Cutting through the challenges of submarine cable repairs

Submarine cables are not only the backbone of the international telecommunications network, but they provide critical infrastructure to the global economy. With modern economies and societies dependent on uninterrupted global data connectivity, repairs to severed cables must be tackled with a fast, efficient and economic response. This not onlyminimises costs for cable owners, but keeps the world moving and reduces disruption to end customers.But damage to a cable can take just a few hours or a few weeks to repair, so what are the challenges that maintenance teams and vessels have to cut through?

More data means more cables

The world today is rapidly evolving with new inventions and technologies being developed faster than ever. The information and communications technology (ICT) industry is one of the fastest growing sectors, with an explosion of new products and high speed capabilities over the last few decades such as the internet, which have changed the face of the world as we know it.

According to telecommunications market research and consulting firm Telegeography, the amount of data, sent and received worldwide using the global network of submarine cables has experienced unmatched growth since the availability of the internet in the 1990s, which has driven up bandwidth. Forecasts for bandwidth employment show a staggering annual growth rate of 40% from 2009 to 2018, leading to an amount of more than 600 Tbps in 2018. At this pace the amount of international bandwidth in the world will double every two years.

This means more submarine cables are required, particularly in developing economies such as the Middle East where adoption of the internet and mobile devices is moving at an incredibly fast pace, driving-up global data traffic. In the last 22 years since E-marine has been providing submarine cable solutions from the East Coast of Africa across the Gulf and Red Sea to India we have seen an increase in the cable that is maintained grow from 1,000km to almost 100,000 km of submarine cable.

Developing economies driving data

In recent years, the Middle East region has seen an influx in the construction and announcement of new submarine cable systems and competing terrestrial systems and the total demand for international capacity from the Gulf countries has shown significant growth. The main drivers of this surge in activity are an increase of broadband penetration and availability, mobile penetration, and an increase in digital content consumption and emergence of local content.

These advancements have led to almost all businesses in all sectors becoming heavily dependent on these vital submarine networks. According to SWIFT (The Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications network uses submarine fibre optic cables to transmit financial data to over 8,300 financial institutions in 195 economies, handling nearly 15 million messages daily.

Speed is of the essence

This example highlights how a submarine cable and its capability can impact not just the areas they are located, but the entire world. This is why repairing and maintaining submarine cables both economically and efficiently is so vital. Whole countries and industries can be impacted hugely by damage, whether caused by natural hazards and/ or manmade hazards. Any delays can also impact on cable owners’ revenue as they have to fulfil contractual obligations to their customers. Longer repair times can mean bigger potential losses and nothing can fully substitute the complete failure of a cable system, which could lead to a complete loss of regional network transmission.

Complexity of repairs

While the ICT industry has been evolving so too has the rest of the world. Increased shipping and sea bed users and an expansion in fishing, combined with a growing network of submarine cables, results in the likelihood of more cuts. There has also been a major change in the technological advancements of the systems that have to be maintained. Cables have changed from a mix of coxial and fibre optic cables carrying much lower volume of data in just a few tens of Mbps (megabits per second)to far more sophisticated optical cables carrying thousands of billions bits of data (Tbps Terabits per second). This technological advancement has led to increased complexity for repair and maintenance, so it is essential that technical team on board the vessels and crew have the right experience and expertise to provide the fastest and most effective solution. Gone are the days when cable repair vessels were sometimes idle waiting at any one location to move onto the next repair. Since the dot.com bubble burst, investment in cable repair ships hasn’t increased at the same rate as the cable infrastructure, which can cause a back-log as there are more cables that need to be tended to. This is set to change over the come years as companies such as E-marine make significant investments in new vessels. This will enhance ourexisting fleet of three cable ships and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles).

Weather dependent

One major obstacle that all repairs are dependent on, and cannot be controlled, is of course the weather. This can prevent repair ships from setting sail or cause crews to suspend repairs and move to safer waters in the wake of a storm. No matter if they are in dock or out at sea, crews need to continually monitor weather conditions to ensure cable repairs are completed as quickly as possible. Repairs are typically undertaken up to force BF 7, equivalent to 28-33 knot winds with crews battling harsh conditions.  However, further worsening of weather to levels of BF 8 with waves of 20 to 40 ft, usually requires ship to go to standby mode in order not to undermine the safety of the crew, vessel and the cable system itself. Repair teams simply have to sit out the storm and mobilise again as quickly as possible once conditions are safe again. Dynamic Positioning technology on board ships helps to guard against bad weather by using satellites to keep ships in an exact position to the cm by monitoring currents and winds, without dropping anchor.

