Can subsea cables help create a more sustainable internet?

6 Oct 2021

Image: © Negro Elkha/Stock.adobe.com

Verne Global’s CEO discusses the important role subsea cables play in connectivity and how they may even allow for more sustainable data processing.

Connectivity is one of the most important parts of digital transformation, with everything from data centres to subsea cables playing a major role in how this connectivity can be achieved.

But the growing need for data centres has also sparked intense debate around sustainability, particularly when it comes to energy consumption. This means that many companies and infrastructure operators are investigating ways to make the growing need for connectivity more sustainable and energy efficient.

One of the industry players in this arena is Verne Global, a UK-headquartered data centre operator that has a 40-acre data centre campus in Iceland powered by renewable energy.

Last month, Verne Global was acquired by Digital 9 Infrastructure, a relatively new investment fund that also acquired Ireland-based Aqua Comms, a subsea cable operator linking Ireland to other countries in the North Atlantic.

In an interview with Siliconrepublic.com, Verne Global CEO Dominic Ward said the acquisition is a “fantastic milestone” as Digital 9 focuses on building a digital infrastructure that is integrated with cleaner power.

“This is a goal that is entirely aligned to Verne Global’s own focus and we are delighted to have an owner that shares our ambition to decarbonise digital infrastructure,” he said.

The growth of data centres

While an ever-increasing amount of data has led to an increasing need for data centres, the sheer volume of these facilities has come under scrutiny in recent months.

EirGrid released its annual Generation Capacity Statement at the end of September, in which it predicted “electricity supply challenges” for Ireland in the next nine years, in part due to “growth of demand driven by large energy users and data centres”. The grid operator has previously proposed changing how the locations of data centres are chosen.

Meanwhile, there has been much political debate about the growth of data centres in Ireland, including suggestions for a moratorium on new data centre construction.

Ward acknowledged the strain data centres can put on resources and said this is true in most European city locations with significant data centre markets.

“The growth in power consumption for data centres is far outpacing the growth in energy generation. At the same time, there needs to be more focus than ever on sustainability,” he said. “Fortunately, applications and the data centre infrastructure that powers them can now be more geographically diverse than ever before.”

The role of subsea cables

The growth of data centres also means there is a growing need for subsea cables, which have become a vital network for data travelling around the globe. These long cables lie on the ocean floor and send data as pulses of light inside thin strands of wires, or optical fibres, within the cable.

Because data centres are often powered by hyperscale cloud operators and large enterprises that demand significant network connectivity, subsea cables have become more important than ever.

According to Ward, Ireland is situated perfectly to benefit from both the subsea cable market and the data centre market, being an island between the US and Europe.

“In particular, transatlantic subsea cable operators, such as our fellow D9 portfolio company Aqua Comms, have benefited significantly from the increasingly global flow of data, which only looks set to grow.”

He also said that the growth of subsea cable systems can enable a more sustainable way of processing data. Iris is a new high-speed subsea cable system, which spans approximately 1,700km in length and connects Ireland to Iceland. It is expected to be ready for service by the end of 2022.

“With a direct subsea cable system connecting Ireland to Iceland, some applications and workloads could easily be processed in Iceland, which remains the only country in Europe generating nearly 100pc of its power from renewable sources,” said Ward.

Major tech players are already building several subsea cables to increase connectivity around the world.

Recent announcements include Google’s Firmina cable connecting the US and Argentina, the Apricot subsea cable system from Google and Facebook for south-east Asia, and an approval request from Facebook and Amazon to operate a new cable between the Philippines and California

Ward said the phenomenal growth of global internet traffic that is set to continue will mean the challenges facing the subsea cable market won’t be about whether or not they will be needed, “but whether we can build them fast enough”.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com