A (Miserable) Day in the Life of a Submarine Field Technician
Meet Erik. Erik is a submarine network field technician. Erik has a tough job.
Like any submarine network field technician, Erik faces a long list of challenges to get the job done. He needs a deep optical transmission knowledge, a willingness to travel worldwide at a moment’s notice, and a high level of patience, because whatever can go wrong, often does.
What makes Erik’s job so different from his terrestrial network colleagues? Water, and lots of it! Remember that a submarine cable often spans an ocean over thousands of kilometers and terminates in a different country on both sides, and therein lies the often formidable challenges. Different countries often have very diverse operational practices, rules, regulations, skill sets, time zones, test sets, and other regional differences. All, or a combination, of these regional differences impact Erik when trying to perform his job, such as trying to troubleshoot a submarine cable that is experiencing unexplained and erratic bit errors.
So what does a day in the life of a submarine network field technician look like? Let’s review some of the real-world operational challenges submarine cable operators face related to their submerged network assets, as heard through the subsea grapevine.
The Need for Technical Expertise
First and foremost, Erik must fully understand submarine network technologies and components, as well as the book-ended terrestrial backhaul network segments on each end. Since Erik is highly skilled and experienced, he’s understandably in high demand in his industry, and even within his own company. It would be nice to have many employees as skilled as Erik, but this is typically not the case, and often leads to project delays due to a lack of skilled and trained personnel.
Working with Optical Test Sets
There’s no shortage of test sets available today that are capable of measuring optical network performance, which allows Erik to proactively and reactively maintain the health of a submarine network. Although a wide choice of test sets is good from a sourcing and pricing perspective, it also means Erik must be competent across all of them so he can perform consistent measurements required to properly do his job.
But even if Erik is fluent across multiple test sets, the test sets themselves have to be available in the first place, and in the country where he needs them. The latter isn’t always as easy as it seems in this day and age, especially when a customs officer sees a crate with multiple “High Power Laser” warnings on it. This can often lead to significant delays in getting the required test set through customs and out to the site where Erik is waiting to use it.
Now if Erik is waiting at a Cable Landing Station (CLS) on the beach, the delays may be tolerated, or even encouraged. Shipped items can also get lost or damaged, leading to further project delays, which can then delay subsequent planned projects. And when the test set does arrive, has its calibration expired? If so, local resources must be secured to recalibrate the complex test set, if they even exist, resulting in further delays… you get the idea.
Getting Consistent Measured Data
Even with the best of intentions and skill sets, different people using different test sets often yield different measured data, making it quite hard to determine what received data should be used for such purposes as link engineering, troubleshooting, and modeling. Manual measurements exacerbate this problem with possible human errors incurred, especially with Erik being severely jetlagged or sunburned. Automating measurements using the same measurement processes solves this challenge, and is where the industry is headed.
Now, we’re going to assume that Erik has been a good citizen of the world and is allowed to travel unimpeded to most countries where his skills are required, but he still may need to meet work visa requirements for some countries, which is expected in any profession. However, this can also lead to significant delays when entering some countries, as work visa approvals are passed through various government departments. If Erik’s trip is planned well in advance, this shouldn’t be an issue, but what about unplanned trips (ex. an unexpected network fault)?
The test sets themselves have to be available in the first place, and in the country where he needs them. The latter isn't always as easy as it seems in this day and age, especially when a customs officer sees a crate with multiple “High Power Laser” warnings on it.- Brian Lavellée, Director of Portfolio Solutions Marketing
Some countries mandate that local talent be sourced for work due to government regulations, meaning that if a submarine cable requires onsite technical support, someone local would replace Erik. Although this may be a viable solution in some countries, in other countries, the required level of competence related to rather unique submarine cable networks may be lacking, or unavailable, thereby leading to significant project challenges.
As new technologies are rapidly deployed worldwide over submarine networks, the required skill sets of regional personnel must be constantly updated to maintain pace with optical transmission innovations, and this isn’t always easy to do. For instance, when submarine networks migrated from on-off keying to coherent detection a few years ago, traditional skill sets were essentially rendered obsolete overnight, leading to a large skills gap.
Travel Time & Expenses
The cost and time required to send people and equipment around the world, and successfully get them to their required destination intact and on time can be a challenge. Travel and living expenses for Erik depends on his destination and how long he’ll be there. The cost of reliably shipping very expensive optical test sets around the world should not be underestimated either. Being able to remotely test end-to-end services across a submarine network is the panacea for technical personnel like Erik, and his company, by reducing the associated time, cost, and risks related to managing networks that span the world’s oceans.
Erik’s (Hypothetical) Miserable Day
Now, let’s play devil’s advocate and make Erik’s day a rather miserable one by having him experience some of the real-world challenges mentioned above. Erik receives an urgent call that a submarine cable is experiencing errors across multiple channels resulting in customers claiming Service Level Agreements are being violated. Erik must travel across the ocean to connect his test sets to the submarine cable while his colleague connects his test sets locally on the other end.
Before Erik books his flight, he needs to ensure that his work visa gets approved, which takes a week, and then books his last minute flight at a significant premium. Erik’s test sets, which are verified as calibrated before packed, are shipped to the remote location, but get trapped in customs due to paperwork issues. Once the paperwork is corrected after a few days, the test sets are cleared from customs and shipped to Erik at the CLS. Upon inspection, however, there’s water damage to the box.
Although the test sets inside aren’t damaged, Erik is stressed nonetheless. Due to different time zones, a jetlagged Erik works the graveyard shift from 12AM to 8AM, with his colleague on the other side of the ocean. Once testing is complete, and the issues resolved, Erik ships out the tests sets and flies home jetlagged, only to find that the delays in his recent trip means he has to fly to another location a day later.
Although the trip above is hypothetical, it’s actually not that far from reality. Talk to any submarine field technician tasked with similar projects, and you’ll hear similar challenges experienced firsthand, or much worse. In fact, I'm sure some of our readers have stories of their own. Feel free to share them in the comments section.
Wouldn’t it be nice to avoid most, if not all, of these challenges by remotely testing submarine network issues using a laptop from the comfort of your office, home, or even your Jacuzzi? Well, Ciena GeoMesh has a wealth of integrated test capabilities that allows you to do just that (although your free day on the beach does become a casualty).
Want to learn more about the GeoMesh Integrated Test Capabilities? Download our white papers, GeoMesh: Integrated Test Set Capabilities, or GeoMesh: Global Submarine Networking for a Web-scale World to learn more.