Fibre-optic cable cuts

16 May 2011 | Tim Phillips


On March 28, Armenia suffered a denial-of-service attack: not from a hostile government, but from a 75-year old grandmother.

Armenia’s internet access was cut off for 12 hours when a copper scavenger in Ksani, Georgia, cut through a fibre-optic cable that had been laid by Georgian Railway Telecoms.

Blame fell fibron the arch saboteur Ayasan Shakaryan, dubbed the “spade hacker” by the press. Cornered in her kitchen, she told reporters that she didn’t even know what the internet was. “Look at me! I’m sick and tired of all this,” she said on Russian television. “Do they have any witnesses? Show me those witnesses who can say it was me who damaged the cable!”

Meanwhile Anush Begloyan, the embarrassed spokesman for Armenia’s largest ISP Armentel, said that “the incident forces our company to think about diversifying our channels.” Begloyan isn’t the only customer whose ability to do business depends on the activity of copper thieves. All over Eastern Europe, high commodity prices make ripping up copper cable a profitable business, with nearby fibre suffering collateral damage.

“Romania’s probably the worst offender. It’s also bad in Bulgaria, not as bad in the other central Europeans,” says Davis Amland, director of carrier services at Romtelecom, and before that director of group strategy and business development at GTS Central Europe. Amland has been dealing with cable cuts for a large part of his career: “Vandalism is the largest cause for disruptions that we face,” he says.

Yet according to Amland, this isn’t usually about old ladies with spades. “It’s organised crime. We had a lengthy discussion with the Bulgarian incumbent, and they have taken draconian measures to slow it down. They said the guys they deal with are well organised. When you go after them, it’s co-ordinated.” Romtelecom’s response is to hire its own security to guard the most important sites, but it’s impossible to outwit the gangs that know as much about where the copper is as Romtelecom does.

What can carriers do who want to transit the affected regions? Amland responds by using a mesh IP infrastructure to offer better resilience, even if the copper thieves continue to undermine his ability to offer an SLA. He gets some respite too. “Cold weather helps us. The end of Q4 and the beginning of Q1 are the quietest periods for disruption,” he says. “The ground’s too frozen to dig.”

The owners of the most strategic overland routes from the Middle East to western Europe practise damage limitation, rather than elimination. The financial incentive for scavengers to rip up the cables of central and eastern Europe is strong. The price of copper in May 2010 was between $6,000 and $7,000 per tonne. In early 2011, it touched $10,000 and has remained above $9,000.

The boom in commodity prices has one positive effect for Romtelecom. “We rip out the copper ourselves now and sell it wholesale,” Amland says, “it’s a race against the criminals to see who gets it first.”



Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk