Cable ships are not being replaced fast enough

01 March 2012 | John Hibbard


Our ageing cable ships are being replaced too slowly.

"Every 10 years, carriers are installing enough extra undersea cable to get to the moon, yet the world’s maintenance vessel fleet is quietly getting older and sparser.” This was written by my friend and fellow consultant Keith Schofield from Pioneer Consulting on the shortage of vessels for submarine cable work. His report got me thinking.

Submarine cables are the key element of the global internet. When one fails, it places added stress on the network. We all want free internet, but as Schofield writes, there is “increasing reluctance to pay for the vital infrastructure that powers, protects and repairs the internet. To save money, there is a big squeeze on maintenance budgets. Delayed repairs risk the global internet backbone becoming less resilient.”

In some cases, this will place the whole economy of a country at risk. “Modern, reliable and available vessels are increasingly needed to repair cables that have been damaged. Yet we see the opposite trend. Despite some exceptions, the world’s ageing cable maintenance vessels are being replaced too slowly. We’re seeing the trend towards private companies moving in to challenge existing undersea cable maintenance ‘clubs’, but isn’t it all too little too late?” (Keith’s full article appears at http://bit.ly/w5Ounu)

A crisis situation appears to be emerging. Despite a 50% or more increase in capacity each year in the Asia-Pacific, there is little sign of any investment in new cable ships. The youngest ship is already 10 years old, and the most veteran is 38 years old. With some ships being pensioned off and others migrated to more lucrative oil and gas work, the number of vessels has declined when in fact you would have expected an increase.

Do we need a new model? Can we tolerate longer times to repair because of the existence of ‘mesh’ networking? Are we prepared to use ‘ships of opportunity’ to repair our cables rather than specialist cable ships? Will handing the risk management to insurance companies, rather than direct contract arrangements with the maintenance fleet owners, save any money? Which will serve us better, the zone arrangement or private contracts? Should there be an increase in the cost of repairs with a reduction in the standing charge to reflect the different levels of repairs?

These are some of the questions challenging the industry as well as the owners of cables, particularly in the vast Pacific region. Is there one solution that can meet the needs of all?

John Hibbard is CEO at Hibbard Consulting. He can be contacted at: jhibbard@bigpond.com