News / Science & Technology

Sabotage Threat to Undersea Cables is Overblown

Undersea fiber optic cables carry the bulk of intercontinental Internet traffic. (Courtesy
Undersea fiber optic cables carry the bulk of intercontinental Internet traffic. (Courtesy
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.”

You May Like

Pakistan Among Developing Countries Hit Hard by Global Warming

Pakistani officials hope developed nations agree to scale back emissions, offer help in dealing with climate change

Video Speed, Social Media Shape Counterterrorism Probes

Speed is critical in effort to prevent subsequent attacks; demographics of extremists lend themselves to communicating, establishing profiles on digital platforms

Islamic State Oil Trade Seduces Friends, Foes Alike

Terrorist group rakes in up to $500 million a year in sales to customers such as Syrian government, US-supported rebels and Turkey

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigationsi
Katherine Gypson
December 01, 2015 10:06 PM
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigations

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Russia Marks World AIDS Day With Grim News

While HIV infection rates have steadied or even declined in many European countries, the caseload has grown rapidly in Russia, as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow. Over half of the new infections were transmitted through injection drug use.

Video Pakistan Hit Hard by Global Warming

As world leaders meet in Paris to craft a new global agreement aimed at cutting climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions, many developing countries are watching closely for the final results. While most developing nations contribute much less to global warming than developed countries, they often feel the effects to a disproportionate degree. As Saud Zafar reports from Karachi, one such nation is Pakistan. Aisha Khalid narrates his report.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

VOA Blogs