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Digital Iceland

What impact will the new undersea fibre optic cable from Iceland to Europe have on Iceland's digital economy? Dominic Ward shares his thoughts on this exciting development and how it will enhance Iceland as a home for truly sustainable computing.

Over 90% of the world’s data is transmitted around the globe by submarine fibre optic cables. Over 400 of these cables sprawl across our planet’s ocean floors, often hundreds or even thousands of miles long. There are over 1.2 million kilometres of subsea cables currently in service, ensuring that nearly every square metre on our planet is ‘connected’.

Each submarine cable is roughly the same diameter as a garden hose, but the useful part of the cable is what sits at the core, a few strands of fibre optic filament, that are each roughly the thickness of a human hair. These optical fibres are the medium through which data is transmitted and received. Web page views, phone calls, credit card transaction verifications, video downloads, music track plays are all likely to result in data travelling along a subsea cable system somewhere. Yet, when was the last time you paused to think about a submarine cable system?

You’ve likely never thought about a submarine cable system because we simply rely upon them to work as they are supposed to. Many countries are connected largely via terrestrial fibre optic cables. However, for island countries, subsea cable systems may be the only direct connectivity they have. Iceland is a perfect case in point. Situated 1,900 kilometres from London and 1,750 kilometres from Oslo, for many years this North Atlantic nation has been connected to the rest of the world via three subsea cable systems: FARICE-1 connects Iceland to the UK; DANICE connects Iceland to Denmark and the rest of Europe; and Greenland Connect connects Iceland to Greenland, Canada and the US.

Last month the Icelandic Government announced that Iceland is going to build a new subsea cable system to Ireland, to be called IRIS. It is very exciting to see this long-discussed project come to life. Adding a third connection to Europe will increase the redundancy and resilience of the country’s connectivity, which of course is naturally critical for an island. However, what is perhaps more exciting is the enhanced competitive advantage it brings to Iceland and its digital ecosystem.

Iceland is already unique as the only country in Europe that generates 100% of its power from renewable sources. It has an abundance of hydroelectric power generation and a vast amount of untapped geothermal energy that can help solve one of the world’s greatest and growing challenges – the ever-expanding demand for power driven by the exponential growth in data creation and consumption.

At a time when a single viral video can consume the same energy requirements as an entire nation for a year, the world needs to think about where it should process and store its data. Even with improvements in computer server technology, the consumption of power from data centres is expected to double over the next ten years. Add to that fact, many European countries are beginning to strain under the significant demand placed upon their power grids by the phenomenal growth in cloud computing. The combination of 100% renewable energy mix and perfect year-round climate in Iceland dramatically improves the efficiency of the infrastructure needed to power those computer servers. Iceland really does stand out as the ultimate location for processing and storing more of the world’s data.

The global manufacturing economy has always optimised its supply chain by shipping raw materials to an optimal location, processing those raw materials in the most efficient manner and then shipping the output product to the end user. The global digital economy should be no different. Ireland is already home to a substantial footprint of data centres, with a strong bias towards the large ‘hyperscale’ cloud operators of Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform. The IRIS system will enable the transfer of input data to Iceland, where that data can be processed in the most efficient, cost effective and sustainable location in Europe, followed by the transmission of the output data to wherever it is needed.

Already a well-established home for sustainable data centres, development of the IRIS subsea cable system will augment Iceland’s connectivity even further and enhance Digital Iceland as a home for truly sustainable computing.