Tuesday, 04 August 2020

Unrepeatered cable systems - join the discussion

Interview with Gavin Tully, Pioneer Consulting
Wednesday 29 July 20

Ahead of Hexatronic’s virtual panel on unrepeatered cable systems next month, Total Telecom spoke to Gavin Tully of Pioneer Consulting about his experience working as a Project Manager for Crosslake Fibre’s unrepeatered system across Lake Ontario.   Join Anders Ljung on the 27th August as the panel discuss The Simplicity of Unrepeatered Solutions – continuing your terrestrial network along the seabed.   Gavin, tell us about your role on the Crosslake Fibre project?   Pioneer Consulting was hired by Crosslake Fibre in 2017 to support the preliminary planning of the system and ultimately the entire procurement and integration chain.  From my first conversations with Crosslake Fibre it became clear that they saw themselves as a provider who had built their business plan around the concept of disaggregation.  This was a few years ago when the buzzword “disaggregation” was certainly less prevalent in the industry compared to today.  Crosslake Fibre’s project would be the first communications cable across Lake Ontario, and the business model was based on high fiber count cables.  The big-name turnkey providers were focused elsewhere so it quickly became clear that we would need to buy the individual pieces ourselves and put the system together.  Because the distance across the lake was only about 60km we didn’t need any repeaters, instead choosing to build an in-land amplification hut…

Ahead of Hexatronic’s virtual panel on unrepeatered cable systems next month, Total Telecom spoke to Gavin Tully of Pioneer Consulting about his experience working as a Project Manager for Crosslake Fibre’s unrepeatered system across Lake Ontario. 

 Join Anders Ljung on the 27th August as the panel discuss The Simplicity of Unrepeatered Solutions – continuing your terrestrial network along the seabed.

 

Gavin, tell us about your role on the Crosslake Fibre project?
 
Pioneer Consulting was hired by Crosslake Fibre in 2017 to support the preliminary planning of the system and ultimately the entire procurement and integration chain.  From my first conversations with Crosslake Fibre it became clear that they saw themselves as a provider who had built their business plan around the concept of disaggregation.  This was a few years ago when the buzzword “disaggregation” was certainly less prevalent in the industry compared to today.  Crosslake Fibre’s project would be the first communications cable across Lake Ontario, and the business model was based on high fiber count cables.  The big-name turnkey providers were focused elsewhere so it quickly became clear that we would need to buy the individual pieces ourselves and put the system together.  Because the distance across the lake was only about 60km we didn’t need any repeaters, instead choosing to build an in-land amplification hut, which simplified the process.  
 
The Lake Ontario project was implemented via disaggregated supply, with subsea cable from Hexatronic, marine installation by IT International Telecom, terrestrial construction from Hylan DownUnder, SLTE from Ciena in addition to a number of smaller contracts for products and services.
 
Crosslake Fibre provided Pioneer Consulting with the overall philosophy for the project but left it to us to propose the proper level of disaggregation.  For example, we generally knew we wanted to break apart the cable supply from the installation.  But what about freighting of the cable?  What about HDD?  Should we buy the articulated pipe ourselves and give it to the installer?  After talking to many of the companies which we ultimately invited to bid on the various scopes, we started to make a risk/reward assessment and draw lines between the major scopes we wanted to procure individually.  Were the potential savings of freighting the cable ourselves from Hexatronic in Sweden to Lake Ontario worth the risk?  Did we have enough staff inside Crosslake Fibre and Pioneer to make sure there were no hiccups?  To help answer these questions we launched a series of requests for information (RFI’s) soliciting not only pricing but also answers to logistic and commercial questions.  
 
To assist our selection process and strategy we evaluated the flexibility of each company to ensure we could adjust the scope during contract formation (and in some cases even after via contract variation) if we learned some new information from another provider later in the process.  As an example, the Hexatronic and IT International Telecom teams proved themselves to be extremely flexible and allowed Pioneer to transfer parts of scope from one to the other even after contracts had been executed.  Knowing we had selected purchaser-friendly contractors made our jobs much easier.  
 
These considerations and analysis progressed throughout the entire project on rolling basis.  What I really appreciated about Crosslake Fibre and its investor was the trust that was placed in Pioneer Consulting to make the right decisions.  Some clients or investors want to see an entire disaggregation plan (which may last multiple years) presented up-front with no risk gaps.  Crosslake Fibre understood that to get the best technical solution for the best commercials, while also minimizing risk, it needed to place an enormous amount of trust in Pioneer Consulting and its execution team to be able to pivot during the project.  As one scope was under construction another was still in the definition phase.  We used real-time information and analysis to drive the project forward, constantly revising the plan and driving the project to completion.
 
All of the strategizing was performed while also providing the usual project management tools and staff, including FAT reps, marine reps, terrestrial consultants, and even permitting experts.  At one time we even had to bring an international logistics expert into the team to ensure we addressed the tax, duty, and importation implications of some of the decisions we were making.  
 
