ICPC unites subsea against Covid-19

ICPC unites subsea against Covid-19

29 May 2020 | Natalie Bannerman


Coronavirus, Covid-19, the invisible enemy … whatever you want to call it, has been a part of lives for several months now, ravaging every industry and vertical of the global economy.

April saw the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) publish its call to action for governments and industry to facilitate and expedite the deployment, operation, and repair of subsea cables during the pandemic.

Doing so will protect this critical infrastructure and the services that are run on them such as governance, health, education, and commerce.

Capacity speaks to Keith Schofield, general manager at ICPC about the published document and what can be done to support cables at sea.

With people now social distancing and the loss of international travel, it’s never been more important for our submarine cable infrastructure to carry the data and the communications that people need to interact internationally,” explains Schofield.

“The international pandemic has also degraded the ability for some parts of the submarine cable community to manufacture, lay and maintain submarine cable systems.”

Like other areas of business, subsea is waiting to see what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be on the sector. But one thing is for certain, expect a new normal.

“On a macro level, I think the dependency on international communications will be increased, particularly if it becomes more challenging to travel internationally,” says Schofield.

There will also be social changes that will influence this. “More people are now working from home - managers of organisations around the world may realise that’s more than just an option, it’s actually something that could benefit their workers and their industries.”

Discussing what the key drivers were for publishing the call to action and in short it was remind us all, the importance of subsea as critical infrastructure.

“We realised very quickly that it was necessary to remind the international community that submarine cable systems are critical infrastructure and those involved should also be given key worker status like frontline workers.”

In just over a month, Schofield says that the response from government and industry has been a positive one.

“As a result of the call to action, enlightened governments are smoothing the path for ships to get into ports. We’re seeing them enable people to travel, to do essential activities such as cable installation and maintenance.”

Aligned with this changes Schofield says, “Intergovernmental cooperation has never been more important”.

“Every international submarine system, by definition, has more than two countries involved.”

“So rather than the government restricting their activities to help their own citizens, at this time we do need, particularly with international infrastructure, governments to think about the consequences of their actions in relation to international cooperation, without which international networks could be at risk.”

Despite it sounding like a big ask, greater cross border cooperation is a lot more attainable in practice as proven by the fact that its being done.

“We know it’s feasible because some governments are doing it,” says Schofield.

“Now it’s just a matter of where governments are perhaps not aware of the importance of submarine communications to the international community and to their own citizens, then it’s just a case of reminding them and saying ‘look, these things need to be done.’”

One of the recommended measures included in the call to action is the accreditation of subsea personnel. Specifically, it suggests to:

Provide accreditation (credentialing if necessary) of, and access for, submarine cable industry personnel on land and on ships to ensure they are not unreasonably confined or detained.

But given that the ICPC is not a regulatory body and therefore cannot impose requirements on governments, Schofield points to the Tampere Convention and using those principles to apply to telecom workers.

“It’s an international convention that ensures the freedom of access of persons in providing emergency services in disaster situations, and it does include pandemics,” Schofield says.

“Individual governments will carry out whatever accreditation is required under their own laws, but we do encourage them to operate under the international convention principles to which they’ve signed-up.”

Some other suggestions included in the document cover measures to protect the personal heath of workers in the space – which may seem obvious but is sometimes overlooked.

Specifically, the proposed measures include the provision of:

  • Personal protective gear, particularly masks and gloves, to personnel who interact with ship officers and crew, such as pilots and customs agents, and monitor and quarantine them as necessary if they show COVID-19 symptoms;
  • Expedited access to testing and public health resources in order to minimise the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in manufacturing facilities, in ports, and on cable ships;
  • Use of lodgings in key port areas where crew can be quarantined to monitor their health and ensure they are COVID-19 free before joining a ship;
  • Require that these personnel periodically report their health status and any potential case of Covid-19 infection as early as possible; and
  • Provide personnel with access to emergency medical treatment ashore in the event of medical emergencies.

We’ve made some very constructive suggestions for governments to implement. We believe it’s very possible that governments can do that,” explains Schofield.

“Once we let the relevant, local authorities have the authority to make decisions, then they can actually implement those decisions at the local level that will smooth the way to the most effective use of the undersea telecom cable network. It’s just a case of just letting those who know best get on with their jobs.”

Though too early to tell, it is feasible for the pandemic to lead to the development of new subsea cable projects and possible new routes.

“I think probably there’s already new cable systems being planned because of the growing requirement for international capacity,” says Schofield.

But we may not be able to tell the difference between, what was already being planned and what might be planned in future. So, whether Covid-19 will, in and of itself, change that, is difficult to tell, but it certainly won’t hinder that work.”

Whatever the next phase of development for the sector in its fight against the crisis, Schofield says the ICPC is leveraging new media options to “get the message out”.

As our conversation draws to a close, Schofield wants to leave us with two key takeaways. The first is to “never forget that submarine cables and the associated activities are critical infrastructure”.

The second is “never discount the human factor in all of this. We need to be caring for our people”.

But it’s the last one that truly gets my attention.

The submarine cable network relies upon people to make it happen, just like frontline NHS workers, in this country, and so we should not discount the personal difficulties that people are working through right now while we do this,” he explains.

“We need a very understanding and human approach to dealing with this, just as much in our industry as in other industries.”

Cable ship crews are not permitted to disembark, so in some cases they may have been at sea for 60 to 100 days so they’ve not seen their families and they can’t travel.

But what can we do to help? Well as easy as it sounds, just pull together.

“We need to put traditional allegiances and rivalries to one side while as an international community, we beat this virus, ” says Schofield.

“Putting aside our differences and working out, on a fact basis, what are the things that we need to do to get this virus beaten and then doing them.”

“In a post Covid world where we’re increasingly being encouraged to care for the environment, and where travel and human contact may pose challenges, submarine cables and the networks they enable, have once again proven that they are not the problem, they are part of the solution.”