Leslie D`Monte & Rajesh S Kurup
February 9, 2008
Conspiracy theories of deliberately cutting communication lines to West Asia, primarily Iran, gained ground in the media and blogs as reports of another undersea cable cut — the fifth successive one in just a week’s time — started emerging in cyberspace.
While the extent of Iran’s isolation was unclear, many blogs alleged that the cable cuts and outages in West Asia were a ploy by an intelligence agency to disrupt Iranian commerce, targeting an emerging petroleum exchange that the country was shortly hoping to roll out.
The fifth cable cut could, in fact, have been a second cut on a different segment of the FALCON cable, owned by Reliance Communications, suggested other blogs and reports.
Cables are normally laid in proximity to each other and an accident in one cable can result in severing many cables at a time.
A cable-laying company has to undertake an expensive marine survey which costs anywhere between Rs 40 crore and Rs 120 crore, depending on the terrain. To cut costs, some cable companies skip the marine survey, noted an analyst who did not wished to be quoted.
The successive damage of these cables, they add, is of major concern since almost 90 per cent of Internet traffic is routed through undersea cables, and only 10 per cent through satellites.
The reason for the damage to the cables remains moot as the companies have claimed that they were cut after ships weighed their anchors over them.
However, the Egyptian ministry (after monitoring the satellite surveillance pictures) had refuted these claims stating there were no ships in the vicinity 12 hours before and after the cable cut.
One February 7, Reliance Communications claimed that the severing of the FALCON submarine cable — which disrupted voice and telecommunication traffic between Dubai and Oman — was caused by a shipďż˝s anchor. The company also put up a picture of an abandoned anchor on its website.
None of the analysts this paper spoke to wished to go on record, saying it is “a sensitive matter”. However, they pointed out that the ocean bottom does pose great challenges to the telecommunication hardware, which must survive for 25 to 35 years in the harsh undersea environment.
Undersea cables undergo a battery of qualification tests that are now contained in the ITU-T international standard. They are very strong. A modern undersea or submarine communications cable is made up of a core of optical fibres, shielded with multiple layers of copper, aluminum, polycarbonate, stranded steel wires, mylar and polyethylene.
Meanwhile, FLAG Telecom, a wholly-owned company of Reliance Communications, said it has begun work on its three undersea cables which were cut.
The India-based company operates the Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe (FLAG) — a 17,500 mile fibre optic cable which turns from the eastern coast of North America to Japan. It has also announced that it will lay a new, much stronger cable between Egypt and France.
The new data link will be also laid on a different route. The new cable will be 1,900-mile-long and would allegedly take more than 18 months to complete.
FLAG Telecom also said that a ship loaded with spares, marine experts and optical engineers reached the site on Wednesday. The crew has recovered one end of the cable and cable-joining work is in progress. The repair work will be completed by Sunday.
HOW SECURE ARE UNDERSEA CABLES?
There is no real-time monitoring of the cables. Satellites monitor the cable route and ships and trawlers passing over it. However, satellite pictures are called for only after a calamity strikes.
Globally, coast guards also monitor the cables up to 8 nautical miles (territorial borders) of the coast.
The cables have a lot of copper and steel protection, and there have been many instances of theft (mainly near Vietnam and Thailand) for the steel and copper.