Subsea cable club opens doors to more stakeholders

The world’s undersea telecoms highways are managed mainly by the private sector, with more competition than coordination among owners.
As these networks have become crucial to world commerce, cable cuts have caused economic damage and brought the issue of resilience and security to the public’s attention.
To cope with this pressure, the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) recently broadened its base of prospective members. This reform may encourage an industry response to the next cable crisis, and better coordination of cyber security and anti-sabotage efforts.
The ICPC’s narrow focus on the cable owner constituency has limited its effectiveness
Founded by 10 members as the “Cable Damage Committee” in 1958, the ICPC had 103 members by mid-2010, representing submarine cable owners scattered across 58 countries.
The ICPC is accustomed to working behind the scenes, and members often know each other from years of working around the undersea “club”. However, a series of high-profile cable breaks in recent years, kicked off by cuts near Taiwan in December 2006, has brought the ICPC into the media’s spotlight.
Those desperate to get their network connectivity back, and fast, have searched for a responsible party to complain to. As researchers have measured the cost of network downtime in the billions of US dollars, this search has become especially aggressive.
This has highlighted two weaknesses in the organization. First, the ICPC has no practical authority over individual cable network operators.
While the Law of the Sea and other international conventions or organizations occasionally prove helpful, there is an element of the “wild wild west” in the undersea world.
Private entities willing to pay for resilient network connections help to counteract this natural chaos, but there are still market imperfections. Second, and maybe more important, the ICPC is too insular and small to work with others and talk to the public about its core function: protecting the undersea cables.
The ICPC's rule change will allow national governments and companies that are “key players in the submarine cable industry” (e.g. cable ship operators) to become members, in order to improve cooperation between government and industry, aimed at enhancing cable security.
It is hard to know how the ICPC will evolve once new players are allowed in. Some governments may fight for a central role at the table. Undersea cable systems are vulnerable to sabotage and are connected to larger issues of cyber security, so politicians have a natural interest.
There is clearly some downside risk of allowing politicians into the mix, as it could lead to increased politicking (finger pointing, clique forming, etc). This could get in the way of progress, much as it does in other multi-governmental bodies such as the UN and EC.
However, we suspect the cable owners will retain their power in the ICPC, given their role as legacy members and the ones that are bankrolling the system. One factor is that some of the largest undersea cable systems are owned or controlled by individual operators, not consortia of incumbents, and hence may not be as easily subject to political influence.
India’s Reliance Communications, for instance, claims to own the world’s largest undersea network. But the private–public power balance may be determined by how the first crisis is dealt with after the influx of new members is allowed in.
While the ICPC (and possibly other bodies) seek improved coordination, the demands placed on undersea cables continue to grow. Enterprises and carriers purchasing wholesale capacity demand increased resiliency and lower latency.
Resiliency requires heavily meshed networks with multiple redundant paths between endpoints, especially those near high-risk areas. Low latency requires high-speed transport and switching, and short paths.
Last month, Hibernia announced plans for the first new transatlantic cable in many years, aiming it at latency-sensitive customers by claiming a round-trip delay from London to New York of below 60ms. Delivering latency at such levels is not easy or cheap.
Consider also Google’s new search technique, Google Instant. This is designed to make the Internet feel like an extension of your fingertips, with instant responses from each keystroke.
This further raises the bar on users’ expectations for the network, and their frustration levels when the network is down (or even just a bit slow) due to, for example, a cable cut by a fishing trawler several thousand kilometers away.
Many technical solutions can improve network performance in the last mile (e.g. FTTH PON) or in network cores (e.g. OTN switching and caching in data centers), but when the physical layer fiber is a few kilometers under the ocean, in international waters, there is an added organizational challenge to overcome. The ICPC will continue to face many challenges above and beneath the waves.