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Washington: The New Frontier for Transpacific Subsea Cable

Washington: The New Frontier for Transpacific Subsea Cable

Despite surging demand for connectivity around the world, Washington State has not had a new subsea cable land on its coast in over twenty years – the last one having been landed in 1999. Subsea cable installations are complex infrastructure projects that can take years to complete. The reasons for this are complicated and involve a number of barriers that can either slow the project down or, in some cases, render it impossible. Here are just a few of the main considerations companies must consider as part of a subsea fiber cable project.


Quick Take:

  • Washington State hasn’t had new submarine fiber-optic cables land in over twenty years, while Oregon and California have laid 14 in that period
  • Cables and technology age out – maximum life span for subsea fiber cables is approximately twenty years – and they need to be replaced with newer fibers that have more stand and bandwidth capacity
  • Global demand has increased, especially in Asia-Pacific markets, making Washington an ideal location for the next Asia-Pacific (APAC) telecom cable
  • Toptana Technologies’ subsea cable landing station – owned by the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) – will offer numerous benefits that were previously unavailable in the state: carrier neutrality, essential route diversity, state and federal government support, and, ultimately, will help bridge the digital divide in underserved areas

Despite surging demand for connectivity around the world, Washington State has not had a new subsea cable land on its coast in over twenty years – the last one having been landed in 1999. Subsea cable installations are complex infrastructure projects that typically take years to complete. The reasons for this are complicated and involve a number of barriers that can either slow the project down or, in some cases, render it impossible. Here are just a few of the main considerations companies must take into account as part of a subsea fiber cable project.

Regulatory Requirements

Coastline access alone is not enough to build a cable landing station and lay subsea fiber optic cable. Prior to even deploying the project, each subsea cable needs to be licensed by the FCC’s Telecom Team and requires approval from NOAA in order to secure the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are also a variety of other local and federal permits that need to be secured, both onshore and offshore. These permits and approvals are strictly regulated to minimize the impact of subsea cable projects on the environment while also taking into account considerations of cable routing and feasibility.

These regulations also allow the government to vet and control who is landing communication cables on U.S. soil. Regulators and legislators treat cable ownership with great sensitivity due to its implications for national security. Although subsea cables are commercial projects owned by private/public companies, the cables themselves are of great importance. If tampered with during manufacturing, installation, or even after deployment, hostile agents could siphon off data for use in espionage or tamper with access in order to inflict potentially devastating outages. In 2021, for example, a World Bank-led subsea cable project was scrapped after the U.S. government voiced opposition for the project. Other projects were similarly scuttled in 2022.

The stakes with subsea cables are high. For this reason, the FCC and other government agencies carefully regulate each subsea cable project. This regulation, though necessary, serves as a barrier to entry for any companies seeking to lay cables to keep up with connectivity demands. 

Source: TeleGeography, 2022

Geographic Factors

The seafloor is a complicated terrain for any construction project. Its topography is made up of diverse sediment materials, such as rock, sand, and mud. The surface of the sea floor is uneven – in some ways, not unlike dry land – and not all sea floors are suitable for building. For a subsea cable to be laid across an ocean, many conditions need to be met. Feasibility depends on specific considerations such as water depth, seabed topography, sediment type and thickness, and the existence of any physical obstructions (rocks, shipwrecks, or other impediments). There are also considerations of marine life impact and the prevalence of strong tides or currents, which can destabilize the ocean floor, thus destabilizing the cables themselves. Although few coastlines are perfect for subsea cable installations, some of these factors are manageable. In the Pacific Northwest, however, not all of the coastal sea floor is suitable for such projects. The sand and other sediment found in much of the Cascadia subduction zone are known to pose construction challenges.

Much of the Pacific Northwest coastline is considered further challenging due to the existence of the Cascadia subduction zone, known for its seismic activity, which poses a risk for subsea cables. Though it is considered less of a hindrance for subsea cables due to the inevitability of seismic activity throughout various areas of the world, it nevertheless has been one additional complicating factor for Washington state in the subsea cable race.


