SUBMARINE cable installation and maintenance is an extremely niche industry but several Malaysian companies have craved out a place for themselves.
They include Optic Marine Group and iFACTORS Sdn Bhd.
The larger brother here is Optic Marine, which has four cable ships and two barges capable of working all over the world to lay both power and data cables.
iFACTORS is backed by shareholders with previous experience in the optical fibre submarine cable industry, and has evolved from a telecommunication system integrator to a company providing niche solution in the provision of maintenance and implementation of submarine cable network.
Founded by Datuk Lim Soon Foo in the 1980s, Optic Marine is now fully capable of providing a complete range of services for the submarine cable industry, ranging from installation to scheduled maintenance to emergency repairs.
In an interview, Optic Marine said it has systematically built its assets and expertise over the years with the aim of carving out a larger slice of the pie.
However, it is also of the opinion that the whole of Malaysia must also pull its weight to create what it called a thriving ecosystem of the submarine cable industry.
“For example, in the Phillippines, which practices cabotage, the permit approval times are very short,” said Ronnie Lim, group chief executive officer for the Optic Marine Group.
“In places like Japan, South Korea and other developed countries, cabotage still exists, yet the entire difference is due to the existence of an ecosystem such as cable storage facilities.
“Here, we still have to sail elsewhere to pick up our cable supply before we can carry on with our work,” said Ronnie, who added that his company would like to invest in a cable depot here in order to improve response time and security.
Optic Marine plans to cut down its response time for cable repairs in Malaysian waters by procuring a ship that will be registered in the country.
“With the appropriate ecosystem, response time and costs can be brought down significantly as we support the region as well as the country,” said Ronnie, whose company owns four cable ships and two barges. Its first Malaysian-flagged barge was bought in 2015.
“We invested heavily for our planned growth that began from zero. It took us many years to grow to this stage,” he said, adding that if Malaysia could not rise up to the challenge, then its cable maintenance industry may end up being dominated by “countries wiling to put in the work to create the ecosystem”.
Citing data from the International Cable Protection Committee up to 2018, Optic Marine said many countries were able to create competitive cable maintenance companies within their respective cabotage regimes.
“You can see that the response time (for permitting) in Japan, the Philippines and South Korea are not impacted at all. On our part, we support the optimisation of the domestic shipping licence application process for both Malaysian and foreign players as we believe it will stimulate more competition and spur efficiency.
“This will provide the push for the creation of that ecosystem so that Malaysia can be a hub of the region. You cannot be a hub without having an ecosystem,” said Ronnie.
“If you are not cost-effective, they (telcos) will not take you,” he added.
Currently, Malaysian companies have to compete with Singapore’s Asean Cableship (ACPL), a joint venture of six Asean telecommunications companies incorporated in 1986, and is now one of the strong contenders for repairs and maintenance jobs in South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean. The other players competing in this space are SBSS China, Korean Telecom Submarine, Global Marine Systems, KCS Japan and NTTWEM Japan, with vessels flagged according to the jurisdiction of operation areas.
Yong Fah Choong, project director for the submarine division of Jati Tinggi Holding Sdn Bhd, an infrastructure construction company, said the factors that matter to cable and infrastructure owners lies in the responsiveness of the service provider, on the back of reasonable cost.
“Cable owners want the job to be done quickly and at a fair price,” said Yong, whose company has undertaken turnkey projects for many telcos as well as Tenaga Nasional Bhd as both main and sub-contractors.
“Malaysian cable contractors are on par with foreign crew in terms of competency or vessels when it comes to equipment. Ultimately, it will be all down to speed of delivery and cost when it comes to considering who will get the job.”