(Bloomberg) -- French telephone carrier Orange SA christened a new €50 million ($53 million) vessel, the Sophie Germain, strengthening the company’s out-sized role in the business of fixing undersea internet cables when they break.
The 100-meter-long ship is set to complete about one repair mission a month across the Mediterranean, Red and Black Seas, for customers including Meta Platforms Inc., Telecom Italia Spa and China Telecom Corp. The ship will help maintain the 70,000 kilometers (43,000 miles) of cable allowing internet traffic to flow between Europe, Africa and Asia.
It was a rare and welcome launch in an industry that relies on tens of ships to install and maintain about 500 submarine cables that span the globe. The number of cables has soared in the past decade to meet demand for data-hungry internet services, meaning more frequent breakages — but the global fleet of repair ships hasn’t kept up. Most of the vessels are decades old, with just a dozen launching since 2003, according to a report by Subtel Forum.
Through its subsidiary Orange Marine, the state-controlled carrier and former national monopoly owns seven of about 50 cable ships worldwide. It’s based at the military harbor of La Seyne-Sur-Mer in the South of France — strategically located between China, the US and Africa. It’s close to Marseille, where 16 internet cables land and other important stations, including Genoa and Barcelona. Orange is contractually bound to send out Sophie Germain or another repair ship based in Sicily within 24 hours of a customer flagging a cable fault.
Sophie Germain is equipped with an underwater robot that can dive down 3,000 meters to hunt for a damaged cable and lift it to the surface to be fixed. Once aboard, a fresh section of cable is taken from a store of as much as 50 kilometers in the ship’s hold and each fiber-optic thread is carefully spliced. The robot then buries the sealed cable in a trench in the ocean floor. The whole process takes about three days.
The boat is named after an 18th century French mathematician and physicist, but that’s not the only Gallic touch: Among its 48 crew members and technicians are several cooks and a baker who makes fresh croissants and pains-au-chocolat twice a week.
Orange Marine only brings €150 million of revenue a year – a tiny fraction Orange’s €43.5 Billion annual sales, but its importance is above all strategic. “Faced with competition and the financial power of big tech, retaining ownership of our infrastructures is key,” Orange Chief Executive Officer Christel Heydemann said in a speech at the christening.
Orange’s strength in the sector means it regularly partners with Big Tech companies, now leading investors in internet infrastructure, to build submarine cables. Orange worked with Google to build the Dunant transatlantic cable and is part of a consortium with Meta building “2Africa,” a cable system around the entire African continent.
Cable damage is most often caused by fishing activity or anchors, although sometimes earthquakes and rockfalls are to blame, according to Emmanuel Décugis, the chief technical officer for Orange Marine’s ships. Since the Nord Stream pipeline disaster, governments have been on high alert for potential sabotage of critical communications infrastructure.
Internet cables are typically controlled by groups of investors, including carriers, tech companies and government entities.
“While submarine consortiums illustrate successful collaborations between players, they also reflect strong international tensions,” Heydemann said before inaugurating the ship. “Recent events in Ukraine and threats to infrastructure security in the Black Sea have reminded the world of this,” Heydemann added.
The Ukraine war has not disrupted Orange’s work in the region so far, but the French Navy would help it carry its work safely if needed, Orange Marine’s CEO Didier Dillard said.
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