Submarine Startup Surfaces

Azea steps out of stealth mode with way to upgrade subsea cables and Cable & Wireless as a customer

March 26, 2004

3 Min Read
Submarine Startup Surfaces

Up periscope! A new startup in the field of Submarine Systems hove into view today, in the form of the U.K.'s Azea Networks Ltd. (see Azea Launches Subsea System ).

Azea says it's got a nifty way of giving a new lease on life to ageing subsea networks that feed into major submarine cables. Its proposition to carriers is that it’s far quicker, and as much as 90 percent cheaper, to upgrade what they’ve already got rather than build new systems from scratch.

One of the world’s biggest subsea cable operators, Cable & Wireless plc (NYSE: CWP), appears to buy the argument. It’s engaged in a project with Azea, the details of which are scheduled to be announced next Monday (March 29) at the Suboptic tradeshow.

The C&W project is likely to be a pilot rather than a large-scale deployment, as Azea's system is not set for commercial launch until the third quarter of this year. A C&W spokesman says the operator is "aware of Azea," and that the startup has "potentially useful technology that could help us lower our operating costs."

"There's a lot of regional infrastructure that feeds into the trunk networks," says Azea CEO Scott White, "and much of it is reaching near full capacity. It's very expensive to lay new cables for these links, so we've developed a system that upgrades the equipment at the landing points, but doesn't involve touching the wet plant [submerged infrastructure]."

Azea says that its technology can boost the capacity of feeder networks as much as tenfold and that such networks represent about two thirds of the world’s installed base of submarine systems. On average, feeder networks have one to eight channels, and each channel operates at 2.5 Gbit/s or 5 Gbit/s.

White says the major vendors in this market, such as Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Fujitsu Ltd. (OTC: FJTSY; Tokyo: 6702), have concentrated on developing new technology for the major backbone terabit systems that work with the latest fibers and components.

So what is Azea offering the carriers? The technology, designed specifically to work with legacy fibers, amplifiers, and power supplies, is a software-configurable DWDM system that Azea claims can deliver multiple 10-Gbit/s channels over the legacy systems. The company has developed its own modulation techniques, forward error correction code, and control loop optimization, as well as element management software designed to work with existing OSSs.

Scott says Azea's team can create a simulation of the carrier's legacy lines and determine their capacity capabilities, and then install a software-controlled system that works with the landing station hardware to add additional bandwidth. Depending on the carrier's capacity requirements, the operator can either continue using its legacy hardware, or migrate to an Azea overlay hardware platform to gain maximum potential capacity, a process that Scott claims does not involve any interruption in service.

To develop this system, the startup has pulled together a team of more than 40, most of whom have worked on the very systems Azea says it can upgrade. This team includes CTO Stuart Barnes, who is responsible for the company's technical developments. He is a former technical director of STC Submarine Systems, which was acquired in 1993 by Alcatel from Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT). He was also a founder of now defunct optical switch vendor Ilotron (see Ilotron Hits Hard Times).

Azea has closed two rounds of funding, the most recent in September of last year, though is not revealing how much it has raised. Its VC backers are Accel Partners, Atlas Venture, and Quester.— Ray Le Maistre, International Editor, Boardwatch

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