SUBSEA CABLE SPECIAL 2014: Protect and survive

07 March 2014 | Guy Matthews

As the central role of subsea cable systems in the global economy grows, could more be done by governments and regulators to secure these vital arteries? Guy Matthews investigates.

Around 97% of intercontinental communication is sent via submarine cable. Yet of the 200 or so different fibre systems that criss-cross our oceans and power the global economy, few are more than superficially armoured and most lie unchecked and unpatrolled from year to year. Only when something goes badly wrong is any attention paid to their wellbeing.

And things do go wrong, from damage at the hands of fishing vessels to faults caused by natural forces, such as earthquakes, waves and sea currents. While the meshed nature of today’s systems means that connectivity is rarely switched off like a light, the snapping of a 5Tb cable can send internet speeds plummeting by 50-60% in adjacent economies, with attendant howls of popular protest.

So whose responsibility is the protection of these fibre lifelines? A measure falls naturally to the cable owners, the carriers and content deliverers functioning either as individual operators or members of a consortium of shared interests.

But a cable consortium can only manage so much on its own, however well funded, having no say in the conduct of shipping and no stake in diplomatic relations. It is not necessarily a cable owner’s prerogative where a cable head is positioned, nor are they always able to come and go in international waters at will, particularly not in parts of the world where control over those waters is contested.

Thus it also falls to governments and regulators to play their part. In theory, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) offers a blueprint for governmental conduct on cable protection and repair. But in practical terms, there is no unified approach to how the job of protection should be managed, or even consensus on whether it is a government’s job at all. Authorities with a light-touch, laissez faire stance may soon be in the minority, however.

“A cable break is an international incident now, so it’s been pushed up the political agenda as a result,” says Ed McCormack, VP and GM of international accounts and submarine systems with Ciena. “Governments are waking up to the reality of the benefits they get from cable landings. They see how necessary these are, and I think there’s a lot of work now going on – much of it behind the scenes – on protection.”

A plan down under
Certain governments, far from keeping their protection covert, are keen to give it maximum publicity.

The Australian authorities, for example, have recently established three well-publicised Cable Protection Zones (CPZs), one off the city of Perth and two off Sydney, to shield essential infrastructure like the Southern Cross and Australia-Japan Cable fibre systems.

A map indicating the extent of Australia's cable protection zones off the coast of Sydney

Each Australian CPZ has a width of 3.7km, and runs out to a water depth of 2,000m. Anything the country’s international regulator – the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) – deems to be “high-risk operations” are banned within the zones, with “low risk” activities controlled and restricted. The ACMA’s rules come with real bite: a conviction for breaking them risks a fine of up to A$330,000 (US$299,000), with the added possibility of 10 years in prison for guilty individuals.

New Zealand has similar rules for the pipelines that supply the country with oil and gas, electricity and telecommunications. It has set up 11 CPZs, within which most types of fishing and all types of anchoring are prohibited. Even recreational craft are closely monitored in these zones.

The country’s Ministry of Transport, which oversees the CPZs, says it regularly prosecutes guilty parties, handing out fines of up to NZ $100,000 (US$82,000) where perpetrators are in the water for commercial gain, and NZ $20,000 for those that are leisure-oriented. It claims to patrol the zones around the clock with boats and helicopters, to maximise the chance of apprehending miscreants.

But for every government that prefers to publicise their cable protection in detail as a way of saying “keep away”, there are plenty of others who do not like to draw attention to cables – or their policy on cables – in any way, perhaps fearing that this will simply alert anyone intent on harming them.

Australia and New Zealand’s pioneering take on the issue may be shaped by their status as remote island nations, believes John Tibbles, formerly a senior figure on the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) and now a consultant providing advice on cable security, working regularly with law firm Edwards Wildman.

“They don’t see themselves in the same category as the US, the UK or France, with their terrorist anxieties,” he says. “Their sense of vulnerability is more to do with isolation, and a wish to be self-reliant in the case of a catastrophe.”

Landings in the dark
At the other extreme, he says, some nations are obsessively secretive on the subject of cable protection: “You won’t find a map of Russia’s landings published by the government, I don’t think,” Tibbles says.