Subsea cable projects run up costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. For expensive projects such as these, any cost savings to be found could be impactful enough to make the difference between profitability and loss. States compete for these types of business through legislation and other policies. In the past, Washington’s neighboring states, such as Oregon, have offered favorable tax incentives and other benefits to actively lure these projects to their coastlines. There are other operational costs to consider as well. Cable Landing Stations connected to the subsea cables require a significant amount of energy to operate 24/7. That power needs to be stable and affordable. The cost of power in Oregon has attracted companies to build cables there in the past. With high cost, high-risk infrastructure projects such as these, every bit of potential savings influences the decision on where to build.

‍Materials and Manpower‍

Subsea cable projects require a wide variety of raw materials for construction, including copper, nylon, steel, and other materials. At their core, they also require the fiber itself. Like other complex hardware, such as microchips and other components, companies around the world manufacture fibers using complex technical subcomponents. The fiber optic cable market is fragmented, with several hundred companies of varying sizes producing these cables. Supply and demand routinely shift, and so periodic shortages are not uncommon. Limited availability or delays in receiving the cables themselves limits the ability to undertake a subsea cable installation. These shortages happen periodically, particularly when demand increases at an unexpectedly high rate, as has been the case in fast-growing markets in 2022. When the raw materials needed for cables are in short supply, the delays and additional costs associated with acquisition risk make the project infeasible. 

Subsea projects also require a specific group of skill sets from people with experience in both laying and maintaining this complex type of cable. This type of experience takes many years to obtain. With global demand for subsea projects surging in recent years, this puts this limited workforce in high demand. With broadband projects in especially high demand thanks to newly available federal funding in the United States, manpower to build is stretched to its limits, preventing projects from getting off the ground until staffing needs can be fully met.

Why Are New Cable Landing Stations Necessary?

With technology of any kind, best practices and baseline levels of quality evolve rapidly. What was cutting edge over twenty years ago is dated by modern standards. Cassette tapes, widely seen as cutting edge in the mid-1980s, were borderline obsolete by the late 1990s. CDs were replaced by digital downloads at an even faster rate. Floppy discs were replaced by USB flash drives that could store 100 times the data of the floppy. The speed of change in technology is increasing at a faster pace than ever before, and this fact is no different in large-scale tech infrastructure projects. Despite the costs of subsea cable projects, it remains worth the investment to lay new cables to replace aging cables that have technical limitations by today’s standards.

In today’s data race, latency also matters. The proximity of coastal landing stations to major data center markets is an important site selection consideration. Having the right mix of location, fiber backhaul, and diversity is the key to driving the ever-growing demand.

Why Is Washington Worth It Now?‍

Meeting Global Demand‍

Despite barriers that have prevented Washington from being a subsea cable landing site in recent decades, global internet use continues to grow at a rapid pace and those needs have to be met, giving the state a growing incentive to nevertheless find a way. Demand for bandwidth continues unabated. One report estimates global year-over-year growth of 28% by 2026 in mobile data alone, driven largely by increasing video usage. This exponential growth in internet usage creates an urgent need to build new landing points to keep up with demand. In Asia in particular, usage is growing especially rapidly – as of 2022, half of the top ten countries with the highest internet usage are in Asia. Because of this, a trans-Pacific subsea cable is a particularly high-priority cable placement, even as compared to subsea routes elsewhere in the world.

Likewise, given the difficulties with establishing landing points, cable landing stations need to be built with a pragmatic, forward-looking approach to the investment in order for them to serve as long-term solutions. Flexibility to adapt to customer and market demands is key. Toptana’s CLS will be adaptable and expandable in order to update technology, increase efficiency and minimize energy consumption, and add capacity as demand continues to grow.

New Incentives

Washington State is an increasingly favorable spot for subsea cable for another reason. In 2019, Washington passed a law that recognized broadband access as being critical for the state’s residents and set goals for access and quality across the state. To support those goals, the state has set aside funding to be used for grants for businesses and projects in broadband infrastructure. $30 million of this funding will be allocated specifically for last-mile fiber and last-mile wireless projects. Subsidizing these projects helps offset the costs of these capital-intensive ventures and helps enable the benefits of increasing connectivity and quality of life for citizens and bringing more technology infrastructure to the entire state. And, over time, more businesses and households will be brought online, growing the overall customer base and contributing to the state’s economy. The state’s energy rates have also become increasingly competitive – with rates between 17% and 38.1% below the national average as of 2022 – further making Washington state a more economical place to do business.

