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CTO interview: Gavin Rea, Gulf Bridge International

GBI ensures service continuity of submarine cable networks, which bring high-speed internet to the Gulf states, supporting the region’s ambitious plans to be one of the world’s leading poles for technological innovation

As chief technology officer (CTO) at Gulf Bridge International (GBI), Gavin Rea is responsible for the design, operation and evolution of GBI’s submarine cable and associated terrestrial cable networks. GBI provides connectivity from the Gulf into Europe, India and Southeast Asia, and connectivity among the Gulf states.

“GBI has been in operation for 11 years now,” says Rea from his office at GBI headquarters in Qatar. “We set up in the late 2000s and went into service in 2012, providing interconnectivity within the Gulf region. We are connected to all the Gulf countries, and that’s one of the reasons they all have good internet services. Traditionally, we’ve been providing services from the main hyperscalers back into our customers within the Gulf, transforming the communications landscape.”

The worldwide submarine network

The submarine cable network around the globe is now key to the internet and global economy, carrying around 99% of all international traffic. With geostationary satellites, the signal travels 36,000km up and down, which introduces a noticeable delay during telephone and video calls. Submarine cables do not have this inherent lag.

International terrestrial connectivity complements the submarine cables in some places, mainly within Europe, Africa and South America. But submarine cables are a major part of the internet backbone, enabling things like video calls, messaging and file sharing around the globe.

A submarine network consists of cables, repeaters to amplify the signal at regular intervals, and branching units to channel fibre pairs to different routes, meeting the needs of different countries. The cables and other components are laid on the seabed in territorial waters, economic zones and international waters. The network provider has to deal with a number of jurisdictions and different laws and ways of repairing equipment, depending on the location. All this makes for a challenging industry.

“The Atlantic and Pacific regions lead the world in submarine network coverage, followed closely by Europe and India. The Middle East is a little bit behind, but we are seeing big growth and we are planning for more. We are augmenting the capacities of our cables through improved transmission equipment”

Gavin Rea, Gulf Bridge International

GBI built its network to offer options to accommodate different political needs. For example, if customers want to go from Europe to India or Asia, and avoid Egypt, which is the traditional route of submarine cables, GBI offers alternative routes through Iraq and Iran.

“Once submarine channels are set up, users quickly get used to the high level of services,” says Rea. “Then you only hear from them when there’s a problem. Sometimes you see reports in the press that cables have gone down. Those kinds of events don’t happen very often, but when they do, we look to provide alternative routes to ensure continuity of service whilst the cable is being repaired. In this regard, GBI is uniquely positioned to provide transit services to Europe from the Gulf through different geographies.

“Developed countries like the US, UK and France have multiple cables, so if one cable goes down, the others pick up the traffic. However, some of the other countries in Africa and in Southeast Asia still have a limited number of cables. If you have a fault in those cases, you lose the services in that country or the service degrades sharply,” adds Rea.

“Even when you have redundant routes, there can be events which take several of them down at the same time. A few years ago, multiple cables failed off Egypt, which took down a significant amount of the connectivity between Europe and the Middle East, and into India. This can happen all around the world. For example, the Taiwan earthquake a few years ago took out multiple cables at the same time.”

Network providers have to protect their networks, not only from any single event, but also from any combination of events that can take down cables and other systems. GBI is also increasing what it calls “diversity”, which for them means having multiple types of routes to protect against disasters and to offer alternatives when countries don’t want their traffic going through certain other countries.

The lasting benefits of high-speed connectivity in the Gulf states

“The Atlantic and Pacific regions lead the world in submarine network coverage, followed closely by Europe and India,” says Rea. “The Middle East is a little bit behind, but we are seeing big growth and we are planning for more. We are augmenting the capacities of our cables through improved transmission equipment. We made significant upgrades to support the World Cup in Qatar last year. And we are planning new investments to augment our capabilities to support evolving needs.” 

The market demands change, moving datacentres from the traditional US and European locations, and adding edge datacentres to support local needs. One of the big drivers for this change is improved latency. The closer the datacentre is to the customer, the better the response time. High-speed connectivity is making it possible for the Gulf states to meet those market demands.

Google and Microsoft have now set up datacentres in Qatar. They require connectivity – not only from Europe or Asia into the datacentres in Qatar, but also for customers in other countries within the Gulf needing access to the computing power.

“New applications, such as IoT [internet of things], 5G and autonomous vehicles, need data and computing power to be nearby,” says Rea. “We’re augmenting our network to make sure we can support those services over the coming years. We’re also moving from being a capacity provider into supporting more specific customer requirements, like cloud and support for hyperscalers.”

Rea says his business is very niche and only gets mentioned in the press when there is a catastrophic event. Most of the time, he goes quietly about his business supporting internet connectivity to the Gulf region – and the rest of the world.

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