By Bill Glose
In 1767, Andrew Sproule built Gosport Shipyard on the banks of the Elizabeth River. Over time, Gosport transformed into Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which today stands as the largest shipyard on the East Coast. As a major seaport, Norfolk serves as a hub for transportation and commerce, giving rise to industries from those fields as well as ancillary businesses to support them. The generation of jobs and taxes plus the associated luxuries of a thriving marketplace are just a few of the benefits the seaport has brought to Coastal Virginia throughout the years. Now, another port is being built, one that few will ever see, but one that could have great consequence to the entire region—a digital port turning Coastal Virginia into the East Coast nexus for e-commerce and communications.
Subsea communication cables are nothing new. In the 1850s, twisted-pair copper lines were run underwater to provide telegraph communication between continents. The types of cables and data traffic they carry has evolved over the years. Fiber optics is now the Cadillac of digital communications, providing reliable signal at ultrahigh capacity. Transatlantic fiber cables now carry digital traffic to Virginia Beach from other continents, traveling thousands of miles from digital ports in Europe, South America and, quite soon, Africa.
Microsoft and Facebook, in conjunction with Spanish-based Telefonica, laid the first subsea cable (MAREA) to Virginia Beach with a 4,000-mile fiber connection to Bilbao, Spain. Telefonica also laid a second cable (BRUSA), which is 6,800 miles in length and connects Virginia Beach to Brazil, with a mid-point branch connection in Puerto Rico. These undersea telecommunications cables are key strands in the ever-expanding internet.
“When everybody thinks of [electronic communication], they think of satellites,” says Joel Ogren, CEO of Assured Communications Advisors International, LLC. “But 99 percent of the world’s traffic is on the seafloor.”
How much capacity do these subsea cables provide? The MAREA cable alone can transmit up to 160 terabits of data per second. According to Microsoft these speeds are “16 million times faster than the average home internet connection, with the ability to stream 71 million high-definition videos simultaneously.”
The latest project—an 8,000-mile cable between Virginia Beach and Cape Town, South Africa—is being pieced together by an African-based company called South Atlantic Express. Their planned cable will be about the size of a human finger, 17 mm wide. A protective outer sheath will contain a copper core for power, a grounding piece and the fibers, tiny as strands of hair. The cable will contain eight bidirectional fiber pairs, or sixteen individual strands, each of which can carry up to 15 terabits of information.
Image above shows the various protective layers of the fiber optics.
Interior of ship spool of fiber optical wire.
The transoceanic deployment itself takes place on highly stabilized ships that unspool the cable across the Atlantic at two to four knots, or the speed of a fast walk. Though the bottom of the ocean is typically a benign environment, there are plenty of volatile exceptions—undersea vents, volcanoes, shifting slopes and areas of seismic activity. Specialized computer programs avoid those danger areas when mapping the best undersea route between continents. Selecting the safest route is part of the reason Virginia Beach was chosen as an anchor point. North of the Outer Banks’s shifting sandbars, south of the Barrier Islands lining Virginia’s Eastern Shore, it sits at a sweet spot for laying unobstructed lines. But Ogren points to another key element in site selection. Proximity to Ashburn, Va.
“Seventy-two percent of the world’s data center traffic goes through Ashburn, Va.,” says Ogren. “It is the data center hub of the world right now. Interesting fact: it is 250 fiber-miles from the landings up in New York and New Jersey to Ashburn; it’s 249 fiber-miles from Virginia Beach to Ashburn.” Thus making Virginia Beach the safest spot to land with the shortest distance to “Data Center Alley.”
But Virginia Beach is not just looking to be a waystation. It is looking to become a major hub itself. “This is a transformational opportunity for us to diversify our economy,” says Warren Harris, director of the Virginia Beach Office of Economic Development, “an opportunity for us become a focal point around data centers, data analytics, and big data. I think we are well positioned to be the recipient of that kind of investment and the related jobs to go along with that investment.”
Joel Ogren, CEO, Assured Communications Advisors International, LLC.
Photo by David Uhrin
“Ashburn is the center of the data universe right now,” says Ogren, “but Ashburn is getting crowded. They’re already building outside of Ashburn. There are data centers going up in Culpeper. And Facebook recently bought 300-some-odd acres up there in Henrico County. So we want to create an opportunity in Virginia Beach. I am affiliated with a company called NxtVn. NxtVn bought 219 acres of property [on General Booth Boulevard], and we will be connecting our traffic to that park over there.”
When an industrial park is built, it comes with roads and services like sewer and power before the buildings are ever erected. It’s what’s known as “shovel ready.” A new business only has to worry about what lies inside its building instead of everything connecting to it. Similarly, NxtVn, which is based in Amsterdam, is pouring $2 billion into its Virginia Beach data center park to make sure it is “data ready,” needing only the servers that companies bring in to connect to the fiber optic lines.
One key element is dedicated power lines, since data center parks use up a lot of energy. “Our park will consume 360 MW of power minimally,” says Ogren, “and up to 600 MW. (For comparison: 1 megawatt can power as many as 1,000 homes.) We’re in touch with Dominion. We’ve carved out some land to build a substation that will serve the data center park.”