Carrier Neutrality Meets Backhaul Availability

The buying playing field has shifted, too. Subsea fiber cables are increasingly driven by hyperscalers, such as Google, Amazon AWS, or Facebook, whose priorities are to gain capacity and bandwidth as soon as possible, be it either as the single owner of the cable or as an anchor on another carrier/consortium of carriers. The owner of the cable, if not a hyperscaler, will sell the bulk of that capacity as long-term IRU’s (indefeasible rights of use) or standard leases. Carrier-neutral cables and cable landing stations, however, create an even playing field on which different carriers can compete fairly and independently. Carrier-neutrality also provides other benefits – increased capacity, cost-effectiveness, scalability, and flexibility.

Subsea players need both open and neutral cable landing stations and open and neutral dark fiber backhaul to ensure they can get where they and their customers need to go. With Toptana, that’s what they will have: carrier neutrality will meet backhaul availability – an optimal solution. 

Route Diversity‍

Another benefit to the building of a subsea cable in Washington state is that it supports route diversity. Route diversity mitigates various risks that could lead to outages – system failures caused by seismic activity on the sea floor – or other natural disasters –  as well as any planned maintenance and upgrades that would otherwise result in outage periods. Areas where subsea cables are laid close to each other, creating a density in a concentrated area, create so-called “chokeholds” – areas of particular vulnerability. The more route diversity there is among the hundreds of subsea cables around the globe, the lower the risk that a single catastrophe could damage multiple cables and cause a massive outage. Toptana’s new cable will be an important addition that will bolster that mission-critical diversity, particularly given the higher density of cables already in existence off the coasts of Oregon and California, which are more vulnerable due to their proximity to one another. 

High-Density Cable Placement in the Red Sea, So-Called "Chokeholds" (Telegeography Submarine Cable Map: 2023)
Serving the Underserved‍

Perhaps the most substantial impact following the installation of Toptana’s CLS will be visible in underserved areas, such as rural and indigenous communities. Toptana’s backhaul network through Washington and Oregon will set the stage to bring reliable, open and neutral access to the information highway – dark fiber laid and ready to serve those who need it most. The nearly 300 miles of terrestrial cable, outfitted with dark fiber capacity, stretching from Seattle to Hillsboro, OR, will offer connectivity options that could transform the lives of tens of thousands of rural inhabitants who, despite living in the modern world, have been largely stuck behind the digital divide. This will mean better healthcare, education, business opportunities, job prospects, and safety programs. Together, these improvements to quality of life will create upward mobility. All this will be possible as a result of the new opportunity to connect to other places around the globe.

Toptana is a venture defined by compelling firsts. The first subsea cable landing station in Washington in over two decades. The first such project fully owned by an indigenous nation. The first Quinault business venture branching outside of its borders. And the first opportunity to enable and expand connectivity to underserved communities in our region of the Pacific Northwest by enabling local providers – WISPs and ISPs – to provide high-speed access and broadband internet. All of these set the stage for a sense of promise and excitement about what’s to come.

Final Thoughts:

  • Toptana Technologies is leading the way on this much anticipated, highly needed venture
  • Challenges for building subsea cable in Washington state have evolved into exciting opportunities
  • Through its subsea and backhaul networks, Toptana Technologies will be a vital solution to meet essential connectivity-related demands both globally and within the Pacific Northwest

Looking to learn more about Washington State’s exciting subsea cable future and Toptana Technologies? Get in touch. 


About Toptana Technologies 

Toptana is driven by a vision of a truly connected world. We’re an indigenous-owned internet infrastructure and technology company focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities. Our mission is to connect the digitally disconnected so that all people can fully participate in the digital economy. 

Our Washington State cable landing station offers subsea transpacific connectivity from the U.S. to Asia-Pacific markets. The backhaul network offers terrestrial connectivity along the I-5 corridor to Seattle, WA and Hillsboro, OR. We offer businesses the opportunity to get their traffic where it needs to go while protecting our precious resources and improving the lives of those in need.