Orange’s Sea Cable Repair Fleet Looks Beyond Investment Boom

Orange Marine's Rene Descartes cable laying ship
Orange Marine’s Rene Descartes. Photo: David Monniaux/CC BY-SA 3.0

By Angelina Rascouet (Bloomberg) — For decades, ships owned by French phone carrier Orange SA have traveled the world’s oceans, installing and fixing the undersea cables that carry internet traffic from one continent to another.

The fleet of six run by Orange Marine is now looking to diversify, even with the biggest investment boom for the infrastructure since the 1990s. Instead of creating more business, the new high-capacity lines being financed by the tech giants are expected to put older cables out of service, meaning less work for the seaborne repairmen.

One cable that started up last year highlights the issue. The line, running from the U.S. state of Virginia to Sopelana, Spain, accounts for half the capacity of the dozen or so trans-Atlantic cables. Known as Marea, the 6,600-kilometer (4,101-mile) link owned by Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Telefonica SA’s Telxius offers the fastest data transmission speeds in the world.

Jean-Luc Vuillemin, who oversees Orange Marine, sees potential opportunities in servicing offshore wind turbines, he said in an interview on the Pierre de Fermat, a 100-meter ship named after the 17th-century mathematician and docked at the Brest port in northwest France.

“The ecosystem is pretty favorable right now but this may change in the future,” Vuillemin said. “You need to diversify when the business is in order, so we’re thinking about the next steps.”

Strategic Asset

Orange Marine is a small yet profitable business for France’s dominant phone carrier, generating about 100 million euros ($112 million) of annual sales out of Orange’s roughly 41 billion euros of revenue. But it’s considered a strategic asset by the company, whose largest shareholder is the French state.

Being able to quickly repair cables can be crucial in an emergency, as Algeria experienced in 2015 when a link between Annaba in the country’s northeast and Marseille in southern France was cut by an anchor, disrupting internet service in the North African nation for almost a week.

Together, Orange Marine and its France-based competitor at Nokia Oyj, Alcatel Submarine Networks, own about one-quarter of the 40 or so ships focused on subsea cables globally, Vuillemin said.

“Our Western economies are increasingly dependent on these subsea cables. Orange Marine provides strategic autonomy. It’s a matter of sovereignty,” he said.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P