Cabotage and cableships

17 July 2011 | John Hibbard


If something can go wrong, it probably will

In May this year, the new Indonesian Shipping Law came into full force. Under this law, all ships carrying on any activity in Indonesian waters (except those transitting straight through) must be Indonesian-registered and crewed by Indonesians. Many countries have ‘cabotage’ rules for local shipping, so Indonesia is not alone with these general requirements. Whether for national security, encouraging local employment, limiting competition or for other reasons, countries set up cabotage regulations which shipping must adhere to. However, normally these rules come with exemptions for special purpose craft which the country does not have and needs for ensuring the health of their economy.

Initially in the Indonesian case, there were no formalised exceptions but after strong demands, the oil and gas industry saw their vessels exempted. Special application can be made for exemption, but the process is not formalised and so approval, and the time to get such, is at the whim of the authorities. Indonesia has neither its own cableship nor crews with the specialist cable laying and repair skills and hence a foreign ship with foreign crew is necessary to lay cables or make repairs. So in the event of a cable break, special approval is required. To date, there has been no test case but educated guesses around the industry suggest that the time to get a temporary exemption is unlikely to be less than two weeks. Given the fact that most cables to the west and south of Singapore traverse Indonesian waters, and to the east there are some territorial boundary issues in the South China Sea, extended delays could occur before repairs can be undertaken. As for laying a cable through Indonesian waters, who knows how long approval will take, and/or what conditions will be attached?

Indonesia has one of the largest areas of sea counting internal and territorial waters. So far, attempts to have cableships exempted have been unsuccessful. If this continues, it may cause a rethink about diversity policy for links to and through Indonesia. Microwave and terrestrial cable routes are possible in some cases but the obvious alternative is to have additional diverse routes to minimise the impact of any extended outage. Given that the economy of a country increasingly depends on their “glass highway”, and the importance that Indonesia has previously placed on telecommunications as a key plank in its development, let’s hope the Indonesian authorities see the light and realise that impeding the provision and repair of cables will damage their country’s economy.