The Cable Ship Capacity Crunch

As the submarine fiber industry sees huge demand for new cables there is an acute capacity crunch of available cable ships.By Dan Swinhoe, Datacenter Dynamics
December 6, 2022

Today there are more than 400 or so subsea cables in operation, with dozens more due to enter service over the next few years. These cables are the lifeblood of the Internet; with the majority of the world’s data flowing through fiber sitting on or under the ocean floor.

However, the global supply of ships that can actually lay and maintain these cables is surprisingly small: just 60 ships worldwide. Most of those ships are long in the tooth; following a glut of new ships deployed around the millennium at the height of the dot com boom, new ships have been few and far between since.

As the industry sees huge demand for new cables, largely driven by OTTs and hyperscalers, there is an increasingly acute capacity crunch of available ships, meaning projects are facing lengthy delays.

Cable ships: in demand yet full of veterans ships rarely replaced

According to the ISCPC, there are around 60 cable ships in the world. According to SubTel Forum’s 2021/2022 Annual Industry Report, after a splurge of investment around the turn of the century, there were no new build cable ships delivered between 2004 and 2010, and only five ships were delivered between 2011 and 2020.

And new ships aren’t being added at the same rate older ships are being retired. Only eight of those 60 ships are younger than 18, with most between 20 and 30 years old. 19 are over 30 years old, and one is over 50; the Finnish Telepaatti, built in 1978.

“There were a lot [of ships] built about 20 to 22 years ago,” says Gavin Tully, Managing Partner at Pioneer Consulting, which provides services on deploying submarine cable networks. “There's definitely a crunch in the industry; projects are really at the mercy of ship availabilities.”

“You can't just walk in and purchase ship time,” he adds. “Scheduling is really paramount right now; it takes time to get a slot in the ship schedules, and things are not very flexible.”

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