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Google Buys Into Undersea Cable

Google will join with five other companies to invest in a 10,000 km trans-Pacific submarine cable to carry data to and from Asia.

Having outgrown the capacity of telecom companies to provide bandwidth for its online applications and services, Google is buying part of an undersea cable to carry data to and from Asia.

On Tuesday, Google said it would join with five other telecom companies -- Bharti Airtel, Global Transit, KDDI, Pacnet, and SingTel -- to invest $300 million in the construction of a 10,000 km submarine cable.

The high-speed fiber optic trans-Pacific cable, called Unity, will have a capacity of up to 7.68 Tbps and will run between the United States and Japan, about 6,200 miles. It is planned to accommodate demand for trans-Pacific bandwidth, which has grown at a rate of 63.7% annually between 2002 and 2007 and is expected to double biannually from 2008 through 2013, according to TeleGeography, a telecommunications consultancy.

When construction of Unity is complete in 2010, Google projects a 20% increase in the amount of available trans-Pacific bandwidth. NEC and Tyco Telecommunications will be handling the construction.

What Google gets is bandwidth at cost, said Stephan Beckert, director of research for TeleGeography, in an e-mail. Google, along with Comcast, is one of the few companies that have opted to purchase and light long-haul dark fiber, he said. It is the first non-telecom company to take an active role in submarine cable ownership.

"They are a huge user of bandwidth, particularly since their acquisition of YouTube, and have been very aggressive in their efforts to minimize their bandwidth costs," said Beckert. The current cost of trans-Pacific bandwidth is eight-times higher than trans-Atlantic bandwidth, according to TeleGeography.

Viewed through the lens of its interest in mobile advertising and phones, not to mention its participation in the FCC's recent spectrum auction, Google's previous investments in "dark fiber" -- unlit fiber optic cable -- have fueled speculation that the company aspires to become a network operator like AT&T or Comcast.

But Google's network acquisitions manager Francois Sterin, in a blog post, denies any such ambition. "If you're wondering whether we're going into the undersea cable business, the answer is no," he wrote. "We're not competing with telecom providers, but the volume of data we need to move around the world has grown to the point where in some cases we've exceeded the ability traditional players can offer. Our partnership with these companies is just another step in ensuring that we're delivering the best possible experience to people around the world."

There are three additional submarine cables planned: The Trans-Pacific Express Cable System should be lit in August of this year, adding network capacity between the U.S. and China, the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan. The Asia-America Gateway Cable System, planned to enter service in the first quarter of 2009, will connect the U.S. and several Southern Asian countries. And the third cable is being planned by Reliance FLAG, formerly FLAG Telecom.

TeleGeography says that when all these new undersea cables go live, bandwidth capacity between the U.S. and the Pacific will double and that the combined planned and current bandwidth across the Pacific now exceeds potential bandwidth capacity across the Atlantic.

Even so, all this extra capacity won't be enough. "You should also bear in mind that this cable is a single span of fiber across the Pacific," said Beckert. "It's not a network, and it's not a complete solution to Google's trans-Pacific capacity requirements. They will have to keep buying capacity on the increasingly diverse array of trans-Pac cables to ensure that they have redundant capacity. However, investing in their own cable means that they won't have to purchase as much capacity on other cables."

And given that five undersea cables were cut in late January and early February, some redundancy might be a good idea.

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