How safe are our cables?

23 July 2015 |

Blog Author |


They take years of planning and deployment, but what is done to protect cables once they are in the ground or under the seabed?

They take years of planning and deployment, but what is done to protect cables once they are in the ground or under the seabed? 

Recently these ever-hardy bits of infrastructure have come under threat from criminals, cargo ships, sharks and even unsuspecting women with shovels in Georgia.

Cables in vast oceans like the Atlantic and the Pacific remain vulnerable to a range of obstructions that cannot be pre-empted including fishing trawlers, anchors, earthquakes, water pressure at depth and even shark attacks.

In August last year, footage showed a great white shark gnawing at fibre-optic cables in the Pacific, thought – by Google – to be because flashes from high voltage traffic travelling through the cables could look a bit like fish. Google is now working with a number of operators on network protection to ensure no further damage occurs.

Back on land, cables are at risk from a different kind of predator. Earlier this year, Level 3 Communications and Zayo fell victim to what was thought to be a deliberate cable attack when criminals broke into an underground vault and cut three cables in California, US. The FBI believes this is the latest in a string of pre-empted cable attacks and investigations are underway.

In a less deliberate attempt, a Georgian woman made headlines worldwide back in 2011 when she accidentally dug through a cable and cut off internet connectivity to the entire of neighbouring Armenia.

So what can operators actually do to mitigate these freak incidents?

In the planning stage, Bjarni Thorvardarson, chief executive at Hibernia Networks, told me that the company is taking a pre-emptive approach.

Hibernia Networks is in the final stages of laying the first transatlantic cable in 12 years, and Thorvardarson said that the company ran a full analysis of the sea bed, using radar technology, before beginning cable deployment.

“The survey was done to identify whether there were any foreign objects on the ocean bed that had to be removed,” he explains. “You always find something, so they removed what they found – out of services cables or whatever.”

The international cable protection committee (ICPC) – which recently dismissed concerns over shark attacks on cables, claiming they accounted for less than 1% of all cable faults – is also working towards some solutions.

This includes increased legislation on shipping around cable landing stations to ensure less disruption and damage.

Some operators have taken matters into their own hands. Literally in the case of Deutsche Telekom, which marks its cables with artificial DNA to prevent cable theft. The artificial DNA comprises micro flakes of nickel mixed with a special varnish, and should a criminal come into contact with the cable, the paint will stick to their hands. This paint then lights up “like a Christmas tree” under UV light.

With cables becoming ever critical to an increasingly digital world, now appears the time for cable protection to take priority.