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April 09, 2013

Sabotage Threat to Undersea Cables is Overblown

by Matthew Hilburn

The recent arrest of three men diving near a damaged undersea fiber optic cable off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt and damage to another nearby cable a week earlier led to a flurry of speculation that the network of cables carrying the bulk of the world’s internet traffic could be at risk of sabotage.

But those who operate the cables, as well as those who monitor the industry, say such speculation is overblown.

“I don’t expect to see a rash of sabotage,” said Mark Simpson, the CEO of SEACOM, which owns the SEACOM cable system, including fibre pairs on the Telecom Egypt North cable that was cut by a ship's anchor in the Mediterranean Sea on March 22. “It’s not the kind of thing that keeps people like me awake at night.”

SEACOM is also an owner and user of capacity on many other systems in Africa and the Middle East including the South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe (SEA-ME-WE) 4 near which the divers were arrested late last month.

Julian Rawle, a managing partner at Pioneer Consulting, and an expert on the submarine fiber optic cable industry, said sabotage such as terrorist attack on a subsea cable is a “little bit far-fetched.”

Tim Stronge, a researcher with Telegeography, a telecommunications market research and consulting firm, said “as far as I know, there has never been a deliberate case of sabotage of an undersea fiber optic cable.”

Rawle added that because of increased redundancy, cutting one cable probably wouldn’t cause a dramatic and widespread outage. He said $1.3 billion is invested in new cables every year, which translates to roughly 20 to 30 short, medium and long-haul cables installed annually.

According to Stronge, even though the pace of increasing global bandwidth has slowed in recent years, “the growth is still tremendous,” with the world’s international bandwidth having doubled between 2010 and 2012, he said.

When there are disruptions, Rawle said, people in an affected area might notice Internet slowness or even a brief blackout. But he added that most operators have agreements with other operators, which allow them to temporarily shift traffic onto undamaged cables. He said the amount of time to make those switches can be as little as a few seconds.

While sabotage is not a big worry to those in the undersea fiber optic cable industry, the cables are vulnerable to ship’s anchors, fishing nets, fishing equipment and natural disasters, particularly earthquakes.

Rawle said the security of the network is “something on every cable operator’s mind 24/7.”

“When it goes down, they lose customers,” he said. “It’s the number one priority.”

According to Simpson, there are many things cable operators do to minimize the chance for damage, including armoring them with steel, especially near the shore. Where the cables make landfall, he said they are protected by concrete encasements.

To lessen the chances of damage by a dragging anchor, he said industry works with local port authorities and tries to keep cables away from shipping channels when possible. In especially vulnerable areas, the cables are sometimes buried and even run through rocks as further protection.

The shipping and fishing industries are regularly made aware of new cables, he said, and in some ports, ships are monitored via a tracking system and warned away when they approach a cable, especially if they are slowing down and give the appearance that they might drop anchor.

Simpson added that when there are incidents such as the recent ones near Egypt, industry will come together to try to agree on better ways to protect the cables.

One possible example, according to Rawle, is to try to avoid the bottleneck in the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

“In recent times, people have built alternative terrestrial routes through the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, Iran, and Russia, he said. “People are looking at alternate routes around Africa as alternative to Suez” because, he said, the political situation in Egypt is causing operators to reconsider running cables through it.

Stronge added that with regard to Egypt and fiber optic cables, there are “a lot of eggs in that one basket.”