The data centers built in these parks will create jobs that range from software engineers and data scientists to sales force and security guards.
“I’ve got a lot of great universities and everything over here,” says Ogren. “So I know I’ve got a good job base. So you’ve got job creation opportunity right now. And having a good population of skilled personnel is critical for this kind of stuff. We’re going to create high-tech jobs, so that was a key factor.”
And that’s just within each data center itself. The data parks will also serve as an inducement for new business and a catalyst for the local economy.
“We are trying to make the data center attractive as possible [to new businesses],” says Ogren. “We worked with the city and the mayor and the city council here to drive the tax rates down. The tax rate, until recently, was $4 on every $100 worth of computing equipment that you bought. That is not competitive. Think about a million-square-foot facility, which costs about $100 million. And inside that is about $100 million of computing equipment. A $4-per-hundred tax on that is a number that is very high. That is exorbitant to data center companies. Why? Because every three years, they have to replace the equipment. They’re going to place another $100 million worth of equipment in it. And three years later they’re going to do it again. And each time, they’re going to take the old equipment out and give it to the schools and have a great public reach outreach program. And the local community will benefit from that. But the tax rate has to be responsive to companies like this to attract them here.”
Mission accomplished. The tax rate has been driven down to $0.40 per hundred dollars of equipment.
“We’ve done some things with regard to making our tax structure more competitive with regard to data center operations,” says Harris. “We have received certification by Dominion Energy for corporate lending as a Certified Data Center Park. We are also putting in additional infrastructure in Corporate Landing to support data center development. So I think the future is certainly very bright with regard to us looking at this as a value added proposition to grow our economy.”
The big question is: is this all worth it? Well, just look at what’s happened to Ashburn. The once pastoral landscape has been transformed by high-tech companies gobbling up space to build warehouse-sized facilities crammed full with computers. Property taxes on the data centers bring Loudoun County $150 million each year, and more businesses are clamoring for space. Recent land purchases have sold for $1.2 million per acre. Which sounds expensive until you compare that to California Silicon Valley’s going rate of $16 million per acre.
In a world of rapidly evolving technology, no one knows what radical changes will occur in the near-future. Whatever those changes may be, one thing will remain constant: the need for secure, high-speed, high-capacity data transfer. Virginia Beach is laying the infrastructure to handle the coming waves of digital traffic.
“We have the subsea cables that are providing, continent-to-continent, all this content and delivery, all the businesses, e-commerce,” says Ogren. “We are creating an ecosystem. It’s the cloud ecosystem. The cloud is nothing more than a bunch of data centers that are hyper connected. We love to send pictures of our food to everybody. We like to post it, right? I contact my kids, who are spending my money, and what are they posting out there? Shoes. Handbags. So I know what they’re spending my money on because they’re posting it. That’s all going into the cloud for storage.”
Whether it’s a kid’s photos of shoes and handbags or high-tech specs for a new device that will change our lives, the data has to move somehow. And if it’s moving through the East Coast, chances are it will go through Virginia Beach.
From left to right: Caleb Myles and Natalia Picou of Lantero, LLC with Andy Davis and Brad Pleti of Underground Solutions, Inc. at the proposed site for the Data Center in Virginia Beach. Photo by David Uhrin
The Terrestrial Component
Lantero LLC Helps Place And Protect Underground Fibers
Once the cable lands at shore, the fiber line is then buried underground to protect it from land-based hazards—storms, wildlife, curious or just plain clumsy humans. Running this “terrestrial fiber” from the seashore to the data park will be Lantero, LLC. The 6.5 mile underground route is a big undertaking. A project of this scope can’t be done alone. It requires coordinated teamwork involving multiple crews working together to achieve a common goal. Joining the efforts of Lantero, LLC is Andy Davis, president of Underground Solutions, Inc. Both Virginia Beach-based, underground utility companies. Lantero specializes in horizontal directional drilling. They’re the ones who deploy the teams of people you see on the side of the highway with a Ditch Witch, burrowing a sideways channel to accommodate underground utilities and pulling cables, pipes or other utility lines through soil, sludge and rock. Afterwards, the only surface indication of their passage is a line of manhole covers for the entry pits.
The process for drilling holes and laying terrestrial fiber is similar to that for underground utilities, except the holes are dug far deeper and higher security measures are employed to protect the cables. “We’re in the final stages of design right now. We must ensure the final product exceeds our customer’s expectations,” says Lantero President Natalia Picou. “One of ACA’s several clients is investing $200 million into one of the lines. Because of the security considerations with this line and the amount spent, they want their product to have the upmost level of care with regards to installation as well as ongoing service, maintenance and security measures.”
While business and security issues are driving factors, they are not the only components Lantero takes into consideration. Picou frequently stresses the importance of quality work that won’t disturb the community or the environment.
Directional drilling is the most eco-friendly and preferred method of underground utility installation because of its minimal disturbance to the surrounding environment.
Caleb Myles, owner of Lantero, LLC along with Andy Davis, president of Underground Solutions, state that “experts from various fields, not just directional drilling, are needed to see the concept through to fruition. And we have them on our team!”
Especially for a project like this, whose reach extends far into the 21st century, whose positive impact will be felt long after the holes are covered up.