Stepping up security

Although speed is of the essence, the number one priority that must be considered before setting sail is the security and safety of crews on board ships. This is particularly important for contractors such as E-marine, which have to operate in and around declared war zones or dangerous waters that are prone to pirate attacks.

According to the International Chamber of Commerce, the number of recent pirate attacks, particularly in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea has dropped compared to recent times, which could be due to the increased military presence and preventative measures including the use of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP). But this doesn’t mean the number of pirates has decreased, but points more to the fact that there has been less successful attacks. The actual threat to vessels is still very real and crews must be vigilant. As an organisation we have to ensure the upmost levels of safety for those on board.  In the past, piracy wasnever such a major factor to consider forcable repairs, but nowadays it is a constant threat that can impact on repair and maintenance response times.

The threat of piracy also drives up the insurance cost, which is determined on where a ship has to travel and for how long. Not only can this increase requirements and project costs for cable owners, but it can add to delays while the correct paperwork and cover is implemented, which can be up to a few days in some cases. Then it may be necessary to mobilise security teams, which involves liaison at a Government level withthe relevant Ministries of Defence to allow permission to permit weapons on board. Even to transit through a country’s’ water with security guards, we have to seek security permission with that Government.

Red tape causing delays

Another significant hurdle for cable repair and maintenance is that they can be left waiting idly while the relevant permits and fees are secured to enter a country’s territorial waters. Each country has different regulations, but in some locations the amount of red tape can be a major obstacle and a danger to fast and efficient repairs or maintenance. Not only does this lead to direct costs for cable owners, pushing up the cost of repairs, but ultimately can cause economic harm to that country through a lack of stable uninterrupted connectivity. New regulations issued by the Indian Ministry of Shipping for example now require foreign flagged ships entering Indian water to ensure that one third of the crew is made up of Indian nationals to grant a licence for period of 30 days, and if 90 days then this increases to half the crew.

Obviously the work undertaken by crews on board is very specialist and requires many years of training, so we have to spend time to find properly qualified staff that won’t comprise the safety or quality of the works being undertaken. This can mean that a cable repair that would take five hours to repair, could end up taking three weeks as the right crew has to be assembled and then the relevant licences and permits granted.

Dealing with a number of different authorities and obtaining permits can take a long time as each state has different requirements and procedures. Faster repairs could be achieved by promoting greater collaboration between different states and streamlining procedures. States that are members of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) should be encouraged to commit to obligations that grant the innocent passage for cable repair vessels undertaking repairs. Those which do require permits should aim to accelerate processes through a single point of contact to reduce times to an absolute minimum.

No one’s off the hook

Cutting through these challenges to submarine cable repairs cannot be achieved by the cable repair and maintenance providers alone. An effective partnership approach between cable repair maintenance providers and cable owners in the private sector, combined with Government efforts will realise the importance of submarine cables as critical infrastructure. The risk to business and financial markets, society and security are hinged on enabling fast, efficient and economic repairs to submarine cables to prevent network damage impacting on economies.

Omar Jassim Bin Kalban is Managing Director and CEO of E-marine, the principal provider of submarine cable solutions in the Middle East. He is responsible for leading the company’s operations and driving profitable growth in the region, as well as ensuring a superior customer experience for regional and international customers.He oversees all elements of the business which operates in the Middle East subsea cable region stretching from Sri Lanka in the East, spanning across The Gulf and Red Sea, to South Africa in the West.   This also includes E-marine’s cable and storage depots in Hamriyah, UAE and Salalah, Oman and the E-marine fleet of cable ships, remotely operated vehicles and marine facilities, which are considered to be one of the most important support pillars for the regional digital infrastructure. He began his career as a graduate trainee with Etisalat-UAE in the 1980s after graduating from North-Eastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Omar was appointed as CEO of E-marine in 1998 to create, develop and grow a stand-alone unit for subsea cables and services at regional and international levels.