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Vulnerable cables lay beneath the sea

Febraury 11, 2008

by Mark Ollig

I did a double take reading all the ‘breaking news’ bulletins on the mainstream media web sites.

From the first reports, it appeared Europe, the Middle East, and Asia became disconnected from the rest of the world.

A major interruption occurred – Internet, telephone and video communications to this part of the world had been disrupted.

Two major undersea fiber optic cables were cut . . . this part of the world was scrambling to find alternate routes — on land or sea — to re-connect businesses and nations back onto the Internet and other service networks.

A third fiber optic cable feeding into Cairo, Egypt failed one day later.

The report out of Egypt said it did not know if weather was the cause or not.

Northeast of Egypt, storms did close the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, forcing ships to wait in the Mediterranean Sea . . . near undersea cables.

Within the same week, a fourth undersea fiber optic cable, designated, SEA-ME-WE-4, which is maintained by Telecom Egypt, experienced disrupted service in the state of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in Asia, along the Persian Gulf.

The SEA-ME-WE-4 has a bandwidth capacity of 1.28 terabytes per second.

In case you were wondering, “SEA-ME-WE” stands for “Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Western Europe.”

What could be causing these disruptions within a one-week period?

Until repair ships reach the locations where the actual breaks in the cables are, the cause of the disruptions will not be known.

How in the name of Corning (maker of the first optical fiber) could this have happened?

These fiber optic cables were lying (some are buried) on the bottom of the sea, which one would reasonably assume is a relatively safe place to be.

I found this is not the case as I began my research for today’s column.

One cause of undersea cable cuts are ship anchors catching them along the seabed and shallow waters. Ship anchors also snatch them where the cable begins to rise toward the mainland.

Other causes of interruption include rough seas, bad weather, currents, and tides.

Even the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates can be a factor.

However, a large fishing vessel encountering a submersed cable seems to be the number one cause of disruptions.

One fishing technique they use includes pulling a heavy metal netted trawl to comb the sea floor to harvest fish. As these trawls are being pulled along the sea floor, they will hook cables.

As a fishing vessel pulls up the trawl, the cable can become severed or even cut.

Today, most fishing vessels and ships use Global Positioning System equipment to keep them aware of their location in relation to undersea cables.

Could similar disruptions happen here in the United States?

According to TeleGeography Research Group, most communications and data traffic between the US, Canada, and Mexico is carried over land.

The US connects to many fiber optic cables crossing back and forth in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, so a break in one cable would not show any significant effect. The communications and data traffic would just switch to one of the alternate cables.

The first fiber optic cable to reach the US over the Atlantic Ocean was installed in 1988.

The International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) began in 1958; it is an international organization which establishes internationally agreed-to standards for submarine copper coaxial and fiber optic cables.

Members of the ICPC include 46 countries and many undersea cable owners.

ICPC has an online video “Fishing and Submarine Cables” I found informative. The web site also has many undersea cable-related publications.

ICPC states 95 percent of all international traffic is carried over undersea cables, while only 5 percent is handled by orbiting satellites.

When an undersea cable is damaged, a cable repair and maintenance ship is dispatched. These cable ships are kept strategically located all around the world.

Most cable ships use grapplers to reach a damaged cable in order to raise it for repair.

According to the oceanic cable repair company called Global Marine Systems, over 50 repair operations were performed in the Atlantic Ocean last year.

There is an interesting history about these undersea cables . . . the first were used for telegraph transmissions.

In 1843, “gutta percha,” which is a kind of elastic rubber, was made from the resin of guttierous trees. This was used as insulation in the earlier telegraph cables.

Telegraph communication via a 25 mile undersea cable between Dover, England and Calais, France began on October 17, 1851.

An 1858 undersea telegraph cable route from London to New York can be seen at www.atlantic-cable.com/Maps/.

Visit www.atlantic-cable.com to learn more about the challenges the early undersea cable pioneers faced.

To view the 2008 map of all undersea cables and where they connect to mainland “landing stations,” go to www.telegeography.com/products/map_cable/index.php.

The ICPC web site is located at www.iscpc.org.