“India is very coy about saying where cables land, too, and doesn’t much like any vessels entering its waters, even to repair cables, unless it’s been made very clear well in advance who they are,” he adds.

Governments may, by necessity, have to take account of conflicting viewpoints on the issue, muddying policy. Many have made concessions to the environmental lobby, consequently insisting that cable heads be put in places incompatible with protection.

In the US, in particular, applications for cable landings are now subjected to many kinds of scrutiny and restriction. With so many systems landing in California, it is difficult to justify placing fresh ones there, meaning some are being beached on the remoter shores of neighbouring Oregon.

“This makes it much harder to protect them than would be the case in a built-up area, where people might see if someone is harming them,” says Tibbles. “A remote landing means the cable travels through large amounts of open country, where it can be damaged easily.”

Tibbles believes it is time for governments to do more, and rebalance the emphasis in favour of cable security.

“I’d like more government help with things like planning permission and better advice on cable vulnerability,” he says, adding that governments themselves need better awareness of cables as national infrastructure.

While round-the-clock protection of cables is not a realistic option for carriers, there is an argument that they should do more to audit the risks that their subsea infrastructure faces.

More dialogue with governments could be sought on subjects like better protection for older subsea assets and freedom for where new cables should land, forcefully putting the case for landings that are close to network nodes, this having the added dividend of enabling simpler backhaul.

Further complications
There are plenty of countries that see cables less as national assets and more as obstructions to more highly favoured activities, such as fishing, fears Roy Carryer, director, permitting and environment with Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks.

He also says some authorities see cables as a source of income from permits, which must be issued whenever a cable is to be laid, repaired or upgraded in their waters.

“If these permits are issued by a regulator with a telecoms focus, it’s generally OK,” Carryer says. “In some cases it might be a body run by someone else – the military perhaps.”

“It takes 90 days to get a permit to repair a cable in, say, Indonesian waters, and any repair ship must be flying an Indonesian flag,” says John Walters, director of maintenance for Global Marine Systems.

“A flag is like a passport in the shipping world. In Brazil it’s similar. In Hong Kong it’s a huge effort to get a repair permit. In Canada the authorities are committed to supporting local repair businesses. The view is why allow a non-Canadian company to repair a cable when a Canadian one could do it – even if that’s more expensive and takes longer?” he adds.

Among the mostly hotly contested areas of maritime rights are so-called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). The UN defines an EEZ as an area 200 nautical miles beyond a coastline, incorporating – but extending well beyond – the area of territorial waters, which the UN defines as reaching 12 nautical miles out from a nation’s shoreline.

The legal status of EEZs is, alas, not as clearly defined as their dimensions, with some governments interpreting it as their right to charge for permits for all activity within an EEZ. Legal wrangles over EEZ activity have delayed many subsea cable projects, and led to lengthy delays on repairs.

“We say government should not look to exploit cables in their EEZs, but increasingly they do,” says Carryer. “They are looking for permits where they shouldn’t be, and control where they shouldn’t have it, according to the rules of UNCLOS. It’s an issue the industry must address.”

Faisal Ghaus, research head with TechNavio, a consultancy that advises on technology trends, says there is wheeling and dealing on EEZ rights going on behind the scenes at any given time.

“There are discussions right now, for example, on a cable protection zone in the Arabian Sea, to ensure there is minimal threat of damage to essential cables,” he says [read our article on the dangers faced by subsea assets around Egypt and the Middle East here].

It is not just in areas of political sensitivity where you will find debates on cable protection, says Julian Rawle, managing partner of subsea engineering firm Pioneer Consulting.

“At the moment, Singapore is looking at where cables can land,” he says. “They have cables everywhere, and pretty soon will have to start looking for alternative landings in neighbouring places, like Malaysia.”

Protection zones, he says, are generally a great idea, so long as they allow enough diversity and the industry does not end up with all cables going down the same alley.

But even with cables so obviously short of protection, nobody should expect swift or decisive action, says Walters.

“A lot of people are pushing governments to take action on cable protection, but it could take years,” he fears. “They believe there’s sufficient diversity of cables in most parts of the world, so there’s no immediate drive to change much.”