Infinera jumps into the subsea market

OvumOn 1 September 2009, Infinera announced it was entering the $1.1 billion undersea communications market with its PIC-based DTN system and that it had already won several deployment contracts, including Global Crossing for its Mid-Atlantic Crossing (MAC) and South American Crossing (SAC) networks. The move helps Infinera reduce its reliance on North America for revenues and improves the vendor’s global competitive market position.

Subsea cable operators are struggling to increase capacity to keep up with growing demand. While international/subsea IP traffic growth is fairly stable and predictable, existing systems are reaching capacity nonetheless. Installing a new cable plant is both time-consuming and expensive. It’s also getting more economic to upgrade in-place cables with new submarine line terminating equipment (SLTE) – also know as ‘dry plant’ – at cable ends with updated long-reach terminals, freeing operators from being captive to the legacy subsea suppliers.

Infinera’s entry into the subsea market was made possible by extending the transmission distance of its current 100Gbps photonic integrated circuit (PIC) technology by adding semiconductor optical amplifiers to a new Submarine Line Module (SLM) board, extending reach to 6,500km before signal regeneration is required. The company has also developed a fiber Bragg grating (FBG)-based 1RU dispersion compensation module that replaces racks of fiber spools and optical amplifiers.

Infinera’s DTN system uses a 25GHz-spaced channel plan that provides a maximum of 160 wavelengths, compared to many deployed systems that use 50GHz and 33GHz channel plans. Using the new SLM, operators can provide 1.6Tbps of capacity on existing submarine systems, providing capacity-strapped operators with a quick upgrade option.

Replacing existing SLTE terminals with DTN also gives subsea cable operators the rapid provisioning features that are available with Infinera’s terrestrial systems. Operators that deploy both terrestrial and SLTE products from Infinera stand to benefit from much reduced optical-electrical-optical signal conversion costs at landing stations.

Infinera is the second vendor in the last month to announce it intends to compete in the subsea market. On 13 August, Nortel announced its intent to do the same using an upgraded modulation scheme for its 40G transport solution that allows 8,000km transmission over submarine links. Other vendors attacking the SLTE opportunity – currently dominated by legacy suppliers Alcatel-Lucent, Fujitsu, NEC and Tyco – include Huawei and Xtera.

40G/100G with a twist
Using Infinera’s technology, 40G and 100G service is provided by inverse multiplexing of 10G channels – something the company calls Bandwidth Virtualization. While it is able to provide a 40G service using this method, Infinera’s approach requires the use of four wavelengths, compared to other

vendors that use a single wavelength to provide 20G or 40G services. We think this puts Infinera at a disadvantage over some of its rivals because four wavelengths must be used for one 40G circuit. This disadvantage will last until its own 40G PIC technology (expected to be released in 2H09) is made generally available and adapted for this application.

Still, Infinera has done a good job of enhancing its differentiating PIC technology to play a role in the subsea market, which comes at the right time given current market conditions.

Several years ago Infinera took the industry by storm, coming from nowhere to become the leading backbone DWDM provider in North America – a position it has held since early 2007. However, the company currently ranks fifth globally among all backbone DWDM vendors, and 79% of its 2008 revenues came from its home market of North America.

The company has been working hard to expand its sales and marketing internationally and has had some success, but competition (most notably from Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei) is much stronger outside of North America.

Besides reaching out geographically, Infinera is looking to leverage its PIC technology for other uses in other network applications in an effort to increase its addressable market.

With this upgrade the company can tap into an additional revenue source; annualized revenues for the SLTE market were $843 million in 2Q09 and Ovum projects the SLTE market will more than double to $2.2 billion by 2014.

Also, Infinera is working on a metro product – to be announced later in the year – that will open the door to nearly $3.5 billion more of addressable market.