|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
On August 10, 2020 Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated India’s first undersea fibre optics cable project linking Chennai with Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI). The project has been aptly named CANI; Chennai - Andaman and Nicobar. PM Modi tweeted: “When I visited Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2018, people complained about poor internet. A 2300 km long submarine cable inaugurated today changes that! In quick time and challenging geographies, the cable is all set to transform lives. Kudos to those who worked on this!”
The laying process of undersea fibre optic cables starts from the landing station (India has 15 subsea cable landing systems in the five cities of Mumbai, Chennai, Cochin, Tuticorin and Trivandrum) where a long cable section is connected to the landing point and the end is connected to the cable on the ship. These specially-modified ships slowly lay the cables on the seabed. Depending on the type of plow used and the sea conditions, carrying up to 2,000 km length of cable, the plow on the ship can lay 200 km of fibre optics cable in one day. The 2,312 km CANI undersea fibre optic cable project in the union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar will provide high-speed broadband connection services to the population akin to mainland India. An internet speed of 400 gigabytes (GB) per second will be provided to Port Blair and for other islands it will be 200 GB per second. CANI will help boost tourism as it will provide better mobile and internet connectivity on the islands. Modi said that from Chennai to Port Blair, Port Blair to Little Andaman and Port Blair to Swaraj Dweep, this service has already started in large pats of Andaman and Nicobar boosting 4G mobile services and digital services like tele-education, tele-health, e-governance and tourism. Besides Port Blair, it will connect other islands like Swaraj Dweep (earlier called Havelock Island), Long Island, Rangat, Little Andaman, Kamorta, Car Nicobar and Greater Nicobar.
Inaugurating CANI remotely via video link Modi said, “There is a proposal to build a trans-shipment port at Great Nicobar at an estimated cost of 10,000 crore. Large ships can dock once this port is ready”. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Administration had reportedly floated an expression of interest (EoI) last year for the container transhipment terminal with the Free Trade Warehousing Zone in South Bay, Great Nicobar Island to provide Indian shippers alternative to Colombo, Singapore and Port Klang (Malaysia) trans-shipment ports. Great Nicobar is a natural port and its development as a dedicated trans-shipment terminal in ANI along the Bay of Bengal coastline offers the geographical advantage of proximity to the busy east-west international shipping route facilitating shorter transit and greater economies of scale, as well as the advantage that the deep natural water depths can accomdate the latest generation of mega ships. Modi said that the trans-shipment port would enable big ships to anchor and raise India’s share in maritime trade as well as create job opprtunities, adding that Andaman and Nicobar will be developed as a hub of port-led development as it is at a competitive distance from many ports of the world. This move strengthens India’s role in the global supply and value chain, and configures a proper network of waterways and ports. Moreover, it is also in tandem with India’s Act East Policy (AEP) for enhancing economic and strategic relations with the countries of Southeast Asia.
As India looks to establish itself as an important player in the global supply and value chain, it is very important to strengthen the network of waterways and ports. Modi referred to in-principal approval being given for building a deep-draft Greenfield seaport on the west coast and work starting on a deep-draft inner harbor on the east coast. While blue economy like fisheries, aquaculture and seaweed farming will accelerate the development of ANI, government is making efforts to increase facilities on the island. In addition to CANI, physical connectivity through road, air and water to ANI is also being strengthened. Port Blair airport is being expanded to handle 1,200 passengers per day and airports at Diglipur, Car Nicobar and Campbell Bay are also being readied for operations. Seaplane services are planned in future for which infrastructure is being developed at Swaraj Dweep, Shaheed Dweep and Long Island. All these are excellent developments. Speedy securing and development of ANI is vital considering it is strategically located to straddle and enhance China’s Malacca Dilemma. Recall the Machiavellian comment made by an officiating Chinese Ambassador on April 19, 2016 during a discussion on South China Sea (SCS), wherein he had said, “Someone in future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands”. Over the years Chinese officials and diplomats have become more and more bigoted; possibly a new breed of lizards is being spawned by the Chinese Dragon.
Getting back to undersea fibre optics cables, the technology allows huge amount of data to traverse a single network link as they are carried on distinct wavelength so channels don’t interfere with each other. Optical repeaters are used to strengthen the signal which weakens over long distances while the cables are constructed to endure harsh conditions and pressure. In case the cable is damaged, submersibles with robotic arms and divers are sent down to the seabed to bring the two ends of the cable to the surface to be rejoined after re-splicing. Undersea cables are important to both private enterprise and military activities. The US military uses undersea fibre optics network for interruption-free data transfer from conflict zones to command staff in the country. Google plans to set up an undersea network connecting the US, UK and Spain as part of the effort to improve its data capacity for services like Meet, Gmail and Google Cloud.