Concern grows over vulnerability of undersea cables
Nov. 2, 2015
by Mark Ollig

Just when we’re getting the entire planet harmoniously linked together, the question arises; “What happens if one of the neighbors crashes the party, and spoils it for the rest of us?”

This column is about the undersea communication submarine cables encircling and connecting the major populated land masses of the Earth.

Hundreds of fiber-optic submarine cables (each about 3-inches in diameter) crisscross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, linking many countries to essential network services.

These underwater cables not only carry voice and data communications, they are carrying the Internet, and are the backbone for businesses and government networks throughout the world.

Earth orbiting satellites also provide voice, data, and Internet services; however, fiber-optic submarine cables are preferable, as they do not experience the signal delay, or latency problems, satellites contend with.

The average serviceable lifetime of a fiber-optic submarine cable is approximately 25 years.

The consequences of a break or disruption in one submarine cable can be minimized by switching its traffic to an alternate cable – if one’s available.

Today, the world’s economy is especially dependent upon submarine communication cables.

It is estimated over $10 trillion worth of the world’s daily commerce takes place over these cables, making them a very valuable commodity, needing to be safeguarded.

In early February 2008, a major interruption occurred when two fiber-optic submarine cables providing Internet, telephone, and video communications to the Middle East and Asia, were intentionally cut.

This part of the world found itself scrambling to find alternate land or sea routes in order to re-connect citizens, businesses, and governments back onto the Internet, and other service networks they depended upon.

Recently, in a New York Times article, I read about an Adm. Mark Ferguson, who has concerns with Russian submarines coming too close to fiber-optic undersea submarine cables located off the East Coast of the US.

In September, US spy satellites, nearby ships, and aircraft monitored the Russian research ship Yantar, as it slowly made its way along the US eastern border while traveling to Cuba.

The article states there is no evidence of any East Coast submarine cables being intentionally damaged, or cut.

However, it does say American military and intelligence officials are concerned that vital submarine cables, carrying most of the global Internet communications, could become a potential target for interruption during times of confrontation.

“It would be a concern to hear any country was tampering with communication cables; however, due to the classified nature of submarine operations, we do not discuss specifics,” Cmdr. William Marks, a Navy spokesman, said in the New York Times article.

The US Department of Homeland Security considers many undersea cables along the East Coast “critical infrastructure.”

The US military is also concerned about its “secret underwater cables.”

These secret fiber-optic submarine cable location routes are not known by the public, or shown on publically viewable submarine cable maps.

One such map; the Interactive Submarine Cable Map, is located on the TeleGeography Data webpage.

I visited this website and obtained detailed information and location, of some 345 world-wide undersea submarine cables it listed.

This easy-to-use, interactive submarine cable map is continually updated by the Global Bandwidth Research Service.

One can scroll around the planet, zoom in, and get detailed information on a particular submarine cable, by hovering the onscreen finger curser over the cable’s routing path and clicking.

This action will display detailed information about what the submarine cable is used for, who owns it, the length of the submarine cable, and its geographic landing points.

Some of these submarine cables even have their own website.

You can view the screen-capture I took showing information about one submarine cable at: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-s2.

To explore the non-classified, publically accessible, mapping routes of the world’s submarine cables, go to: http://www.submarinecablemap.com.

Of course, normal outages or breaks in submarine cables do occur; including having a ship’s anchor accidently catch a submarine cable along the seabed, or in shallow waters.

Submarine cables, as they begin to rise onto the mainland, are sometimes accidently hooked and dragged by a ship’s anchor.

A fishing trawler can also catch and cause damage to submarine cables.

Even submarine cables buried many feet beneath the ocean floor by special undersea rover trenching machines, are susceptible to natural occurrences; such as earthquakes.

Buried submarine cables can also be damaged by movements of the planet’s tectonic plates.

GPS systems, showing the general location of submarine cables, are used by fishing, cargo and other at-sea vessels, in order to know the areas they need to pay attention to during their operations.

Always “on-call” fiber-optic submarine repair ships are geographically stationed throughout the world; ready to respond in the event of a break or damaged submarine cable.

A screen-capture showing the East Coast and southern US border undersea submarine cable locations can be seen at: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-s3.

Here’s an animation video showing how an undersea fiber-optic submarine cable is installed: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-s5.

Be sure to watch this recently uploaded to YouTube, Business Insider Science video presenting an animated map of the world’s submarine cables: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-s8.

For now, the global party celebrating the benefits of a planet interlocked via undersea submarine cables continues.

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