Obtaining Purchaser Permits World-Wide
by Maria Mato and Javier Izaguirre
March 24, 2022
As published in the March Issue of SubTel Forum Magazine
The submarine telecoms industry has come a long way since the first transoceanic cables were laid in the 1950s. The real breakthrough in long distance digital communications came with the development of fibre optic cables in the 1990s, replacing the original coaxial cables. As in any nascent industry, initially questions were asked, and rightly so, about the environmental impacts these cables might have on the locations through which they pass. WSP has been at the forefront in answering those concerns since the industry’s earliest days. Our involvement in permitting the first fibre optic cables to circumnavigate Latin America and the Caribbean secured WSP’s position as the sector go-to for subsea cabling permitting services and has provided the platform from which to expand our subsea telecoms capability globally.
WSP’s expertise in this area dates back to 2000 when Alcatel was laying Latin America’s first submarine telecom cable, South American Crossing (SAC), an 18,000km long system connecting Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Argentina, and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in Uruguay. Thanks to the pan-region footprint of WSP’s legacy subsidiary, Ecology & Environment, and its established reputation offering environmental services, we were selected by Alcatel to advise and secure permitting for the system.
Back then, fibre optic cables were a new development in submarine cabling, and the regulatory bodies across the region were unfamiliar with how they differed from other cables including EMF emitting subsea power cables. The team’s expert guidance was instrumental notably in reassuring the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) of the negligible environmental impacts posed by fibre optic cables at the Fortaleza landing point. It was to be a watershed moment both for the industry and regional regulatory bodies – while also saving the client millions of dollars in fees – and it cemented WSP’s advisory reputation across Latin America.
Since our involvement in that first pioneering cable back in 2000, WSP has helped inform and steer the regulatory frameworks for landing cables in all jurisdictions across the region. And we have permitted almost every cable laid in Latin American waters since.
Laying cables is the easy part…
Physically laying the cable is only half of the challenge; securing the necessary permits beforehand requires expertise of a different – and no less specialist – kind. The former can take just days, the latter a year (or more)! Although there are international conventions that give telecommunications the ‘right of innocent passage’ to traverse EEZs, e.g., UNCLOS, there are numerous federal, state and municipal regulatory and permitting approvals required for each landing site.
At WSP, we are intimately familiar with the legislative intricacies and approval authorities of each country we have permitted. Furthermore, we have inspected in person the local environment of every single subsea cable landing location around the entire continent! In Fortaleza alone, where it all started two decades ago, we’ve landed at least half a dozen cables.
But even before our clients have established the cable routes, we can identify and advise on any elements that could be of concern to regulatory authorities, for example marine protected areas, military zones, fishery entities, oil & gas concessions, port infrastructure etc. And of course, the legislations themselves are subject to being updated or changed when new public administrations are voted in. We can advise on and factor into our Plan of Work (PoW) any political risks that could impact the timing of submittals.
This familiarity is what our clients depend upon, not least given how time sensitive cable laying vessel schedules are. When a single day’s delay in the schedule can cost our clients US$175,000 in standby fees, they need to be confident that all necessary permits and permissions are in place and on time. We haven’t yet missed a permit to install!
The need to secure the necessary approvals and legislative requirements is all the more crucial given that some cables are emerging out of the sea onto remote and pristine lands, some of which are home to communities who have little interest in, or even knowledge of, gigabit-capable broadband. With over two decades in the field, our multi-lingual team is experienced in negotiating with all local stakeholders in culturally and environmentally sensitive areas.
This was demonstrated when we had to get special permission from the General Congress of the Chibchan-speaking Kuna people to land the ARCOS-1 cable on the autonomous San Blas Islands in Panama. Having carried out two environmental studies – one for the Panama government and one for the government of the Kuna people – and before divers could enter the water, we were privileged to attend a traditional ceremony performed at the cable landing location on the beach. The Kuna believe that entering the ocean is like entering somebody’s home, and failure to acknowledge this brings bad luck. In fact, once the cable landing had been completed, the Kuna chief personally thanked WSP Global Telecoms Practice Lead, Maria Mato, for providing a role model to the community’s girls, and for “having shown our daughters what they can be.” It’s humbling to be able to have these types of experiences.
