[Image above] Screenshot from a Fluctus video describing how to repair damaged submarine cables. Credit: Fluctus, YouTube
As Columbus, Ohio, my current city of residence, continues to experience intermittent power outages following a massive forced blackout in June, the resiliency of our infrastructure to an increasingly volatile climate is a topic that remains ever present in my mind.
But while the fragility of land-based systems such as power grids and roadways is gaining recognition, as evidenced by passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, there is another immensely important network that receives little attention—the submarine cable system.
Submarine cables are fiber-optic cables that connect countries across the world via cables laid on the ocean floor. As of late 2021, there are about 436 submarine cables connecting all continents except Antarctica, and they carry about 95% of all global transnational communication data. You can see a map of all these cables via the Submarine Cable Map, a free and regularly updated resource offered by telecommunications market research company TeleGeography.
Though a vast network of undersea cables for communication may seem like a recent feat, the first cables (made of copper) were laid more than 150 years ago. The first undersea telegraph cable was laid in 1850 between England and France, while the first permanently successful transatlantic cable was laid in 1866. The 1980s welcomed the first transatlantic fiber-optic cable.
While well-populated coastal areas such as in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan have many submarine cable landing points, more remote nations are quite literally holding on to their connection by a single thread. Such is the case for the island nation of Tonga, which relies on a single submarine cable connecting it with Fiji, from where it connects to other international networks.
Tonga’s tenuous connection to the global submarine cable network was made clear in January 2022 when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano experienced a record-setting eruption that severed the Tonga cable. It took just over five weeks for the connection to be restored.
While this natural disaster severed a connection to just one nation, there are certain regions of the world where natural disasters often occur and where many submarine cables converge, such as around the Hawaiian Islands. In response, groups such as one at the University of Hawaiʻi are looking to enhance earthquake and tsunami early warning capabilities by integrating sensors into submarine cables.
However, natural disasters are not the greatest threat to submarine cables—humans are. “Despite the cables being clearly marked on maritime charts, about 70% of damage is caused accidentally by gear such as trawl nets, dredges, long lines, and fish aggregation devices,” explains Karen Scott, University of Canterbury professor of international law, in an article on The Conversation.
According to Scott, part of the reason submarine cables are damaged so carelessly is because the international legal regime for protecting and managing submarine cables remains largely unchanged since 1884, when the Convention for the Protection of Submarine Telegraph Cables was adopted.
The result is that current rules dictate that outside of the territorial sea, the only state that can take action against a vessel that breaks a cable is the vessel’s own flag state. Thus, “the state with an interest in the cable—through ownership or because the cable ultimately connects to its shore—is normally not able take action against a vessel damaging the cable,” she writes.
“Given the potentially catastrophic impact on communications, the economy, and defense of losing major cables to accident or nefarious activity … The rules, largely unchanged since 1884, need modernizing,” she argues.