And what was the primary driver in this case for choosing a disaggregated supply chain? 
 
There were many drivers that led CrossLake Fibre to take this decision, some of which easily pushed us in the general direction of disaggregation such as the majority of the turnkey providers were focused on larger projects.  There was also the underlying belief that disaggregation would save money overall.  During the early development planning progression on key scopes was key to keeping on schedule, while there were still material unknowns, such as the specific landing location on the NY side of the lake.  It would be difficult to tell a turnkey supplier “we don’t know” a critical piece of information without facing a complex contract which might ultimately penalize Crosslake Fibre for contract variations later in the project.  By disaggregating we were able to disconnect some of the risks from each other and solve them progressively, using the latest information to solve the next issue.  We did this throughout the entire project which allowed the solution to evolve by adapting to the changing needs of the project in a cost-effective manner.  For Crosslake Fibre, although the journey definitely was very important, it was the route and destination that really mattered.  As I mentioned earlier, Pioneer Consulting was fortunate to work with Crosslake Fibre and its investor who understood infrastructure development so well and were willing to manage and mitigate the risks necessary to achieve their goals.  Not all developers match their achievements to their goals. 
 
 
That all sounds very positive but what are the key things that owners (and project managers) need to look out for?
 
Actually, I think it is what they need to look “in” for, so to speak.  At the end of the day, the success of the project rests in what you have chosen to do.  There’s really no one to blame when/if things go wrong.  I hear many people in the industry talk about a contract with a turnkey provider like it is a magical shield.  “Well we have a very strong contract!” is the answer I get sometimes when problems arise.  A good contract is absolutely essential whether buying turnkey or disaggregated, but because there are so many different contracts, the real risks are outside the contracts.  If you have a rock solid contract with both your installer and your cable supplier but you haven’t anticipated your cable getting stuck in customs because you filled out the paperwork wrong you might have an installation contractor sitting there waiting to load the cable.  And all of a sudden you could be paying your freighter demurrage fees while paying your installer to be on standby.  At that point no one has breached any contract but yet the owner has a huge problem on its hands.  Oh, and by the way, that’s just an example of what could happen.  To avoid that kind of problem, we planned ahead for Crosslake Fibre!
 
Additionally, for project managers/integrators I think it is important to make sure you are always thinking ahead, anticipating, planning, worrying even.  It’s easy to focus on the scope at hand because you’re comfortable with it but you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  That’s something I learned early on.  There will always be something to worry about, some problem looming ahead that has no answer.  Surrounding yourself with an adaptable, strong team is essential.  No one person can do it all.  
 
 
Would you recommend this approach for owners considering regional and trans-oceanic systems?
 
The question here is really whether owners should consider this for repeatered systems.  I think about disaggregating a repeatered project a lot actually.  I am personally involved in the design of some really amazing trans-pacific projects in the development/construction phase.  On one of them, I worked on the optical design with the industry’s 2 leading OTTs and their optical experts.  What the turnkey providers offer is really not all that novel anymore.  With open systems, the opaqueness of the turnkey provider’s design has greatly diminished in recent years. 
 
On one hand it seems achievable to set the optical parameters of repeaters and fibre and presto, you have an end-to-end design giving you the SNR that you want.  That’s not necessarily for the faint hearted, but the point is there are many people in our industry who can do it.  But on the other hand, it’s quite another step to turn a simple line diagram with equally spaced repeaters into something that can be manufactured.  You have to consider the impact of tilt and shape equalization, ROADMs, BUs and the routing challenges, etc.  Then you have to think about how all of that flows through a particular manufacturer’s factory.  Maybe you need an extra equalization body because of some unique consideration of some repeater blocks in one factory that would not be needed if you built it in different one.  
 
So, to answer the question, I think full disaggregation similar to what we performed on Crosslake Fibre may one-day come for trans-oceanic systems.  However, I think if someone develops a short regional point-to-point system, that would definitely be a great candidate.  Again, you need a developer willing to take the risk, but I think we’re pretty close.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see one in the next few years.  And by some people’s measure, Google has already done it with the Junior system, but their risk profile is a bit different than your usual developer!  Pioneer Consulting is definitely up to the challenge, that’s for sure.  
 
To learn more about unrepeatered systems and disaggregation click here to read “DISAGGREGATED SUPPLY: Commercially Advantageous Or Too Much Hassle?” in the latest issue of SubTel Forum magazine.
 
 
Gavin Tully is a Managing Partner at Pioneer Consulting bringing a diverse set of skills from the undersea telecommunications industry. Previously employed at SubCom, Gavin’s career began in Mechanical Engineering of undersea cables before growing into System Engineering and then evolving into Global Sales for the offshore oil and gas, scientific and renewables markets. Having been responsible for “non-traditional” submarine telecoms, Gavin’s unique insights into the market allow for customized client solutions that range from broad commercialization concepts to important technical details. Gavin holds a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Villanova University.
 
 
 
 
 

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