Latin America: Coming Full Circle
With the expertise that we hold, and the experience that we have gained, it’s not surprising that WSP has become a preferred provider for the industry’s leading cable supply contractors. We have worked globally for Alcatel, SubCom, Huawei and NEC, and ultimately for some of telecommunication’s biggest names such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, América Móvil/Claro, Telefonica/Telxius.
Having permitted that first cable around Latin America back in 2000, it was hugely rewarding 20 years later to be commissioned by SubCom to permit the 7,300km South Pacific Submarine Cable (SPSC) – also known as Mistral. The cable connects Puerto San José (Guatemala) to Valparaíso (Chile), with additional landing points in Salinas (Ecuador), Lurín (Peru) and Arica (Chile), which means we are revisiting some of the original countries and permitting new ones for this system.
Furthermore, we’re thrilled to have been entrusted by SubCom once again to undertake the permitting for Google’s epic high-speed Firmina subsea cable, connecting North to South America on the eastern side.
With the installation scheduled for 2023, WSP is undertaking all environmental permitting along the cable’s 13,000km route, running from the east coast of the US down to Las Toninas in Argentina, with additional landings in Praia Grande, Brazil, and Punta del Este, Uruguay. Bringing greater speed and reliability for users of Google products across the region, Firmina will also be the longest cable in the world capable of running entirely from a single power source.
To Latin America and Beyond
That unparalleled WSP service circumnavigating the Latin American continent and the Caribbean has provided the platform from which to expand our subsea telecoms capability on a global scale. The team has now worked on dozens of systems all over the world. We have specialists located across Latin America, US, Canada, Indo-Pacific region and Asia. And with WSP’s global footprint spanning 40 countries worldwide, we have access to the over 14,000 environmental professionals, enabling us to provide permitting services for any cable anywhere in the world with local resources.
To date, we have been involved in the permitting of over 30 subsea telecoms cables, spanning over thousands of miles including Ellalink (Brazil to Portugal 5,900 Km.), Firmina (Argentina to the US 13,000 Km.) and Mistral (Chile to Guatemala 8,000 Km.). And beyond the Americas (with links to Europe and Africa) Blue Cable Tel-Aviv, in the Indo-Pacific region, we have permitted the Fiji-Tonga Cable, Interchange Cable from Fiji-Vanuatu and Interchange Cable-2 from Vanuatu-Solomon Islands-PNG.
Advising the industry for ‘Generations’ to come
What really sets WSP apart is our end-to-end capability in fibre optic cabling. As a global multidisciplinary design and engineering firm, we can advise on every aspect of this rapidly expanding market, from marine considerations 200 miles out to sea, to terrestrial installation in the heart of the community (however remote).
And just like every other industry, the submarine telecoms industry is challenged with reducing its environmental footprint and adopting more sustainable approaches. With WSP’s Future Ready® program we see the future more clearly and advise to this future as well as today. Our global innovation program identifies and analyses future macro trends through four lenses – climate, society, technology and resources – all of which are intrinsically linked with this industry. We advise on everything, from carbon reductions and energy efficiency to climate resilience and technical disruptors, and of course environmental permitting!
With the global shift in working patterns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic against the backdrop of mass digitalization and the advent of the Internet of Things, submarine telecoms industry is facing both intense demand – and intense pressure – that can only continue to rise. WSP has the expertise, the global scale, the multidisciplinary capability and the forward-looking thinking to partner it for the generations, both societal and technical, to come.
Maria Mato is Vice President of WSP. With over 30 years of professional experience, including extensive experience in subsea fiber optic cable telecom projects throughout the Americas, Maria leads the global telecom practice at WSP (formerly Ecology & Environment, Inc.). She provides a global platform to support her clients in Permits in Principle (PiPs) with strategic leadership and tri-lingual language skills in English, Spanish and Portuguese. She leads her teams in successful on-time and on-budget project execution, engaging staff as well as regulators in multiple time zones, languages, and cultures.
Javier Izaguirre is International Project Director of WSP. Mr. Izaguirre has 38 years of experience providing both environmental and engineering expertise for the telecommunication and energy industries in the U.S., Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Ecuador Costa Rica, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Angola, Uganda, and Italy. He has had a key role in managing the completion of numerous EIAs needed to obtain environmental permits for exploration, production, refining, and telecommunication facilities. He is fluent in English, Spanish and Portuguese, and conversant in Italian and French. He is based in Houston, Texas.