such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Before long, the digital giants themselves started to build and lay the cables themselves to monitor and improve performance in a timely manner: since 2016, there has been a real boom in cable laying by these top players. The world’s most famous search engine is leading the way with more than 100 thousand kilometres of cables laid, followed by Facebook with 91 thousand, Amazon with 30 thousand and Microsoft with six thousand.
These companies are the so-called Hyperscalers who alone own or lease more than half of the global submarine bandwidth. Their status as direct owners has led to an acceleration of the development process of the submarine cable system, opening up a market in which billions of investments are being poured in and on which Asian giants such as Huawey or China Mobile, which are developing projects such as the Pacific Light Cable Network that will connect Los Angeles to Hong Kong, are also entering, compatibly with the vetoes of the US administrations, but often in partnership with US companies.
The risk factors to which these cables, which run thousands of kilometres along the seabed, are exposed are manifold: from the pressure of water that slows down their performance, to accidents caused by earthquakes or even shark bites, not to mention anthropogenic interventions, even malicious ones (there are fleets of submarines used by all the superpowers that specialise in sabotaging cables if necessary). An accident to these infrastructures (there have already been a few in the past decades) creates terrifying chain repercussions in a world that is based on interconnection and the speed of information exchange: it has therefore even been hypothesised that ‘global back-up backbones’ (in practice, a transmission redundancy through an alternative data transmission network) are needed.Subphoton, one of the few start-up companies in the world to operate in the field of submarine fibre optic cables for telecommunications.
Subphoton’s disruptive proposal
The entry of the digital giants has led to a different approach to the supply chain, shuffling the cards and causing the entire industry to fragment. In order to secure the most advanced technologies, HyperScalers no longer turn to players who integrate everything but differentiate suppliers by outsourcing different pieces of integration and component development to different manufacturers.
And it is precisely in this scenario of almost limitless potential that the ‘disruptive’ proposal of Subphoton, one of the few start-up companies in the world to operate in the field of submarine fibre optic cables for telecommunications, now fits.
Founded in 2019 by senior managers from the former Pirelli Photonics, it is a supplier of high-performance optical amplifiers based on two different technology platforms. In particular, it has developed a technology that allows the signal that is transmitted through these, very long, cables to be amplified with greater efficiency. Thanks to their amplifiers, therefore, it is possible to guarantee a greater amount of data transmitted per cable with a significant improvement in performance.
Subphoton has developed two types of amplifiers: erbium fibre optic amplifiers (a performance-enhancing component) and semiconductor optical amplifiers. Both devices ensure that the range of submarine cables is increased, raising their performance far beyond the state of the art available today.
We are therefore talking about the entry of a disruptive technology in an industry characterised by a few players. Photonics is in fact considered an almost ‘exotic’ element in this industry, but this is due to the very conservative legacy intrinsic to this environment, dominated for decades by a few very large integrator players. A scenario that, as we have seen, has completely changed and allows new players, even small ones, to enter a market that would otherwise be decidedly inaccessible.
A valuable team
Subphoton thus offers an innovative proposal developed by one of the start-up’s strengths, namely its team, which is composed of not-so-young founders, a figure in line with the statistics of start-ups with the highest probability of success. These are people with specific industrial expertise in the world of photonics for telecommunications. In particular, the deus ex machina of the project is Giorgio Grasso, who was the director of the Pirelli Photonics laboratory and led the Pirelli Photonics unit from its inception until its sale and incorporation into Cisco. Grasso therefore has some 45 years’ experience in this field, and the other members of the team were also part of his team and have long and deep experience in the field of photonics, as well as a great deal of teamwork.