Frequently Asked Questions
This page was last updated on 10 July 2008

WHY SUBMARINE CABLES?

Question: Why haven't satellites made submarine telephone cables obsolete?

Answer: While telegraph cables were invented well before space sciences came into vogue, new fibre optic technology is as high tech as satellite systems. Fibre optic cables transmit voice and data traffic with higher reliability and security at a cheaper rate than satellite. While a satellite call must travel 35,784 km, 22,235 miles or 19,322 nautical miles (source NASA) from the earth to the satellite and then another 22,235 miles back, a trans-pacific fibre optic call need only travel about 5000 miles point-to-point. At the speed of light this helps to eliminate the delays suffered during a satellite telephone call.

CABLE NETWORK RESILIENCE

What concerns do the ICPC have about vulnerabilities in the global communications network?

Answer: The submarine cable industry has addressed the impact of natural disasters, human activities and technical failures for decades and has managed it very well based on the reliability enjoyed by billions of customers around the world. Normal safety factors are designed into present systems including threats from human activity or natural hazards. There are certain areas of the globe where cables are known to be at a higher risk due to the movement of tectonic plates. However, the cost of providing 100% security can be prohibitive due to the unpredictable nature of these relatively rare events and the fact that the cable owners are obliged to operate in competition with each other.

The ICPC members each work closely with their national governments to maximize the security of submarine cables and this work is ongoing as new threats emerge. Internationally, treaties such at the International Convention for the Protection of Submarine Cables and the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) impose obligations on most nations to safeguard and protect submarine cables outside of their territorial seas and allow naval forces to investigate and take appropriate action against vessels likely to damage submarine cables, either intentionally or by negligence.

Question: How does the submarine cable industry ensure that the global communications network is reliable?

Answer: Submarine cable systems are designed to be very reliable and have several redundant features. Notwithstanding this, the submarine cable operators are constantly monitoring the performance of their systems and looking for opportunities to improve the reliability of the network. Records are kept to allow the owners and operators to make design and/or operational changes as may be necessary to protect the systems. For example: the migration of fishing into deeper water has obliged the submarine cable industry to develop techniques for protection of its systems in deeper water. Any wide scale changes in the infrastructure has to be carefully considered for cost (to the customer), performance impact and market compatibility. In other industries that have responded to new threats (such as airlines / airports, ports, shipping companies, chemical plants, etc) there has often been a combined government - industry effort to determine a suitable course of action.

Question: Is there enough diversity of routes?

Answer: In general, yes most cable owners feel that there is enough diversity in the international submarine cable network.

New routes have to take account of many factors including customer demand, existing infrastructure, environment, financing etc. Permits also have to be obtained from the various Government agencies that are responsible for operations on the landing sites and in the territorial seas. On some routes permitting has been a significant barrier with major time and/or cost implications. Such issues have occasionally forced the planners to reroute a new cable system into less favourable areas and some nations have imposed impractical, costly, and cumbersome permitting requirements for emergency repairs in international and national waters. These encroaching actions sometimes hinder the ability of cable owners to respond quickly to a cable fault.

There needs to be a change in attitude and regulation in many countries to allow route diversity to be considered as a factor equal to fishing rights, mineral rights and protection of the marine environment. In this context the ICPC is trying to raise awareness (especially among Governments) of the strategic significance of submarine cables to the global economy.


Question: Are there new technologies or processes coming that will help address the vulnerabilities or capacity issues?

Answer: Modern technology has delivered undreamed of capacity with a single fibre pair now able to carry digitised information (including video) that is equivalent to 150,000,000 simultaneous phone calls. Since a single cable can accommodate many fibre pairs the potential for expansion of the network is huge. Whilst this is good news it is obviously important to avoid "keeping all of the eggs in one basket", hence the continuing requirement to have several cables installed over a wide diversity of routes and a sophisticated management system that enables the traffic to be almost instantaneously switched in the event of a cable failure.

CABLE SYSTEM DESIGN

Question: What kind of shore-end power plant, (batteries, voltage, etc.) is used to feed the submarine cable e/w optical amps?

Answer: The shore end power supplies are normally supplied by the cable system supplier and have a high level of redundancy built into critical systems (e.g. mutiple'power packs' whereby several power pack failures can be tolerated without affecting system operation, redundant voltage/current regulators, etc) thereby ensuring maximum availability.

THE ICPC

Question: When was the ICPC founded and were there any predecessors?

Answer: The ICPC was founded in 1958 as the Cable Damage Committee, being renamed in 1967. There were no predecessors.

Question: Does ICPC hold any conferences, and if so when and where do they take place?

Answer: The ICPC holds annual meetings which the members attend and non-members are occasionally invited to make presentations. If you are a submarine cable owner who might qualify for membership, or have a relevant presentation, please contact the Secretary

COMMERCIAL INFORMATION

Question: Please provide the following information for all cable systems:

a) Fault histories 

b) Capacity ownership details

c) Cable utilisation

Answer: These are commercial questions, which we cannot answer.

CABLE SYSTEM LOCATION

Question: What happens when undersea cables cross each other? Are there 'rights of way' analogous to overland rights of way?

Answer: The ICPC produces a number of recommendations on issues such as cable crossing criteria and these are used by the industry to regulate the installation of new submarine cables near existing ones (these recommendations are generally only released to members of the industry after further questioning).

So in general, yes there are rules for cable crossings and these rules are designed to ensure that the cables crossing each other remain maintainable. This means that the location of existing and planned repeaters need to be taken into account (to ensure a cable section can be recovered on board a cableship for repair without unnecessarily disturbing a repeater on either system), the route bathymetry, the age and importance of the existing cables and any crossing protection measures that may be required (this is very important when cables cross pipelines as there may be a need to provide crossing protection to avoid abrasion, reduce the slope of the crossing or thermal problems (some pipelines run quite hot in order to keep the product liquefied).

When new cable routes are being planned, the planners contact the owners of existing cables, identify the planned route and the cross-over co-ords, depth and angle proposed and seek comment from the existing cable operators. This technique has worked well to date and to the satisfaction of all parties involved.