Governments need to step up to help cable owners protect their subsea assets.

Robert Clark, Contributing Editor, Special to Light Reading

March 7, 2024

3 Min Read
Ropes and cables on the sea floor.
(Source: Sybille Reuter/Alamy Stock Photo)

Cuts to four Red Sea cables have hit Asia-Europe connectivity and have also underscored the vulnerabilities of global cable networks. Hong Kong telco HGC Global advised Monday that the SeacomTGNAsia Africa Europe-1 (AAE-1) and Europe-India Gateway (EIG) cables were all out of action.

The exact cause is not clear, but most likely it is a result of anchor drag from a vessel sunk by Houthi rebels who, for the record, deny attacking cables directly.

While not overly serious – HGC says it's been able to reroute traffic – the incident highlights the fragility not just of the cables themselves but of the legal and operational infrastructure that is meant to support them.

The first question that jumps out is: at least a dozen operators were affected by these cable breaks, yet only one saw fit to make a public disclosure.

According to the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), around 150 cable faults occur each year in the world's 400-plus cable systems, so while they're not rare, they certainly aren't routine.

Not fit for purpose 

To take the 100% Tata Communications-owned TGN cable as an example: Tata may well have seamlessly migrated all of the traffic to another cable, but why not reassure your customers and the wider public?

As it is, they look like they are being needlessly secretive, and customers may be wondering what else is Tata not disclosing. This applies to other affected telcos too, among them AT&T, Bharti Airtel, STC and Telecom Egypt. Tata did not respond to a query from Light Reading.

In the current environment, we need more disclosure, not less. The second factor is that this highlights the lack of an international legal framework to protect cables.

The newest of the three international treaties that govern the seabed, UNCLOS "is not fit for purpose to uphold national security," a recent paper from conservative UK think tank Policy Exchange argues.

It says the treaty has not kept pace with the growing ability of state and non-state actors to threaten submarine cables.

Specifically, it goes on to say, UNCLOS "does not prohibit states from targeting undersea cables via physical or cyber means as legitimate military targets in times of war; it does not permit warships policing territorial waters to board vessels engaging in suspicious behavior around national infrastructure; and it entirely overlooks cables at the point they make landfall at landing sites."

Geopolitical tensions

UNCLOS is being redrafted, but, as a UN agreement this is going to take a long time.

Meanwhile, we see geopolitical tensions rising, most obviously in the rivalry between US and China in the Pacific, but also in northern Europe between Russia and Europe. So it is no surprise to see the apparent deployment of "gray zone tactics" – quasi-military strategies that stop short of actual warfare.

Taiwan has accused China of being behind the cuts to cables connecting Taiwan offshore islands last year. There is no direct evidence of this, although Taiwan has had 27 cable breaks in the past five years – an unusually high number.

Against this backdrop there are a number of steps the industry can take.

The most important take place before a new cable hits the water – the design, route planning and in-built redundancy that will allow cable operators and their customers to work around disruptions.

Cable owners can also work with governments in some key areas such as security at cable landing stations, the most vulnerable part of cable systems.

While governments today seem very much aware of the importance of their digital infrastructure, there are a number of ways in which they can step up. 

For example, in the absence of effective international law, they can enact cable protection zones that allow them to enforce security on near-shore cables, as seen in Australia and New Zealand.

Governments should also fund the sensor networks and underwater drones that can significantly improve monitoring and awareness of real-time cable threats.

Finally, the cable industry needs to speak with a united voice to educate and persuade governments about subsea network protection. 

Read more about:

AsiaEurope

About the Author(s)

Robert Clark

Contributing Editor, Special to Light Reading

Robert Clark is an independent technology editor and researcher based in Hong Kong. In addition to contributing to Light Reading, he also has his own blog,  Electric Speech (http://www.electricspeech.com). 

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